Natural topical treatments have a big place in an acne-clearing lifestyle. Overall, the smartest idea is to prevent acne from ever forming on your skin in the first place by optimising your diet and lifestyle, but the fact remains: well-conducted scientific studies have shown that topical treatments can slash pimple counts by up to 50%.
Diet is your first line of attack, but topical treatments are an effective bonus weapon. With that in mind, you are faced with a choice: do you use benzoyl peroxide, or one of many natural options now flooding the market?
I strongly advise natural ones. Artificial topical treatments have a big problem: they tend to contain one isolated antibacterial chemical (such as BP itself), a bunch of inflammatory fillers, and no accompanying nutrition to soothe the side effects. They can work, but they can send your skin back to square one, or even square zero or square minus ten.
Natural topical treatments meanwhile, contain antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and sebum reducing agents, but are also accompanied by a myriad of antioxidants, enzymes, peptides and other natural substances. These minimise any side effects and make for a milder yet still just as effective treatment.
Topical treatments invented in a lab can never match the complexity of those found in nature and are generally not as safe. BP, for instance, wipes out p.acnes bacteria highly efficiently, but does so through generating free radicals, which can spread to healthy skin cells and inflame them. Honey, meanwhile, has numerous antibacterial compounds, but also antioxidants and trace nutrients, which provide a buffer of defence.
The solution is clear: you must sift through the endless plants and herbs for sale and find a top-notch natural topical treatment. Read the list below and learn the elite 5 products for acne:
What it is – a food manufactured by bees during nectar collection, stored long term as their food.
Where it stands out – as an antibacterial treatment. Has bonus anti-inflammatory and antioxidant powers.
Any downsides when applied topically – a tiny risk of a bee-product allergy.
Honey is possibly the most famous folk remedy of all time. Raw honey has been used on wounds, allergies, and sore eyes by the Ancient Egyptians, Romans and Ancient Greeks. Those powers are largely due to its antibacterial properties, and those can clear acne as well, by killing the p.acnes bacteria hidden in your skin pores.
Honey has three famous antibacterial compounds. Firstly, there’s Methylgyloxal, a substance which is so potent that manuka honeys from New Zealand are graded with a unique manuka factor (UMF) score.
Secondly, there’s hydrogen peroxide, which functions like a milder version of benzoyl peroxide. Finally, there’s a very recently discovered bee peptide called bee-defensin 1. This peptide is manufactured by the immune system of regular honeybees to kill bacteria and added to honey as they create it.
These compounds all have potent powers; one study tested 26 different varieties of local honey from New Zealand, and concluded that each one had antibacterial properties. Every type of honey cleansed the wound and inhibited bacteria to some degree, with the reductions varying from 4% to 60%. Another study applied manuka honey (the most potent medicinal type) to patients with a tear deficiency, and observed that the bacteria responsible was severely inhibited.
What’s more, honey can inhibit an extremely wide variety of bacteria. One study applied a variety of honeys to 13 different bacterial strains. The result was that 12 of those 13 were inhibited, so therefore, it’s highly likely that honey can inhibit the growth and accelerate the death of p.acnes bacteria as well. One study even found that when the three main compounds were totally eliminated, honey still retained antibacterial properties.
Honey also has a decent ORAC score of 270; it contains enough antioxidants to raise blood antioxidant levels when consumed (study). That should translate to your face when applied topically, and provide your sebum with extra defences against air pollution, cigarette smoke, and other sources of free radicals.
Honey even contains trace minerals such as vitamin C. In fact, honey is so rich in medicinal compounds and natural preservatives with potent powers that completely edible jars of ancient honey have been discovered in old Egyptian tombs, dating back as far as 3000 years. The very oldest honey ever is 5500 years old, found in a tomb in Georgia. Honey is so powerful that entire colonies of bees are kept alive on it.
If you want, you can use raw honey as an entire face mask, but in my reckoning, it functions best as a localised treatment to calm down particularly raging and red acne. You can apply a small globule to each pimple, let it dry, and leave the compounds to kill bacteria and absorb into the epidermis while you sleep.
As for the best product, never make the rookie mistake: you MUST buy your honey raw! Pasteurised honey is not honey, it is honey-flavoured golden syrup. Heating raw honey to 72 degrees Celsius for approximately two minutes, which is the standard method, destroys all the acne-clearing enzymes, peptides and antioxidants. Always use a raw honey, which can be identified from 1) a richer flavour, 2) a cloudier colour, and 3) being less runny.
My favourite raw honey product in terms of both quality and the excellent bulk pricing is this 1 pound tub of Y.S. Eco Bee Farms Raw Honey.
Standout powers – anti-inflammatory and wound-healing properties.
Any downsides – a few people report in with allergies.
Aloe vera is second only to honey when it comes to historical medicinal usage. Cleopatra and Nefertiti of Ancient Egypt both adored the plant and utilised it in their beauty routines.
Native Americans used aloe vera to ward off biting insects, 6000-year old Ancient Egyptian carvings of the plant have been discovered, and Christopher Columbus reportedly brought a pot with him when he set sail to America.
At one point King Alexander of Ancient Greece was so convinced of aloe vera’s miraculous properties that he refused to send his armies forward to conquer new lands without a fresh supply of it.
Some of the history is promising for acne; the Egyptian medicinal text Papyrus Eber stated that aloe vera had anti-inflammatory powers (and they were right, it does; they had managed to deduce the truth thousands of years before the dawn of real science).
Unlike honey, however, aloe vera’s potency has been confirmed in studies directly on acne. A group of scientists led by Dr Z Hajheydari gathered 60 acne-prone patents and divided them into a control group and an aloe vera group. Group A received a 0.05% topical retinoid cream (tretinoin) whereas group B received the exact same cream, except with added 50% concentration aloe vera gel.
One of the groups had a dramatically superior reduction in total acne lesions, and it was the aloe vera group. Aloe vera was the only differentiating factor, so it had to be responsible.
What makes aloe vera so fantastic for acne? Aloe vera has two standout properties: an ability to accelerate wound healing and thus clear old and dying acne, and some potent anti-inflammatory properties.
Aloe vera contains a vast array of natural compounds. One is the enzyme bradykinase, which can break down the inflammatory chemical bradykinin when applied topically to skin. Another is c-glucosyl chromone, which has anti-inflammatory strength equal to widely prescribed catabolic steroids.
Then there’s the yellow pigmented aloin, part of the anthraquinone family of antioxidants, which inhibits the pro-inflammatory master molecule COX-2. Finally, there’s lupeol, gibberellin, aloe-emodin, glucomannan, and probably many more (read the full analysis of aloe vera here).
All those factors combine for an anti-inflammatory whitewash. For the fading of old acne, two compounds called gibberellin and glucomannan have been shown in studies to directly stimulate growth factors in the skin. This stimulation accelerates the formation of collagen, the skin’s main structural protein. Gibberellin is a plant growth hormone while glucomannan is a natural polysaccharide (sugar).
What’s more, aloe vera itself has been demonstrated to increase collagen formation. Collagen is the main protein used to heal wounds, and forms a structural matrix around which many other acne-clearing chemicals gather and venture out to do their healing work.
If you want to clear acne without harsh chemicals or pharmaceutical drugs then aloe vera is an excellent choice. Don’t pick a grocery store product; it’ll be contaminated with fillers that don’t increase its ability to clear acne, but do increase inflammation. Instead, buy this pure Aubrey Organics Pure Aloe Vera 4 oz Gel.
Its standout power – a terrific source of plant antioxidants.
Risk of side effects – very few known of. May cause allergies in some.
Witch hazel is yet another plant with a storied medicinal history. Whereas aloe vera was beloved by the Ancient Egyptians and Greeks, witch hazel was one of the predominant medicinal plants used by Native American tribes.
Witch Hazel has been used as a beauty ingredient since 1848, where Theron T Pond ventured out to the tribes and invented the first distillation. Since then it has been used as a base ingredient in toners, makeup removers, and clarifying products.
Few dermatologists took notice of the fact that Native Americans used witch hazel for skin diseases such as eczema. But they should have done, because in the last 25 years studies are flooding in showing potential benefits for acne patients.
The main benefit is the witch hazel plant’s high antioxidant count, which are particularly concentrated in the bark and leaves. Witch hazel contains a huge 10% tannins by weight. Tannins are a potent class of antioxidants which give foods like raspberries their power.
Witch hazel supposedly has antioxidant powers equal to superoxide dismutase, one of the most powerful and common antioxidants the human body manufactures itself. Witch hazel antioxidants reportedly have a particularly high affinity for human skin cells. One study also found that witch hazel extracts had a synergistic effect with vitamin E, enhancing its power, and vitamin E is the best nutrient for controlling clogged pores. The families and classes of antioxidants in witch hazel include gallic acid, catechins, proanthocyanins, kaempferol, quercetin, carvacrol, eugenol, hexenol, choline and saponins.
The witch hazel plant also has well-established anti-inflammatory properties. In one study scientists deliberately inflamed human skin by applying sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), a controversial ingredient of commercial shampoos which users insist gives them a reddened scalp.
Witch hazel was able to reverse all the inflammation. Furthermore, its anti-inflammatory properties were equal to the widely prescribed pharmaceutical drug hydrocortisone (a catabolic steroid). The connection to acne is that inflammation is the number one cause of it.
Another promising power is the inhibition of sun damage from UVB radiation. Contrary to popular belief, moderate sun exposure is vital for healthy skin. Sunlight stimulates the creation of vitamin D3, creates a burst of nitric oxide directly on impact with your face (nitric oxide is highly antibacterial), and boosts your mood by increasing endorphins.
The problems, such as skin cancer and sunburn, kick in after prolonged exposure. However, those problems are still real, and if you fail to nourish your skin with the proper nutrition or otherwise damage it, your acne can be a lot more prone to inflammation from UVB rays than average. That’s where witch hazel steps in. One study found that applying witch hazel could suppress sunburn by 20% after 7 hours. After 48 hours, the sunburn was prevented by 27%. Through a combination of antioxidants, anti-inflammatory compounds, and other mechanisms, witch hazel can act as a natural sunscreen.
Honey stands out as an antibacterial powerhouse. Witch hazel is also antibacterial (click here for an extensive analysis), but is especially excellent if you need to drench your skin with antioxidants.
That could be if you 1) are a daily cigarette smoker, 2) live in a polluted city, 3) use make-up constantly, 4) eat lots of processed food, or 5) are exposed to other heavy sources of free radicals. The oilier your skin is, the more antioxidants you need to keep that oil from clogging your pores.
Most witch hazel distillations contain alcohol, but a variety of acne patients have reported burning and itching from alcohol-containing treatments. Hence, this alcohol free Thayers Alcohol-Free Witch Hazel Toner with Aloe Vera Formula is superior and one of the standout products available. NOTE: the link is set to unscented, but you can flip to a lavender or cucumber scent if you desire.
Its standout properties – tackling oily skin and hence clogged pores.
Any side effects – may contain fluoride, a toxic chemical I’ve previously warned against, but levels are generally tiny.
Next we have green tea, which again has a specific power: a proven ability to reduce oily skin. The greatness of basic green tea was established in two clear studies.
Firstly, there’s a study where scientists gathered 49 volunteers in an Iraqi clinic. 24 of the patients were instructed to douse their face with a 2% green tea distillation and do so for 12 weeks daily, whereas 25 were instructed to use distilled water. Each patient had acne levels ranging from severe to moderate.
The results were outstanding for a food item as commonplace as green tea. The 24-strong clear skin group who used distilled water enjoyed only a slight reduction in acne, possibly due to natural day-to-day variations in pimple counts. Meanwhile, the green tea group experienced an average of a 57% reduction in overall pimple counts. Some members were probably as high as 65%.
Later scientists sought to identify the mechanism, and they did so in earnest. In this study, which was conducted in Pakistan, 10 patients were assigned a 3% concentration green tea product and told to apply it daily. They kept up the regimen for 8 weeks and reported in for a skin biopsy 1 week, 2 weeks, 4 weeks, 6 weeks, and finally 8 weeks after they begun.
The results were again excellent. Average sebum (oil) production began to fall by week 1; there was an 8% reduction. By week 2, the reduction had intensified to 15%. By week 4 it was 35%, by week 6 it was 45%.
Finally, after 8 weeks of daily green tea application, total sebum production on the acne patients’ skin had fallen by an average of 60%. That was the average; the highest reported decrease could have been 70%.
Here we have a clear mechanism for green tea’s greatness. Green tea lowers sebum production, prevents the formation of clogged pores, robs p.acnes bacteria of a low oxygen, sebum clogged environment to call home, and cuts the head of the acne-causing snake before it ever arrives.
The trail of evidence is clear. Green tea is not only one of the greatest natural acne treatments, but one of the most effective topical acne treatments full-stop. Another study showed that daily application of green tea reduced acne lesions by 51% after 8 weeks. Another showed a reduction in sebum production due to inhibiting the activity of IGF-1 hormones.
Green tea functions due to its catechin antioxidants, most notably epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), which binds to androgen receptors on the skin and inhibits their activity, and has a variety of other promising health effects when drunk (such as increased metabolism). ECGC is believed to have antioxidant properties 25 to 100 times more powerful than vitamin C.
In fact, green tea is an antioxidant powerhouse more widely. The leaves also contain epicatechin (EC), epigallocatechin (EGC), epicatechin gallate (ECG), kaempferol, quercetin, and myricetin.
Products are currently thin on the ground, but as the research spreads, the market should explode. The pharmaceutical industry would be pretty foolish to ignore such an excellent opportunity, particularly with such an everyday foodstuff.
A good product right now is this Nature’s Answer Alcohol-Free Green Tea Leaf distillation.
Tea tree oil
Its standout powers – a combination of antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties.
Any risk of side effects – yes, though small. A compound called 8-cineol is known to cause rashes and redness in a few individuals.
Tea tree oil has been used by Australian aboriginals in a paste form for dressing wounds for centuries. In modern medicine tea tree oil is used for treating dandruff and again wounds, but studies have shown it to be promising against skin conditions such as atopic dermatitis and acne.
Unlike raw honey and aloe vera, tea tree oil has one standout compound – terpinen-4-ol. This is an alcohol compound which, firstly, is known to annihilate a broad spectrum of bacteria, including the antibiotic resistant s.aureas. Terpinen-4-ol was directly shown to kill p.acnes bacteria in one study, and by extension that should make tea tree oil a pimple-calming powerhouse.
What’s more, tea tree oil has a few minor compounds with extra antibacterial strength, including alpha-terpineol and alpha-pinene. The ability to disinfect wounds used throughout history is more evidence of antibacterial action. Tea tree oil is also used in folklore to treat ringworm and athlete’s foot, which are notorious bacterial infections.
Next to wiping out p.acnes bacteria we have tea tree oil’s strong anti-inflammatory properties. Again, terpineol-4-ol is the miracle substance; this study found that it could inhibit localised inflammatory responses on the skin by 50% after 40 hours of exposure. Another tea tree oil compound called a-terpineol was analysed but T4O had it beat. Terpinen-4-ol was able to reduce a broad spectrum of inflammatory chemicals including TNF alpha and IL-1beta.
A more recent 2014 study analysed two components of tea tree oil, terpinen-4-ol and alpha terpineol. This time, the pro-inflammatory chemicals IL-1β and IL-6 were inhibited.
Last but not least, tea tree oil has an extra, possibly useful, possibly useless, ability to kill the most controversial villain in the acne world: demodex mites.
Demodex mites are microscopic insects which live on the surface of the skin of nearly every adult human. However, humans with skin conditions such as rosacea have more colonies than average and it’s for that reason that a swathe of natural, alternative homeopathic health gurus believe that demodex mites are the true cause of acne. They believe that 99% of the world is wasting their time on antibacterial products and if we could only kill the mites off, we would never have to worry about acne again.
The truth? The reality is that demodex mites are healthy and not pure evil like corners of the internet suggest, but overgrowths do have a minor link to heightened inflammation. Tea tree oil is one of the most effective topical treatments for wiping out these mites, so if you have a mite overgrowth and fail to realise it, that’s yet another point in tea tree oil’s favour.
If your goal is to kill p.acnes bacteria while simultaneously calming the inflammation and redness caused by that bacteria, then tea tree oil is the acne treatment for you.
One warning however: a separate alcohol compound called 8-cineol has a strong track record of causing irritation and redness in some users. This isn’t a case of “there could be an irritant we haven’t identified”, like with witch hazel; some acne patients have reported in with blisters and rashes. 8-cineol has been confirmed as a skin irritant in scientific studies.
Hence, we come to the ideal tea tree oil strategy: use this treatment as a tool for calming individual red and inflamed patches of acne. Don’t apply tea tree oil to your entire skin as a toner, and only use a small quantity. A 5% tea tree oil distillation will provide enough strength to clear acne while minimising the irritating side effects.
There’s a few other conditions to meet as well: Australia sells the best formulated tea tree oil products, dark bottles are most effective as they block sunlight, which can oxidise the valuable compounds. Get a product with a relatively high concentration of terpinen-4-ol (it’s usually displayed on the bottle), with over 15% being ideal.
Fulfil those requirements and don’t go over-the-top and tea tree oil could be an absolute miracle. The best product for acne that I have yet discovered is this NOW Foods Tea Tree Oil.
There’s millions of plants growing on planet earth and thousands of plants which could clear acne when applied topically. In all likelihood, there’s one monstrously nutritious flower or shrub growing in a rainforest somewhere which would wipe the floor with all of these, a plant which we haven’t stumbled across and perhaps never will.
But for now, those five natural treatments are the best of the best and cover nearly all the bases. Honey is antibacterial, witch hazel provides antioxidants, green tea tackles oily skin, tea tree oil is anti-inflammatory, and aloe vera accelerates collagen production.
If you’re very poor or otherwise looking to save money, raw honey is easily your best choice as the bulk tub linked above is a massive 22oz. That will last you for ages. If the products above are all affordable to you, then the choice is yours.
Thanks for reading!