Safflower Oil Is a Secret Weapon for Fighting Acne

Swatches of a light yellow oil on a pink background.

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When it comes to acne-fighting ingredients, big names such as salicylic acid, retinol, and benzoyl peroxide are the first to come to mind. And rightly so—these are undoubtedly some of the most effective players in the space. But there's another natural, versatile ingredient that may be worth incorporating into your quest for clear skin—safflower oil.

We know what you're thinking: Oil? As an acne-fighter? Sure, a plant-based oil is great for moisturizing, but how can it help combat blemishes? Here, Dr. Alicia Zalka, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in Connecticut and founder of Surface Deep, and Kim Walls, a product formulator and founder of BEB Organic, explain how safflower oil can do exactly that—and much more.

Safflower Oil

Type of ingredient: Plant-based oil

Main benefits: Moisturizes the skin and is rich in protective antioxidants. It also has anti-inflammatory effects and helps promote wound healing says Zalka, who adds that it can help reduce the size of blackheads and whiteheads as well.

Who should use it: It's very well-tolerated and non-comedogenic, so pretty much anyone can use it.

Works well with: Zalka says it pairs especially well with vitamin C, another potent antioxidant.

Don't use with: There are no known interactions; Walls says it works well with nearly every other skincare ingredient.

What Is Safflower Oil?

"Safflower, aka Carthamus tinctorius, is a flowering plant known as the '4,000-year-old herb,'" says Zalka. It has a long history of varied uses, including for culinary purposes (safflower oil is widely considered to be one of the healthiest oils you can cook with), as a dye for textiles (thanks to the oil's rich, yellow-orange-red tone), and skincare. Safflower oil specifically is made from cold-pressing the seeds of the flower, she says.

Benefits of Safflower Oil for Skin

There's (obviously) no shortage of plant-based skincare oils out there, each with its own particular list of pros and cons. That being said, safflower oil has some unique features that help it stand out from the rest of the crowd. "Safflower is one of a very few oils that, as a stand-alone ingredient, has a beneficial fatty acid composition for the skin," says Walls. "If cold-pressed and processed properly, safflower oil has a higher level of antioxidant and antimicrobial properties than many other oils commonly used in skincare."

  • Has antioxidant properties: These come from both the vitamin E naturally found in safflower oil, as well as unique flavonoids. Zalka cites a 2020 study published in the Journal of Microbiology and Biotechnology that found that, more specifically, safflower seed oil helps inhibit damage caused by exposure to UVB rays. And that's a major win not only for the general health of the skin but also the appearance of the skin—the research found safflower seed oil to be effective at inhibiting UVB-induced photo-aging by minimizing the effects of an enzyme that breaks down collagen. Long story short, safflower oil has anti-aging benefits, too.
  • Is a natural anti-fungal and antimicrobial: Research indicates that these properties, combined with safflower oil's wound-healing effects, can be helpful in treating skin injuries. These attributes are a major plus when it comes to helping address acne.
  • Delivers moisture to the skin: Further expanding on Walls's point about safflower oil's unique composition, it contains a combination of omega 3, 6, and 9 fatty acids—linoleic acid, alpha-linolenic acid, and oleic acid, respectively. Each of these is great for the skin in its own right, but the trio is what makes safflower oil so deeply moisturizing, soothing, and anti-inflammatory, notes Zalka. Plus, along with all of the unique healing benefits, safflower oil can just generally make your skin feel better, adds Walls.
  • Offers varied benefits for acneic skin: All of the above benefits combined make safflower oil a major win for those battling breakouts. First and foremost, it's considered non-comedogenic, so there's less concern for clogged pores, notes Zalka. The antibacterial effects are helpful, of course, while the anti-inflammatory properties can help quell or reduce skin redness, she adds. And while those are great attributes for those with large, inflamed blemishes, safflower oil can also be a good option for those dealing with blackheads and whiteheads as well. This is due to one of safflower oil's more unique distinguishing features, an extremely high amount of linoleic acid—around 70 percent. "This is arguably the 'hero' component for acne prevention, as safflower oil may help in reducing the size of blackheads and whiteheads," says Zalka.

How to Use Safflower Oil

The big caveat with safflower oil is that the quality matters—a lot. As Walls mentioned, it needs to be in the purest form possible, meaning cold-processed and minimally-processed. "The key to getting the most benefit from safflower oil is to ensure it isn’t processed into something that nature never intended it be," she says, adding that seeking out organic safflower oil is also a good idea.

To that point, both experts we spoke with suggest looking for straight-up safflower oil and applying two to three drops directly to the skin (versus using skincare products where it's mixed with other ingredients). It does tend to be fairly inexpensive and easily accessible, notes Zalka, which is always a win. Ideally, safflower oil should be stored in a dark, opaque bottle to ward off light-induced degradation.

Side Effects

Both experts underscore the fact that safflower oil is generally very well-tolerated. That being said, an allergic reaction is always possible. Walls suggests avoiding it if you have an allergy to chrysanthemum, marigold, daisies, or related plants, as you might also have an allergy to safflower. When in doubt, Zalka says you can always do a patch test: Apply a dime-sized amount to the inside of your wrist and monitor the skin for any signs of reaction for 24 to 48 hours. It also bears mentioning that safflower oil may reduce clotting in some individuals, likely due to the high vitamin E content, says Zalka. As such, anyone with a known clotting disorder or who is taking anticoagulants should use it with caution.

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