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You definitely don't want to rub salt in a wound, but might you want to rub it on a pimple? More specifically, can Epsom salts be beneficial in treating breakouts? Devoted users will tell you absolutely yes, that this simple, affordable remedy—the same stuff you'd use as a bath soak—is the secret to clear complexion. As it turns out, there is some validity to the idea, and Epsom salt can do some good things for your skin. But it's not quite as simple as the Internet may make it seem. Here, Zenovia Gabriel, MD, a dermatologist in Newport Beach, CA, Dr. Michelle Henry, Clinical Instructor of Dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College, and board-certified dermatologist Dr. Stacy Chimento of Riverchase Dermatology in Miami explain what Epsom salts can do for your skin, and, more importantly, how to use them to combat blemishes.
Type of Ingredient: Epsom salts are composed of magnesium sulfate, a mineral.
Main Benefits: Magnesium sulfate can help reduce inflammation and help with skin detoxification, says Henry.
Who Should Use It: Avoid using Epsom salts as a breakout treatment if you have sensitive skin. Our experts were mixed on whether or not they should even be used for blemishes to begin with, but more on that to come.
How Often Can You Use It: Two to three times weekly.
Works Well With: Because they can be drying, Epsom salts pair well mixed with more hydrating ingredients (like hyaluronic acid), says Chimento.
Don't Use With: On a related note, avoid using any other ingredients that can be drying—acne-fighters such as salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide, retinoids, acids—at the same time, cautions Henry.
What Is Epsom Salt?
Epsom salt is simply crystals of magnesium sulfate, a mineral. It's long been used in the health and wellness space, ever since its discovery all the way back in the 17th century. Epsom salts also have a long history of use in traditional Chinese medicine, and are well-known for their soothing benefits on achy muscles and even inflamed skin, says Chimento. (Credit both the anti-inflammatory and detoxifying effects of that magnesium sulfate.) As anyone who's ever taken an Epsom salt bath after an intense workout will tell you, those benefits are legit. Still, they don't necessarily translate directly when it comes to using Epsom salt for acne.
Benefits of Epsom Salt for Acne
"In theory, Epsom salt could be good for breakouts because the magnesium sulfate can help relieve swelling and inflammation, and assist the body in purging toxins. The salt can also dry up excess oil," explains Henry. "Some people who use Epsom salt on blemishes will notice improvement." The big caveat here? This is pretty much entirely anecdotal evidence, based on personal experiences, she adds. "There's no scientific evidence showing that the magnesium sulfate in Epsom salt is beneficial for either preventing or treating acne," underscores Gabriel.
Along with those purported anti-inflammatory benefits, Epsom salts are also often positioned as good physical exfoliant, sloughing of dead skin cells and helping combat blackheads, whiteheads, and dullness, notes Chimento. That's true, though because they can be rather large particles, it's very easy to overdo it and irritate your skin, especially if it's sensitive to begin with, she cautions. Gabriel agrees, pointing out that exfoliating with Epsom salts can often result in raw, red, skin. (And remember, while exfoliating is an important part of any skincare routine and essential for keeping skin clear, you can't scrub away acne.)
Side Effects of Epsom Salt
Generally speaking, Epsom salt is relatively safe, says Henry. The most common side effects are those that we've already touched on—irritated, aggravated, dried out skin—which are most likely to occur from overuse or improper use. As with pretty much any ingredient, an actual allergic reaction is also always a possibility; to play it safe, test out Epsom salt on a small area on your forearm before applying on your face.
How to Use It
Here's where our derms were split. "I rely on evidence-based therapies and Epsom salt is not an evidence-based treatment for acne," says Gabriel. She doesn't recommend anyone use them, and instead emphasizes that there are plenty of other, scientifically-studied and proven solutions, such as topical benzoyl peroxide and/or salicylic acid that are far better alternatives.
On the other hand, Henry and Chimento say it's okay to try Epsom salts on your breakouts, but with a few major caveats. First, both docs agree that this is only an option worth considering if your acne is mild. "If your acne is severe, consult a dermatologist instead of experimenting at home," advises Henry. Two, use them as a spot treatment rather than allover your entire face. Create a solution of Epsom salts and water, then use a cotton swab to apply the mix directly onto blemishes, says Henry. (If you're really set on using Epsom salt as a scrub, make sure to combine it with a hydrating ingredient—coconut oil, olive oil, honey—and use on your body, rather than your face. Because the skin on your bod is thicker, you're less likely to end up with redness and irritation.) Do this two to three times per week, for up to two weeks, if you are in fact seeing positive results, she adds. But if you notice any discomfort or irritation at any point, discontinue use.
At the end of the day, Epsom salts most definitely have a place in the beauty and wellness world. And, as compared to other DIY acne remedies floating around on the world wide web (FYI, putting toothpaste on pimples is a major no-no), this is probably one of the "better" and more innocuous ones to try if you are so inclined, relatively speaking. Just heed the dermatologists' advice and pay close attention to your skin and how it reacts. And remember, if you're dealing with full-blown, intense acne, you're going to need to get a dermatologist involved.