The herb thyme, most commonly used in pasta, has an extremely interesting medicinal history. In the European Middle Ages, thyme was often placed beneath pillows to improve sleep and ward off nightmares. During the height of the Roman Empire, women would give thyme to knights and warriors with the belief that it would give them courage and strength.
Thyme itself is derived from the Greek word “”thymus” for courage. Ancient Greeks used thyme in their baths and burnt it as an incense in their temples, believing that it was a source of courage when inhaled. For thousands of years, warriors, saints and scholars alike prescribed thyme for its power to improve physical endurance and give spiritual insight into life.
The classic Ayurvedic medicine school from India recommended the thyme herb for its astringent, anti-microbial, antiseptic, antispasmodic (anti-muscle spasm) and anti-inflammatory properties.
Thyme was used as far back as 5000 years ago by the ancient Babylonian, Assyrian and Sumerian civilisations. The oldest Ancient Egyptian medical text, Ebers papyrus, recommended the healing values of thyme way back in 1550BC.
Lately, acne patients have become extremely interested in thyme oil as a topical treatment. Increasing numbers of acne patients are being put off by Benzoyl Peroxide’s strong side effects like increased inflammation and free radical damage. BP and other grocery store face washes don’t offer a long term solution, they only put a plaster on acne.
Hence, there’s a surge of interest right now in essential oils for acne. Tea tree oil has been shown to kill p.acnes bacteria effectively thanks to its active terpineol-4-ol compound. Does thyme oil have powers/compounds which kill p.acnes or lower inflammation or treat acne in any other hidden ways?
Thyme oil kills many different strains of bacteria
Our first study shows that thyme oil is an absolute juggernaut when it comes to killing acne bacteria. A load of Chinese scientists tested the antibacterial effect of ten different essential oils: oils of lavender, thyme, cinnamon, mint, lemon, grapefruit, jasmine, rose, chamomile, and ginger.
The most effective oils were found to be cinnamon, rose, and thyme. The oils killed p.acnes at only tiny concentrations; thyme oil was diluted to 0.016%, and cinnamon and rose were diluted to 0.016% and 0.031%.
The oils were also tested based on time taken to kill p.acnes and thyme was again the most effective, alongside rose, cinnamon, and lavender. A solution of 0.25% thyme oil killed all the p.acnes in just five minutes. For topical purposes, acne gurus generally recommend diluting thyme oil to 5% concentration, which is far higher. Thyme oil also demonstrated the strongest results against three different types of cancer cells. This study was almost entirely ignored when it was released back in 2010 but the results are highly promising.
Our second piece of information comes from a press release from the University of Leeds entitled “thyme for a more natural cure for acne”. Leeds scientists performed a similar study in which thyme oil was tested against p.acnes bacteria and then compared to two other essential oils, myrrh and marigold. While all three essential oils killed p.acnes bacteria after five minutes, thyme was easily the most effective. It was even more effective than Benzoyl Peroxide and caused nowhere near the same skin irritation. This press release gained a ton of publicity when it was released by the University of Leeds back in 2013.
What’s so great about these two studies? Killing p.acnes is great news since it’s the main acne bacteria and it’s what triggers the inflammatory assault that creates acne in the first place. Essential oils like tea tree oil are known to kill p.acnes excellently, but thyme oil seems to be astonishingly effective.
Elsewhere there’s plenty of other evidence for thyme oil’s antibacterial effect. This study tested the effect of thyme oil and basil oil on common bacterial food pathogens. Both basil and thyme demonstrated strong antimicrobial properties against two food contaminants called Shigella sonnei and Shigella flexneri. These vicious pathogens lead to acute fever, acute abdominal cramping, nausea and diarrhoea 1-7 days after consumption from food.
At 0.5% concentration, thyme oil decreases levels of both bacteria substantially and at 1% concentration they fell below the detection limit. The scientists identified the two compounds responsible, which were thymol and carvacrol.
A similar study tested essential oils including thyme oil on the methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) bacteria. MRSA is a deadly hospital based pathogen which kills 5000 people a year. The bacteria is carried on the skin or in nostrils, and enters the bodies of patients when their skin is punctured during operations. The problem? MRSA is now an antibiotic resistant superbug…
…but thyme oil still has a strong ability to kill it. 8 different oils were tested, and thyme oil and cinnamon oil were both the strongest, with thyme oil killing the resistant MRSA within 60 minutes. MRSA is a member of the staphylococcus family, which is a secondary bacteria on your skin that can cause inflammation and acne related skin conditions like dermatitis and psoriasis. Thyme oil was found to be effective against a range of staphylococcus species.
Whether thyme oil can actually treat acne when combined with endless other compounds and players and actors in the skin remains to be seen. But it has a potent ability to kill p.acnes bacteria and for that reason it has promise.
Two of thyme oil’s active compounds, thymol and carvacrol, are also fascinating:
Thymol – the main medicinal compound in both thyme and thyme oil; hence it’s name. Don’t confuse thymol with thyme oil when spelt. Thymol has a strong aromatic odour and provides the distinctive flavour of thyme. Thymol itself has been analysed in numerous studies and it shows strong activity against antibiotic resistant yeast. It’s also theorised to kill candida overgrowth and has been found to kill two bacterial strains: Aeromoans hydrophila and Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).
Thymol has been used in America for treating both hookworm and ringworm infections. Thymol is even an active ingredient of many mouthwashes, including Listerine. It’s the active antiseptic ingredient of some toothpastes like Euthymol. Thymol can control the growth of mould in bee colonies and destroy varroa mites, which kill honeybees. Also used for book and paper conservation; wrapping up paper in bags lined with thymol crystals can keep mould in check excellently.
Carvacrol – carvacrol is the main active component in oregano but thyme oil also contains carvacrol at between 5-75% depending on the species of plant. Carvacrol is noted for its antimicrobial properties like killing candida and E.coli and preventing c.difficile bacteria from producing toxins. It’s believed to kill bacteria by binding to and disrupting their cell membranes.
Carvacrol can inhibit the Pseudomonas aeruginosa bacteria, which can infect the kidneys and urinary tract and cause death. Carvacrol also inhibits inflammation by lowering COX-2 activity, and has antioxidant activity. Interestingly, carvacrol is responsible for the bitterness of herbs like oregano by activating and then rapidly desensitising pain receptors on the tongue. It’s also used in tequila.
With two awesome compounds like that it would be no surprise to hear that thyme oil clears acne excellently.
Thyme oil – still an unverified acne treatment
Thyme oil clearly has impressive powers, but there are no studies testing it directly on human acne patients. There are good testimonials on acne forums; one user said that after one week of daily treatment with homemade thyme oil she enjoyed “super happy and super soft skin” which had no pimples at all compared to a couple a day when using BP.
The problem is that there’s a serious lack of depth in testimonials. Few acne patients are reporting their experiments with thyme oil yet. It’s substantially a less documented treatment than tea tree oil; there are tons of reports from which we have learnt that tea tree oil helps acne and helps it best when applied to especially red and inflamed pimples.
It’s clear that thyme oil kills p.acnes but that does not automatically make it a good acne treatment. The studies on p.acnes were conducted in a petri dish. Human skin is extremely complex. Any prospective treatment has to penetrate its layers and pores deeply enough to really kill p.acnes in its home environment.
Human skin also has so many other compounds that thyme oil could react with any of them. It blasts p.acnes into oblivion, but what if thyme oil blasts vitamin E into oblivion as well? That would be bad news, since vitamin E is critical for preventing blocked pores.
Thyme oil could destroy other delicate antioxidants like vitamin C and vitamin A or resveratrol or anything. As well as killing p.acnes, thyme oil could also kill friendly bacteria that are part of your natural skin flora. Thyme oil may kill p.acnes but we have no data on how it affects other important factors in acne.
Furthermore, the active compound thymol is known have inflammatory side effects since it’s a known eye, skin and respiratory irritant. Given that thymol is used as a short-lived pesticide in some countries, it would not be surprising if it made your acne more inflamed. The study by Leeds University said that there was less skin irritation than from Benzoyl Peroxide, but many acne patients turn out to be sensitive to tea tree oil and develop red and painful rashes. The same could be true for thymol and thyme oil.
The key point is that we don’t have the depth of research and internet stories to know the truth about thyme oil…
…but on the other hand, thyme oil has been found several times to lower inflammation. Carvacrol inhibits the inflammatory master messenger COX-2 and according to this study thyme oil can do the same. A Japanese team of scientists led by Dr Hiroyasu Inoue tested several different oils: thyme, clove, rose, eucalyptus, fennel, and bergamot. The other six oils lowered COX-2 by 25% but thyme oil inhibited COX-2 by nearly 75%. As expected, carvacrol was responsible for this activity, and this shows that any inflammation from thymol was counteracted.
Also, thyme oil has been used for calming wounds and sanitising hands for centuries now. It was especially popular throughout India thanks to Ayurvedic medicine. If thyme oil does have inflammatory side effects, it would make wounds more irritated.
The truth is probably similar to tea tree oil: some compounds in thyme oil have the potential to cause inflammation, but are balanced out by others, while a small subset of acne patients are hypersensitive to those compounds.
The studies on p.acnes found that 0.25% thyme oil was enough to kill p.acnes. Diluting thyme oil slashes the risk of irritation, and the currently accepted safe concentration level is much higher at 5%.
Here’s the truth: thyme oil could easily cure acne. One the other hand, thyme oil could easily backfire and redden and inflame your acne.
Overall though, I believe that thyme oil has fascinating properties and has big potential for reducing acne. We could see it emerge as a powerhouse of a topical treatment over the next few years. I won’t issue an official Supernatural Acne Treatment recommendation but it could work wonders if you’re willing to experiment.
If you want to try essential oils for your skin more generally, then I would recommend tea tree oil first since its effectiveness is far more documented. Remember that if you do opt for thyme oil you have to dilute it. Below 5% is the optimal, but if this irritates your skin, you might still slash your acne count with lower concentrations. If thyme oil is a miracle then it will almost certainly be best for killing isolated acne rather than as a general toner for your skin…
…but again, you never know where benefits might spring up, because this topical treatment is an unexplored entity.
The best thyme oil product
If you read my previous article on tea tree oil then you’ll know that you have to be very strict about the quality control, the colour of the bottle, the country of origin etc. The good news with thyme is that finding a good product is much simpler.
I recommend tea tree oil products in a dark bottle because this blocks sunlight from oxidising the terpineol-4-ol compound, which is very unstable. Thymol and carvacrol, meanwhile, are quite stable and not prone to oxidation. You have to buy tea tree oil sourced from Australia as that’s where the original plant hails from, but thyme grows all over the world these days.
There are also over 300 different species of plant in the family Thymus (which itself belongs to the mint family of plants). Most tea tree oil is sourced from thymus vulgaris, but this family has its own subsets too. Most versions on the internet will be from thymus vulgaris and contain the proper proportions of thymol and carvacrol but there is one type you must avoid – red thyme oil.
This is a far less distilled and filtered version with much higher levels of thymol and other compounds. This can make red thyme oil more potent at reducing acne, but red thyme oil is also more likely to cause irritation. You have to exercise far more caution with red thyme oil. Since you need to dilute regular thyme oil anyway, there’s no need to buy red thyme oil and think you’re getting an acne clearing bonus.
If you’re going to try thyme oil then this Thyme 100% Pure Therapeutic Grade Essential Oil is a well-reviewed product that ticks all the acne clearing boxes.
Also remember that you can’t cure acne with topical treatments alone. You have to cure acne from the inside out, not the outside in…
…and you don’t want to wake up every day and be cursed to apply oil to yourself for hours and hours which you could be using productively either. The ideal then, is to prevent acne and pimples from forming in the first place and that’s completely achievable. You can 1) eat a nutritious diet free from inflammatory ingredients like sugar, and 2) live a healthy lifestyle with proper sun exposure, exercise, sleep quality and low stress levels.
I don’t recommend that you use topical treatments as your first weapon for treating acne. Nevertheless, thyme oil could be an excellent option if you’re looking for an extra edge.
Thanks for reading!