Sea salt is one of the most popular home remedies for acne in existence. It’s a healthy food, in comparison to table salt. It’s a natural food, since all commercial sea salt is sourced from either today’s ocean, or layers of ancient salt beneath the seabed which dried hundreds of millions of years ago.
Finally, it’s believed to be nutritious as it’s touted as containing “over 60 different minerals”, which it does. Many glowing acne testimonials can be found on the internet and you may have stumbled across them.
The idea is definitely interesting. After all, the human body will have been exposed to the sea for almost all of its existence. It’s possible that human skin has an inbuilt positive response to sea water. Our skin might even be adapted to regular contact with sea salt; maybe ethnicities which evolved by the sea need it as much as all humans need sunlight for their skin.
Is sea salt rich in nourishing minerals?
That’s our first question; whether the many minerals in sea salt will actually do anything in practise. Claims around the acne-sphere include that the minerals can “cleanse the cells” and kill bacteria. Some examples of the minerals in sea salt include magnesium, phosphorus, bromine, and rare ones like boron.
There no studies examining the effect of topical sea salt on acne at all, and especially not its mineral composition. Luckily, we have a close proxy – the Dead Sea of Jordan. The Dead Sea is famous for its skincare powers. People flock from Asia, America, Europe and all over the world to simply bathe in its waters for free and treat dermatitis, red skin syndrome, rosacea, and acne. Genuine Dead Sea bath salts are even sold over the internet.
The Dead Sea has a unique mineral composition, containing a salt concentration of 29% rather than the 3% of the ocean. So how is this connected to regular sea salt?
This study showed some promise. Scientists tested a serum with 5% Dead Sea salt concentration on the skin. All patients had the inflammatory skin disease atopic dermatitis. The mixture was applied to their skin in 15 minutes intervals daily for 6 weeks. A variety of measurements were conducted at various stages.
After the six weeks were concluded, inflammation had gone down, skin hydration had gone up, and the skin roughness and redness were decreased. The mixture was “well tolerated” as well.
What matters is that the benefits were apparently down to the magnesium content. This is the critical quotation: “we suggest that the favorable effects of bathing in the Dead Sea salt solution are most likely related to the high magnesium content”. Topical magnesium, according to them, is able to enhance epidermis function, restore skin permeability barrier repair, and bind water to the skin.
This is promising for standard sea salt because magnesium is easily one of the most abundant minerals in it. Sodium chloride AKA salt occurs in seawater at 3% concentration. That makes it over 80% of all the dissolved chemicals in sea water. In second place is potassium at a rate of 1300ppm or 0.13%. However, magnesium is close behind as the third most abundant mineral, at a concentration of 1000ppm (0.1%).
In fact, magnesium is found in high enough concentration that it’s the only metal extracted from sea water for commercial purposes. 60% of commercial magnesium is sourced from the ocean waters or the ancient beds of minerals beneath the ocean.
Sea salt is also heavy in magnesium, particularly the finer products. Sundried varieties are simply pure salt water which is evaporated by UV rays, leaving all solids behind in the salt including the minerals. Hence you have the final product which you apply to your face, and magnesium is in it.
For that reason there’s a good chance that the benefits of Dead Sea salt will also occur in sea salt. Will it work for acne? Most likely yes, given that Dead Sea salt can treat such a wide variety of skin conditions. This may be the reason why so many acne patients rave about topical sea salt.
On the other hand, many of the other 60 “trace minerals” like boron are found in miniscule quantities and consequently irrelevant. Potassium is also fairly useless from a topical point of view.
The jury remains out, but there’s a great chance that the nourishing minerals of sea salt are NOT a myth.
Does topical sea salt wipe out bacteria?
Next we have the second most commonly touted power – an ability to kill p.acnes bacteria. Here there’s far less need for speculation, because sea salt and sodium have been used to keep wounds sterile for centuries.
Salt is one of the very oldest methods of preserving foods. In fact, cured forms of pork like bacon and ham may have been discovered after an old Ancient Greek was preserving a bunch of meat, only to realise that it tasted better. The Ancient Egyptians even preserved their mummies in salt.
There haven’t been many studies on sea salt and bacteria, but there’s been plenty for sodium chloride itself, which is 84% of sea salt. This one found that sodium chloride crippled 5 out of 6 bacterial strains it was tested against; all were reduced to “below acceptable” contamination level.
The theory is that sodium absorbs moisture, and since bacteria grows in moisture, this starves them of the conditions they need to thrive. You know of the dry mouth you get after eating a salty plate of fries; this is exactly what happens to bacteria.
But can sea salt kill acne, AKA propionibacterium acnes? P.acnes isn’t dramatically different to normal strains of bacteria. It doesn’t become hyper resilient or entrenched when living in human skin pores. For example, the top-notch topical treatment tea tree oil wiped out a bunch of different bacteria in studies; p.acnes wasn’t resilient.
The real issue with sea salt is the method of delivery which people recommend. The most common homemade formula involves dissolving sea salt into water, and dabbing the liquid onto your face with a cotton bud. This would totally counteract the antibacterial powers; you’re just replacing the lost moisture with more.
If you’re going to cleanse your pores properly you’ll need to combine sea salt with an oil, or deliver it without moisture. Honey with sea salt won’t work against bacteria, neither will lemon juice nor aloe vera (some other common mixtures).
Overall sea salt probably does have the power to kill p.acnes bacteria, but only if you use a method without moisture. Of course, you’ll still enjoy the minerals no matter what you do.
Does topical sea salt restore your PH level?
Our next theory is that sea salt can normalise the PH of the skin’s epidermis. Theoretically this would restore barrier function, maintain hydration and keep any inflammation to a minimum.
However, a theory is all it is. Sea water has a general PH range of 7.5-8.4. The human skin PH range is around 4-5. The word “acidic” is dirt in the health world these days, but human skin requires a wall of acidity to keep viruses and bacteria at bay.
Excess alkalinity in the skin is a far greater problem in general. For example, this study repeatedly applied the chemical SLS to human skin to increase its acidity level. After five weeks the skin barrier was compromised and the skin was sensitized to external stress. Alkaline skin is a more suitable environment for bacteria as well; increase your PH and p.acnes will be flooding in.
The idea some people have is that because the oceans are mildly alkaline, they are nature’s gift to humanity for soothing the skin. There’s no truth in it whatsoever. The only reason sea salt might improve your PH is if you’ve been abusing overly acidic treatments, such as lemon juice.
Luckily, sea water isn’t too deadly. The reason I warn people to stay away from baking soda is its PH rating of 9; that’s a score you need to avoid. Baking soda is linked to rashes, irritated skin and weak skin in the face of sunlight. Salt water, meanwhile, is closer to neutral. The PH isn’t massively high so there’s no massive risk.
You have a clear test as well. Have you ever been to the beach on a day when it wasn’t sunny, and experienced a rash after swimming in the sea? If you have, the PH and sea salt might have done it, with an UV ray outbreak eliminated as the culprit. If no such reaction has occurred then you’re good to go.
Finally, although it’s unrelated to acne, sea salt is also a touted as a miracle exfoliator. The grains are optimal for scrubbing off excess skin cells, the legends claim. There’s a small problem though – once you dissolve the salt the grains are all gone. No physical scrubbing effect will exist.
If you mixed in the sea salt granules with a thick mixture of honey this might work; likewise with grapeseed oil or aloe vera. However, dissolving sea salt is more efficient, to ensure an even distribution of the minerals.
Generally the exfoliation power does not exist and neither does the PH one. Of course, if global warming continues then the PH could become a legitimate power. Pray that the acidification of oceans get worse!
Sea salt – the side effects
The antibacterial powers discussed earlier depend on the loss of moisture. Can this spread to your skin and cause flakiness and irritation?
In certain circumstances, yes. However, the study which analysed the effect of Dead Sea salt on human skin observed no risk. In fact, six weeks of daily salt baths actually increased human skin hydration. The specific skin type which they tested was atopic dry skin, and all measures of inflammation were decreased.
That study used a 5% concentration of the salt crystals mixed with water. I’ve never noticed that sea water dries out my skin, even during my worst days of acne. A full day at the beach used to make my skin look much healthier. Many people do fear sea salt, but the effect is not universal.
If you want to use sea salt for acne then I would recommend mimicking the 5% concentration of the study above; add in 5 grams of salt per 95ml of water.
A second potential side effect relates to bacteria, namely the killing of the good varieties. The theory is that if sodium chloride is strong enough to starve many species of bad bacteria, it may wipe out healthy colonies on the skin as well.
There are actually many defensive species of bacteria on human skin. For example, one strain of the wide-ranging staphylococcus family of bacteria releases a chemical called lipoteichoic acid (LTA), which reduces inflammation of the skin. Another strain considered to be a normal part of human skin flora is Corynebacterium jeikeium, and this is known to consume nutrients like manganese and iron. That sounds like dodgy behaviour but this strain is benign; hence it causes a net benefit by depriving malicious microorganisms of resources. As far as friendly bacteria goes this is the tip of the iceberg.
Could sea salt kill these friendly strains? It’s possible, but this is a valid threat with many antibacterial treatments. We don’t have many specifics on sea salt; we don’t even know whether it kills p.acnes even though I’d deem it likely.
On the other hand, you would expect antibacterial topical treatments such as raw honey and royal jelly to target bad bacteria deliberately. The former is the food of the worker bees while the latter is the goo designed to grow the queen bee into a colossal size. The antibacterial compounds in honey and royal jelly exist for evolutionary purposes, to keep the food fresh.
With sea salt the nutrients just happen to kill bacteria, so its pure chance. The moisture draining method is also a pretty blunt and possibly indiscriminate mechanism.
We don’t know the truth, but sodium chloride may well kill good bacteria in addition to bad, so my recommendation remains the same. Keep the salt concentration to 5% in whatever carrier substance you use.
Your guide to the best sea salt recipes
Now we arrive at the final question, the best formulation to use. With the popularity of sea salt skyrocketing and more and more amateur skincare enthusiasts taking notice, new recipes are popping up constantly.
To help you avoid getting misled and caught in an acne-ridden nightmare, here is the analysis of some common ones:
Sea salt and water – the basic strategy. Dissolve decent quality sea salt into water at 5% concentration. Apply using a cotton bud. With this strategy you will kill little bacteria due to the moisture, but you will inundate your face with magnesium and other minerals.
Sea salt and aloe vera – interesting. The recipe involves adding sea salt directly to the aloe gel. Aloe vera has an average PH of 5, which will bring the mixture’s value closer to the ideal range. Its liquid based, so the antibacterial powers of sea salt will be negated. Aloe vera is an excellent acne treatment because of its anti-inflammatory properties and antioxidants.
The biggest downside is the trickiness of combining the two. I recommend dissolving a heavily concentrated salt mixture in water, and adding small quantities of that mixture to the aloe vera gel.
Sea salt and grapefruit peel – grapefruit has a low PH of roughly 3. The idea of this recipe is to throw the two ingredients into a blender alongside water, or oils. The PH would balance out nicely and grapefruit has high quantities of vitamin C and A.
However, the recipe is inconvenient and aloe vera provides a similar advantage – a balanced PH with some bonus acne-clearing compounds. Some recipes recommend using a base of coconut oil, which is not the safest oil around.
Sea salt and lemon juice – avoid! The only one of lemon juice’s side effects which is counteracted with this recipe is the PH of 2.5. The photosensitising furocoumarins will go nowhere. Plus, lemon juice doesn’t add anything. Some say that it reduces oily skin and is rich in vitamin C, but both statements are false.
Sea salt and grapeseed oil – an excellent one, because if the theorised drying powers of sea salt turn out to be true then the moisturising powers of grapeseed oil will counteract them.
To make this you simply add enough sea salt to your grapeseed oil to give it a salty taste and apply. Grapeseed oil itself is rich in vitamin E and contains linoleic acid as a bonus. Here there’s no restriction on the antibacterial properties, however, so the results could be interesting. Get an extremely fine variety of salt, to ensure proper distribution.
Sea salt and almond oil – the principals are similar to grapeseed oil, except for one key flaw. At 60% of its total fatty acids, almond oil is far too high in oleic acid. Therefore this recipe should be avoided.
Sea salt and baking soda – a disaster! Baking soda is an abysmal homemade acne cure precisely because of its PH of 9. Does sea salt do anything to correct this? With a PH of 7-8.4, barely. If you’re interested then combine your standard mixture of water and sea salt with generous helpings of baking soda. But you’d do better to forget that I ever mentioned it.
If you stay smart and use the proper strategies then overall, I would deem sea salt to be a promising topical acne treatment.
Based on the strength of the Dead Sea salt study and the heavy concentration of magnesium in sea water, there’s a good chance that sea salt can clear acne. In particular, the testimonials seem to be outstanding.
The bacteria factor remains shrouded in mystery, and ripe for experimentation. It’s almost guaranteed that topical sea salt kills bacteria but we can’t confirm whether it 1) kills p.acnes or 2) wipes out good bacteria as well. A good experiment would be to try the grapeseed oil mixture above, altering the dosage frequently to establish what happens.
Also remember to buy a good quality sea salt. Many are loaded with MSG and preservatives, relying on the prestigious name of sea salt to make sales. A pure sundried sea salt is optimal. Similarly, don’t get tempted to use table salt; it’s just a stripped down cheap product containing 97.5% sodium chloride and various anti-caking agents, humectants and chemicals.
Finally, this all raises an interesting question. How often have you noticed significantly reduced acne and a dramatically enriched skin tone after a day at the beach?
I still think that hours of exposure to sunlight is the most likely explanation. UV rays can increase vitamin D levels, instantly generate a burst of antibacterial nitic oxide on the skin, and improve your mood through an endorphin release. However, judging by this evidence, the salt from swimming in the sea may be another big factor.
Thanks for reading!