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When life hands you lemons, make... a spot treatment? That's what the internet—and/or your grandmother and her litany of old-school beauty remedies—might have you believe. But is this type of "juicing" for your skin a good way to beat blemishes, and/or even a good idea in the first place? In theory, it makes sense, thanks to a variety of different components in lemon juice (namely citric acid) that are beneficial for your skin in their own right. But, according to dermatologists, that does not—we repeat, does not—mean you should be squeezing lemons onto your pimples. Ahead, Chicago dermatologist Emily Arch, MD, Dr. Michelle Henry, Clinical Instructor of Dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College, and New York City dermatologist Marnie Nussbaum, MD, explain exactly why that's a less-than-stellar idea, and what you should keep in mind if you do decide to try this risky DIY treatment.
Type of Ingredient: The primary ingredient in lemon juice that's worth calling out for skincare purposes is citric acid, an alpha-hydroxy acid.
Main Benefits: All AHAs work by gently sloughing away dead skin cells and clearing sebum and dirt from pores, which may help prevent blackhead formation, says Nussbaum. Citric acid may also have antibacterial properties.
Who Should Use It: None of the dermatologists we spoke with advise using lemon juice as a treatment for blemishes. However, if you still want to try it, only do so if your acne is mild, and never apply it on a recently-popped pimple or open sore, cautions Henry.
How Often Can You Use It: Very sparingly if you are going to try it—no more than once a day, every other day.
Works Well With: There's no ingredient in particular that should be paired with lemon juice when using it as a spot treatment.
Don't Use With: Other topical acids or any kind of retinoid, given that the combination will only increase the (already very high) potential of irritation from the lemon juice.
What Is Lemon Juice?
Obviously, it's the juice from a lemon, but it's the various components in it that make it theoretically beneficial for acne-prone skin. And those benefits are, to a certain extent, legit; in fact, lemon juice often pops up in skincare products. But it's not quite that simple. "While you may see lemon juice listed as an ingredient in your favorite cleanser or serum, that doesn’t mean applying it directly to the skin will provide the same benefits," warns Nussbaum. "Products you buy off the shelves are carefully formulated by chemists using ingredient concentrations that provide optimal and safe benefits." So where does all of that info touting fresh-squeezed lemon juice as the ultimate blemish-buster come from? Let's dive deeper into those aforementioned components.
Benefits of Lemon Juice for Acne
Citric acid is really the star of the show; lemon juice contains an especially high concentration of it, about five to six percent, according to Nussbaum. As a choice exfoliating ingredient, it can help keep pores clear. Additionally, "Some studies suggest that citric acids have antimicrobial properties and may be effective against certain types of acne-causing bacteria, specifically p.acnes," she explains. "This is in part due to the high level of acidity, which creates a less hospitable environment for bacterial growth. The acidity also has an astringent effect on the skin, helping to reduce oil production and minimize pore size."
Lemon juice is also a good source of ascorbic acid—which you likely know as vitamin C—a powerful antioxidant, notes Arch. (It's an ingredient known for helping to combat hyperpigmentation caused by acne scarring as well.) "I love using vitamin C topically, but there are much more efficient ways of delivering vitamin C to the skin that don't involve direct application of lemon juice," she adds.
You may have heard that lemon juice has anti-inflammatory benefits... and anything anti-inflammatory has to be good for acneic skin, right? Not so fast. While it does have some anti-inflammatory properties, the acidic nature of lemon juice and high likelihood for irritation (more on that in a moment) far outweighs the soothing aspects. Not to mention that it's the compound found in the peel, limonene, that delivers the bulk of those anti-inflammatory effects, adds Arch, rather than something in the juice itself.
To put it bluntly, irritation, irritation, and more irritation is the name of the game with lemon juice. As mentioned, it goes back to its acidic nature. "Human skin has a pH of 4.5-5.5, while lemon juice has a pH of about 2," explains Arch. "This discrepancy is part of the reason it's so irritating, and can end up causing stinging, peeling, and redness," she adds. Along those same lines, the combination of citric acid and UV rays (i.e. if you were to apply lemon juice to your skin and then go out in the sun with no sunscreen) can lead to a condition called phytophotodermatitis, a hyperpigmented rash, cautions Henry. And, that particular issue aside, lemon juice can simply make your skin more sun sensitive in general, she adds.
How to Use Lemon Juice for Acne
The short answer, at least according to the dermatologists we spoke with, is to just not use it in the first place. There are plenty of safer acne-fighting ingredients and products on the market that would serve you far better, says Nussbaum. (She also adds that if you're dealing with chronic acne flare-ups or deep cystic acne, you really should be seeking advice from a board-certified dermatologist and not going the DIY route in the first place.) Arch agrees: "While the acidic properties of lemons seem like they'd be a natural fit for acne, applying lemon juice directly to the skin can cause more harm than good. There are more effective and readily tolerable treatments available, so I really don't see a place for it in anyone's skincare routine," she says.
That being said, if you're dead set on trying lemon juice as a zit-zapper, there are a few important things to keep in mind. First, you should only even attempt this if your acne is mild and your skin is not sensitive, says Henry. And when you do, test it out on an area other than your face to see how your skin reacts; diluting it with water is also a good move, she adds. If all seems to be okay, spot treat blemishes only by dabbing on the juice with a cotton swab and washing off after a few minutes. Be sure to load up on sunscreen, and, above all, "stop using lemon juice immediately if you notice any signs of irritation or skin discoloration," Henry warns. But again, there are many other spot treatment options that are far safer and more effective than lemon juice.