It seems that now more than ever, people with acne are embracing the use of oils to treat their skin. While some oils are simply non-comedogenic and won’t clog pores (which can lead to pimples), others actually contain natural healing properties that can minimize acne symptoms and possibly prevent future breakouts. One such oil is neem oil, which has been used for centuries to treat skin conditions like acne.
Curious about using neem oil for acne but not quite sure what it is or where to start? We spoke with dermatologists Jeanine Downie, MD of The Gist, and Anna Guanche of the Bella Skin Institute, as well as cosmetic chemists Victoria Fu and Gloria Lu of Chemist Confessions, to find out what neem oil is and how it might help heal acne symptoms.
TYPE OF INGREDIENT: Essential oil
MAIN BENEFITS: Neem oil kills bacteria and fungus and is also an anti-inflammatory.
WHO SHOULD USE IT: Those with acne-prone skin and red, itchy, and inflamed skin associated with psoriasis, acne, and eczema rashes (among others).
HOW OFTEN CAN YOU USE IT: After a patch test, if your skin does not have a negative reaction, you can incorporate it as the last step in your morning and nighttime skincare routines.
WORKS WELL WITH: Non-comedogenic carrier oils, like almond oil
DON'T USE WITH: Neem oil works well with most skincare products.
What Is Neem Oil?
Often found in hair and skincare products as well as ayurvedic treatments, neem oil, (also known as margosa oil) is a natural ingredient used to treat a number of ailments, from skin diseases to digestive ulcers, to dental healthcare and fungal infections. Interestingly, the active ingredients found within it are used as an organic pesticide treatment to protect crops from invasive insects like aphids and some beetles. “Neem oil is a naturally occurring pesticide found in seeds from the neem tree," explains Downie. "It is yellow to brown, has a bitter taste, and a garlic/sulfur smell. Neem oil controls pests and also helps with red, itchy and inflamed skin associated with psoriasis, acne, and eczema rashes, among others.”
If the pesticide classification has you feeling a little hesitant to learn more, don’t worry. A 2016 report assures that unlike agrochemical pesticides that are known for their highly dangerous side effects, neem oil is considered a botanical pesticide, much like many other essential oils. Downie adds, however, that because it is a pesticide, it is banned in Canada and the U.K., so if you find products that claim to contain neem oil in these regions, be cautious and do your research to understand exactly what's going on your skin.
Benefits of Neem Oil for Acne
Most studies examining the benefits of neem oil have been performed in vitro or on animals, so human research is limited. However, our experts suggest that its components may make it a beneficial acne treatment.
- Kills bacteria and fungus: "Neem oil has antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory benefits–all good properties to look for to combat acne," says Lu and Fu. "However, no studies have been conducted that have tested this ingredient topically to treat acne. Based on the data we can gather, we’d say it’s a good ingredient to complement your acne product, but not one to replace." Guanche agrees: "A common complication with oily skin is that too much oil can clog pores and cause pimples," she explains. "Given the myriad of benefits contained within neem oil, it may actually help prevent breakouts thanks to its antibacterial properties, and reduce the appearance of breakouts as it is anti-inflammatory." Which bring us to our next point…
- Reduces inflammation: The anti-inflammatory effects of neem oil are particularly helpful when healing inflammatory acne, as it slows down the body’s response to react to acne-causing bacteria. A little science background: The condition of acne occurs when too much sebum—or oil—is produced by the sebaceous glands that rest at the ends of each of our pores. If these glands are pumping too much oil through the pores, it can become clogged. The acne symptoms start to form when debris, like dead skin cells, also get stuck in the pores and the combination forms bacteria called P. acnes. Inflammatory acne occurs when the body recognizes this bacteria and sends white blood cells to attack it, much like it would in the event of a cold or a cut, in an effort to heal the area. By curbing the body’s inflammatory response, breakouts can be less prevalent and may not pop up at all if neem oil is used as a regular part of your skincare routine, even if you already have oily skin.
- Fights free radicals: A 2016 study found that azadirachtin and nimbolide, which are both found in neem oil, fight and and reduce free radicals that are harmful to the health of the skin. This can be especially helpful for anyone struggling to reduce the appearance of acne scars or the hyperpigmentation that results form scarring, as antioxidants can repair the skin’s cells.
How to Apply Neem Oil
Neem oil itself can be applied fairly easily, much like any oil-based skin treatment. Look for bottles labeled "cold pressed" and "organic," as these are the highest of quality. "It’s best to buy neem oil products intended for face use," explain Lu and Fu. "These products will be diluted down to the right level for topical application."
"To apply neem oil, you should use a cotton swab or cotton ball," Downie instructs. As with any skincare item, be sure to start with a clean complexion, and apply your products in the most effective order: The general rule of thumb here is to work from the thinnest to thickest formulas, with products designed to treat specific skin health issues fitting somewhere right around the middle of the routine. As neem oil can be found in facial washes, serums, moisturizers, and masks, you’ll want to follow the order of operations according to the specific product you’re using, and always be sure to read and follow the application instructions listed on your products to get the best results.
As with anything we put on our skin or in our bodies, there is a possibility for side effects. If you apply neem oil to the skin to treat acne, the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center warns that irritation like dryness or the development of a rash may form. “Side effects can be itching, burning, and redness—the same things it may treat," Downie says. If you notice an adverse effect on your skin after you’ve applied neem oil, you could try diluting the facial oil with a non comedogenic carrier oil, like almond oil. "Before using neem oil, a patch test on the arm should be done first to assess for possible allergic reaction," Guanche adds. "If there is not an adverse reaction, redness, or swelling within 24 hours of application, it should be safe to apply to other areas of the body."
Although the benefits of neem oil have been used for centuries, clinical studies conducted to confirm the efficacy of this potent ingredient are still fairly limited, which is why many people outside of the holistic or ayurvedic community may hesitate to recommend it for everyone. "I am not strongly recommending products that contain neem oil because I need to see clinical trials and more science and effectiveness before I jump on board," Downie adds. If you think neem oil may be able to improve the condition of your skin, however, consult your doctor or dermatologist to get more information about whether it might be right for you, and stick to brands that "are pure and do not irritate your skin," suggests Guanche.