Olive oil is the only cooking oil that every dietary sect whether paleo, vegan, fruitarian, or the government food pyramid agrees is extremely healthy, and its powers can add to your acne-clearing efforts as well.
For one thing, olive oil contains high amounts of vitamin E, the joint greatest nutrient for preventing blocked pores. Secondly, the fat in olive oil is 70% oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat which lowers chronic inflammation.
Finally, there’s what it isn’t: extra virgin olive oil is free from chemical solvents, rancid fats, and mutated trans-fats thanks to humanity’s 3000-year-old history and experience of cold-pressing it. Olive oil also contains only 15.5% polyunsaturated fat compared to 66%, 58% and 55% in sunflower oil, soybean oil and corn oil. Polyunsaturated fats oxidise with impunity when eaten, draining your body of antioxidants you need to prevent acne.
For those reasons, extra virgin olive oil ties with extra virgin coconut oil as the number one cooking oil you could roast potatoes or drizzle salad with.
But here’s something else you should know: olive oil is a highly overrated topical treatment for acne. Extra virgin olive oil is fantastically healthy to eat, but when you put it on your skin, the story changes completely.
It all started with the Mediterranean fad diet, which has been reported on in newspapers for years now. Many experimental acne patients have theorised that the nutritional goodness might translate superbly to the face and become a miracle.
But in reality, extra virgin olive oil stands alongside coconut oil and cocoa butter as a promising topical treatment which gets derailed by several innate flaws. The whole appeal lies in the advertising. Olive oil companies state that Italians, Spaniards, and Greeks use olive oil for everything; they rub it into their hands and feet, into their face as a moisturiser, they add it to shampoo to get sleek hair.
If you’ve ever travelled to those countries you’ll notice that their skin tone is fantastic. Now, acne patients everywhere are trying to mimic this.
However, while some foods contain compounds which do work just as well when applied topically, such as antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables, olive oil transforms into a completely different substance when applied externally.
Power one – may fade away old acne scars
Firstly we have a study which began by commenting that olive oil is used for treating wounds in Iran. 24 male 16-month old mice were gathered, divided into control and experimental groups, and had all their fur shaved off. Small incisions were made in their skin, and while the control group received nothing but distilled water, the experimental group had their wounds injected with oleuropein. Oleuropein is a phenolic antioxidant which is responsible for many of olive oil’s heart health benefits. This treatment regimen lasted for 7 days.
Distilled water accomplished very little, but oleuropein led to a significant increase in collagen deposition in the wound and an advanced pace of re-epithelisation. Collagen is the number one protein involved in wound healing, and importantly for us, increasing your body’s collagen production can allow old acne scars to heal faster as well, because they heal just like a standard wound.
The scientists commented in the conclusion that “these results suggest that oleuropein accelerates skin wound healing in aged male Balb/c mice”. A second study performed by the same team once again observed improved collagen deposition and faster re-epithelisation, and this time, increased blood flow to mice’s wounds as well.
Oleuropein is considered to be the signature compound of olive oil, so we have at least one piece of positive evidence, but we don’t know whether the results will apply to humans. Unless you’re a 16-month-old male mouse, these results are not enough for me to recommend topical olive oil. What’s more, oleuropein is one compound among hundreds. The results could be scuppered if a substance like oleic acid turns out to slow wound healing. The studies would mean more if we had data showing that olive oil itself increases collagen deposition and re-epithelisation, but we don’t.
Consider cocoa butter, for example. If you extracted the natural ceramide compounds and tested them on acne scars and wound healing, you might conclude that cocoa butter is an amazing treatment for acne. But cocoa butter also scores a 4/5 on the American Journal of Dermatology’s comedogenic scale, giving it a “high” chance it’ll clog your pores.
Power two – great vitamin E content
That’s one very weak positive in olive oil’s favour then, and now we come to vitamin E, which is easily extra virgin olive oil’s most promising feature. Extra virgin olive contains 10% of RDA for vitamin E per tablespoon. It blows most other topical treatments whether raw honey, coconut oil, or witch hazel out of the water.
Vitamin E is needed to prevent the oxidation of squalene, a fatty acid which forms 11% of sebum. Oxidised squalene turns into squalene peroxide, one of the most notorious pore-blocking substances in nature.
Ordinarily, your body equips all manufactured squalene with vitamin E defences to prevent this from happening. However, applying vitamin E directly will mitigate some of the damage if you don’t eat enough vitamin E in your diet. What’s more, olive oil is rich in oleic acid, a known skin penetration enhancer. Oleic acid (omega 9) is added to pharmaceutical skincare formulations precisely to improve the ability to skincare chemicals to penetrate the skin. The same will happen with vitamin E.
Sounds good? It is indeed a great bonus feature, and if olive oil was free from its negative qualities it would be enough for me to recommend it. My other recommended topical treatments such as raw honey, witch hazel, rose water, tea tree oil, pretty much all of them, contain very little vitamin E at all, so olive oil would be unique. Update 21/6/2017: WRONG! Grapeseed oil is rich in vitamin E and has no side effects. See here.
Power three – possible natural sunscreen
Joining oleuropein as one of the best researched compounds in olive oil is oleocanthal. This study concluded that 3.4 tablespoons of olive oil contained enough oleocanthal to match the anti-inflammatory properties of 10% ibuprofen. This study again concluded that oleocanthal has similar anti-inflammatory properties to ibuprofen when eaten.
Secondly, olive oil’s fat content is 70% oleic acid, and this study on 1556 men found that when consumed, oleic acid led to a drop in c-reactive protein, the most commonly used inflammatory biomarker.
This study meanwhile, analysed the olive oil compounds erythrodiol and beta-sitosterol, this time when applied topically to a swollen mouse ear. Erythrodiol and beta-sitosterol reduced the inflammatory swelling by 61.4% and 82.1%. Oleuropein was also tested, and lowered inflammatory swelling by 30%.
Next we move on to UVB radiation protection. It’s a smart idea for all acne patients to strengthen your skin against sunlight because while exposure can damage your skin in high amounts, you also need moderate exposure to generate vitamin D, nitric oxide, and mood-boosting endorphins. This study examined the effect of extra virgin olive oil on hairless mice when exposed to UBV radiation. Olive oil significantly reduced the rate of UVB-induced tumour formation when applied after exposure, and when applied before exposure, the formation of new tumours slowed down. Olive oil was also compared to camellia oil, which had no effect when applied using an identical protocol.
This study was less positive; this time extra virgin olive oil was applied to 32 human volunteers alongside glycerine and petrolatum. The goal was to analyse the changes in minimal erythritol dose (MED), which is the lowest concentration of UVB radiation required in order to mutate and damage human skin cells. The higher your MED, the more resistant your acne is to inflammation from sunlight. Neither olive oil nor glycerine were found to increase the MED after 5 days of regular exposure, while petrolatum did.
Finally, this study was performed nearly identically to the first on UVB rays and it again observed a decrease in tumour formation when olive oil was applied after UVB ray exposure. However, this time was no reduction when olive oil was applied prior to exposure. Scientists also observed in a reduction in a free radical called 8-OHdG, which is generated by sunlight upon contact with human skin cells (in high amounts in weak skin, and low amounts in stronger skin). They concluded that “daily topical use of super virgin olive oil after sun bathing may delay and reduce UV-induced skin cancer development in human skin”.
The conclusion from these studies? Olive oil appears to contain anti-inflammatory compounds, but again, the methodology is flawed: two of the positive UVB ray studies were conducted on mice. The one study that was conducted on humans produced negative results
We cannot confirm whether oleocanthal and oleic acid produce anti-inflammatory effects when applied topically rather than eaten. The study analysing beta-sitosterol and other compounds was promising, but it was conducted on mice skin again.
Overall, there is promise in these results, but nothing to make me endorse topical olive oil.
The fatal flaw of olive oil
If olive oil had all the powers we’ve discussed so far it would be a pretty decent topical treatment. The wound healing and natural sunscreen powers are decent, while the large vitamin E content makes it excellent for preventing blocked pores.
So why don’t I recommend it for any acne patient? One simple reason: damage to the human skin barrier, most likely due to oleic acid.
If you’ve read the article on olive oil as a food, then you’ll know that oleic acid is a monounsaturated fatty acid which is responsible for many of the heart health benefits such as lowering LDL cholesterol levels. Most importantly, oleic acid can indirectly clear acne by lowering chronic inflammation levels, particularly the chemical interleukin-6 (study).
But when oleic acid is applied to the face, the story completely changes and it becomes detrimental. As I mentioned earlier, oleic acid is a useful skin penetration enhancer, but this power is due to its disruptive effect on skin barrier function. In particular, both olive oil and oleic acid have been shown to increase trans-epidermal water loss (TEWL), which in scientific terms is the quantity of water that passes through the outer epidermis into the atmosphere.
The higher your TEWL, the dryer your skin becomes, and according to this study, high rates of TEWL have a strong connection with acne. The scientists compared 36 patients with mild to moderate acne and analysed their skin barrier function, and reached the conclusion that “the patients with AV exhibited markedly higher sebum secretion and greater TEWL”. The increase in TEWL was of greater magnitude in severe acne patients compared to moderate ones. The mechanism is unclear but the study stated that an increase in the pore-clogging skin protein keratin could be behind it.
Why does this matter? Firstly, olive oil was shown to damage the skin barrier:
- This study sought to analyse several popular moisturising oils and discover whether they were really effective. Sunflower seed oil improved skin hydration and barrier integrity, but topical application of olive oil led to a significant reduction in skin barrier integrity after 4 weeks. The scientists commented: “in contrast to sunflower seed oil, topical treatment with olive oil significantly damages the skin barrier, and therefore has the potential to promote the development of, and exacerbate existing, atopic dermatitis”. Atopic dermatitis is an inflammatory skin condition with similarities to acne. Overall, they concluded that topical olive oil should be discouraged, whereas topical sunflower seed oil was safe.
- Rats were treated to have their TEWL levels increased; sunflower seed oil reversed this increase but olive oil had no benefit (study).
- This study on 115 healthy babies wanted to examine the common practise of mothers adding natural oil to their baby’s skin in order to moisturise them. Scientists feared that the practise might do more harm than good, so the babies were assigned to olive oil, sunflower oil or no oil, twice daily for 4 weeks. While both oils led to improved skin hydration, they were also found to delay the development of skin barrier functions which prevent water loss and defend against allergy and infection. Hence, the scientists did not recommend olive oil as a moisturiser.
Then the studies below apparently identified the compound responsible, oleic acid, which forms the vast majority (70%) of olive oil’s total fats:
- This 2014 study applied oleic acid, glyceryl trioleate and a mixture of OA and GT to human skin and concluded that pure OA had the most damaging effect on TEWL and skin barrier function.
- This study analysed the effect of oleic, linoleic, alpha-linolenic and arachidonic acid on the human skin barrier. Oleic acid led to the biggest deterioration in TEWL.
- In this study scientists were testing how exactly oleic acid manages to increase TEWL levels so strongly.
- This study began with the quotation “Oleic acid (OA) is well-known to affect the function of the skin barrier”. Scientists also revealed that oleic acid damaged the function of ceramides, waxy fat molecules which protect the skin.
- This study found that oleic acid in combination with propene glycol significantly increased trans-epidermal water loss after just 1 hour of application.
It seems that the very fat which makes olive oil such a nutritional powerhouse when eaten is the exact opposite when you put it on your skin.
Olive oil may be a pore-clogging nightmare
Olive oil itself does not have a particularly high risk of clogging skin pores; it scores 2 on the American Journal of Dermatology’s comedogenic ratings which range from 0 to 5. By contrast coconut oil and cocoa butter both score 4 out of 5, which is why I recommend against them. Safer it may be, but 2 still stands for a “moderately low” risk, and many stories on the internet talk of olive oil working like charm for 5 days, only for pimples to burst out of nowhere in completely new locations on the face. That sounds like new pores were being clogged and giving p.acnes bacteria a new spot to multiply in. Grapeseed oil and jojoba oil also get a 2 but somehow seem to be safer.
Olive oil’s basic powers are not terrific for acne; they pale next to the anti-inflammatory powerhouse of aloe vera or the bacteria-eliminating machine of royal jelly. So running the risk of blocked pores is doubly pointless even though the risk is lower than for some oils.
Also, while we’re here, understand this key difference: essential oils like tea tree oil and rose water are NOT oils. They contain very little fat based compounds, they are simply distillations of what is usually the plant’s leaves or petals into a liquid. They carry no risk of clogging skin pores compared to fat based oils such as olive oil, coconut oil, cocoa butter, which are termed as carrier oils.
Finally, there’s the problem of other forms of sensitivities; this study observed that a masseur rubbing olive oil into a customer ended up with eczema on his hands. The scientists also observed that olive oil led to sensitization, which could be because of slow damage to the skin barrier. They concluded that the external use of olive oil should be discouraged.
Olive oil is an excellent oil for roasting potatoes or enhancing the flavour of acne-friendly vegetables, but it fails as a topical treatment. It might reduce inflammation from UVB radiation in sunlight and help old acne scars to heal, but the effect is too weak to counteract the potential clogged pores and damage to the skin barrier.
The only instance in which olive oil might be useful is if you are starved of vitamin E. If you analyse your diet and conclude that you need to eat more vitamin E, and start changing your diet accordingly, then topical olive oil could work as an extra fast tool to get your face to absorb vitamin E and enjoy its protective effects. But that would only work temporarily.
Judging by the testimonials and science I’ve analysed, I would not advise using olive oil for more than three days in a row.
Thanks for reading!