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Traditional treatments for cystic acne can be so drying and irritating. Who among us hasn't thought there has to be a better, more natural method? Enter: essential oils.
Although using essential oils for cystic acne isn't a new idea, it's gaining traction with the growth of the clean beauty movement and the popularity of aromatherapy.
According to board-certified dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, cystic acne is one of the most challenging acne types to treat. "Cystic acne is a deep form of acne where painful pimples develop under the skin," Zeichner says. "These pimples do not have a clear connection to the surface of the skin, so they are not pickable. Cysts are like deep balloons that fill with oil and become inflamed."
Because cysts emerge from deep within the skin, they're also maddeningly resistant to traditional, over-the-counter spot treatments. But what about the more natural remedy of essential oils?
We asked top dermatologists for their feedback on using essential oils for cystic acne and were surprised to hear their answers.
Scroll down to learn about essential oils for cystic acne.
Meet the Expert
- Joshua Zeichner, MD, FAAD, is the director of cosmetic and clinical research and dermatology and an associate professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.
- Onyeka Obioha, MD, FAAD, is a dermatologist practicing in Beverly Hills, California. She is a member of the Skin of Color Society and Byrdie's Beauty & Wellness Board.
- Sara Panton is the CEO and cofounder of Vitruvi, maker of premium essential oils and diffusers. She is based in Vancouver, British Columbia.
The Benefits of Essential Oils
Essential oils are plant extracts that have been used for centuries in rituals and folk medicine. Today, they are most often used in aromatherapy, a practice with some promising evidence in favor of mind-body benefits. One study showed that cardiac patients in a South Korean intensive care unit exposed to essential oil aromatherapy had reduced anxiety, increased sleep, and more stable blood pressure.
Fans of aromatherapy, like Panton, swear by aromatherapy's power to soothe the mind and spirit. "Essential oils do a beautiful job of effectively creating an environment and rituals that can help alleviate feelings of stress," she says.
Essential oils have also become popular skincare ingredients in the natural beauty space. Clean beauty enthusiasts have talked up extracts like tea tree oil, lavender oil, and geranium oil for their alleged ability to heal cystic acne.
So... do they?
Can Essential Oils Help Treat Cystic Acne?
Truth time: Neither of our dermatologist sources was willing to go to bat for essential oils as a cystic acne treatment.
"I personally do not recommend essential oils in my acne patients because they tend to cause more harm than good," Zeichner says. "Inevitably, the skin gets dry and irritated, making it more difficult to treat acne in the end."
Obioha also aligned with Zeichner on this one. "Plant-based essential oils can not only make acne worse but can cause an allergic contact dermatitis, which is a very itchy rash," she explains.
Zeichner is careful to say that using essential oils to treat acne isn't the nuttiest idea—it's just not very effective. "Essential oils have a variety of benefits on the skin, and some can help soothe inflammation and provide antimicrobial benefits," he explains. "While [an oil] may help, it does not take the place of traditional acne medications."
Not only that, both Zeichner and Obioha agree that topical therapy—that's right, any topical treatment—isn't beneficial for treating cysts.
"Unfortunately, no topical medications work well for cystic acne since the pimples are so deep in the skin," Zeichner says. "It often requires oral medications to treat the acne from the inside out."
The Best Essential Oil for Cystic Acne
Both of our derms agree, hands down, that the best essential oil for acne is tea tree oil. "The only oil that has any data supporting its use is tea tree oil," Zeichner says. "Tea tree oil is thought to lower levels of bacteria on the skin, including the kind associated with acne breakouts."
"It’s certainly not my go-to choice for acne, given the very limited data, but it does have anti-inflammatory properties," says Obioha, who prefers tea tree oil products that integrate the plant extract with other proven acne-fighting ingredients. "I find [tea tree oil] works best as a spot treatment," she says.
Obioha likes Innbeauty Project Pimple Paste, which blends the oil with willow bark, a natural source of salicylic acid, plus sulfur, and calming azelaic acid.
Obioha also recommends Alpha-H Clear Skin Face and Body Wash, which fights acne from head to toe with tea tree oil and 2 percent salicylic acid.
Like any acne treatment, tea tree oil is not without some risks. One study showed that topically applied tea tree and lavender oils led to breast growth in prepubescent boys.
What Oils Should You Avoid?
It's pretty common to see essential oils in your acne treatments, and they're certainly not all bad stuff. Even the aforementioned lavender oil "has soothing benefits but does not break out the skin, making it useful in people with acne-prone skin," Zeichner points out.
But Zeichner says there is one essential oil you should never, ever use for skincare.
"The one oil I absolutely do not recommend is bergamot oil," Zeichner advises. "It is well documented to cause chemical burns in the presence of sunlight."
The Best Treatments for Cystic Acne
Bottom line: "Oral therapy is most effective" for beating cysts, Obioha advises. Oral medications are primed to fight cysts from within.
"The best treatment for cystic acne is oral antibiotics, birth control, spironolactone, and/or Accutane," Obioha says. "These medications work from the inside to target what we know contributes to acne: oil production, bacterial overgrowth (P. acnes), and hormonal effect on oil glands."
It's not a bad idea to pair an oral med for cystic acne with acne-fighting topicals, Obioha notes. She recommends alpha- and beta-hydroxy acids, "which increase cell turnover and unclog pores," as well as retinoids, which "decrease sebum production and minimize scarring."
Try a serum like Shani Darden Skin Care Retinol Reform, which has a high concentration of retinol and lactic acid, a powerful alpha-hydroxy acid.
The Final Takeaway
If you struggle with cysts, our experts recommend not messing around with essential oils. Instead, see a skincare professional ASAP to talk about trying a prescription oral medicine and ask if adding other topical treatments to your regimen is a good idea.
"If someone struggles with cystic acne, they should see a board-certified dermatologist," Obioha insists. "Using treatments that are not backed by strong data can delay proper treatment and lead to more scarring."
Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. "Effects of Aromatherapy on the Anxiety, Vital Signs, and Sleep Quality of Percutaneous Coronary Intervention Patients in Intensive Care Units." Feb. 17, 2013.
The New England Journal of Medicine. "Prepubertal Gynecomastia Linked to Lavender and Tea Tree Oils." February 1, 2007.