Waking up with an unwelcome zit is pretty much a universally frustrating experience. Acne spares no one and its causes can be anywhere from puberty and hormones to pollution and stress. If you struggled with acne during your teenage years, you may have held high hopes that adulthood would finally gift you with clearer skin—only to discover firsthand that breakouts can happen even in your 20s or 30s. The good news is, there’s a whole arsenal of anti-acne products in every beauty aisle and among the most popular ones are those that are formulated with natural ingredients.
Because acne is so common—affecting up to 50 million Americans annually—and often a challenge to treat, it has spawned a plethora of remedies that range from eyebrow-raising home cures (uh, toothpaste as spot treatment, anyone?) to professional prescriptions. But with the ever-growing green trend, more and more people are skipping synthetic chemicals and embracing natural ingredients—as evidenced by toners, cleansers and spot treatments that feature tea tree oil, charcoal and green tea, among others. But the question really is, are natural acne fixes just as effective?
To answer this all-too-important question, a little digging is in order. Here, we list the most commonly used natural acne treatments and find out if there’s enough science to back up their claims.
Several studies have shown that tea tree oil, arguably the most widely recognized natural pimple fix, is an effective cure against acne—thanks to its antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties. It significantly reduces redness and irritation, kills off acne-causing bacteria and helps unclog pores. But because of its potency, board-certified dermatologist Tsippora Shainhouse, MD, FAAD, of Rapaport Dermatology of Beverly Hills, warns against applying the concentrated oil directly to avoid irritation. “Look for more diluted products that are combined with soothing ingredients like green tea or zinc,” she suggests.
Find it in: Sunday Riley U.F.O. Ultra-Clarifying Face Oil
Clay has been used as a natural remedy since ancient times and today, you’ll find that most beauty experts swear by the benefits of clay masks. Kaolin and bentonite clay detoxify (the clay minerals act like magnets that help unblock and refine pores by attracting toxins), absorb excess oil and are great for those with sensitive or oily skin. They have also been known to have antibacterial properties, which help in reducing the spread of infection.
Another commonly used natural ingredient from the ancient world is charcoal, known for its purifying and detoxifying properties. “It’s also highly absorbent,” says Dr. Shainhouse. Aside from drawing out toxins from the pores, it can also “help sop up oil, leaving skin looking matte without feeling overly tight.”
Find it in: Eminence Balancing Masque Duo
With its antibacterial, antifungal, keratolytic and drying properties, sulfur is one of the top ingredients often used for treating acne and other skin disorders. In fact, there are several studies that prove its effectiveness. “If you can ignore the mild smell of rotten eggs, it’s a great agent for reducing redness and inflammation in the skin, as well as killing some acne-causing bacteria,” says Dr. Shainhouse.
Find it in: Emuaid Overnight Acne Treatment
Research has shown that there is a strong connection between gut flora and skin health, which makes including probiotics in our diet all the more important. When used topically—such as in masks, creams and cleansers—they can also have numerous benefits (they form a protective shield over skin and they have antibacterial and calming properties), especially in treating acne and rosacea, according to a report by the American Academy of Dermatology.
Find it in: Eminence Organic Clear Skin Probiotic Cleanser
Glycolic, citric and other fruit acids are known for their astringent and exfoliating properties, which means they are great in drying out skin irritations like acne and tightening and unclogging pores (they’re common ingredients in peeling masks and treatments). Salicylic acid, a popular over-the-counter medication for acne, is also abundant in fruits like tomato, berries, grapes and avocado.
Find it in: Juice Beauty Blemish Clearing Toner Pads
We all know licorice as candy, but not many know of its medicinal uses that date as far back to ancient China. Study shows that it contains antimicrobial, antifungal and antiviral properties, which makes it effective in inhibiting the spread of infection. As a potent anti-androgenic compound, licorice has been shown to decrease testosterone levels, which in turn lessens sebaceous gland activity. While decreased testosterone may sound alarming for men, topical use of licorice extract reduces the risk of side effects.
Find it in: REN ClearCalm 3 Replenishing Gel Cream
Witch hazel leaves and bark contain up to 10 percent tannins, an organic compound that acts as a natural astringent and helps dry out pimples and refine pores (making witch hazel a top choice for natural toners, cleansers, mists and treatment gels). It’s also shown to have soothing, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, restricting acne infection and alleviating redness.
Find it in: Dr.Hauschka Facial Toner
Known for its calming and spiritual benefits, sage is the go-to plant when it comes to cleansing and purifying a space, but it does more than keep the bad vibes away. According to experts, sage has an abundance of compounds with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits, which makes it an essential acne cure. It also prevents dryness and shields the skin from free radical damage.
Find it in: Juice Beauty Blemish Clearing Cleanser
As a natural ingredient, the versatile green tea is everywhere. It’s often credited for a number of benefits that include weight loss, anti-aging and even protection against skin cancer. When it comes to skin care, studies show that green tea has significant benefits for skin conditions like acne, rosacea and atopic dermatitis, among others. There’s also evidence that it significantly reduces the skin’s oil production, while its anti-inflammatory properties are proven to be effective against mild to moderate acne cases.
Willow bark is another natural source of salycilic acid, which “helps to dry up inflamed acne lesions, exfoliate skin and unclog pores,” says Dr. Shainhouse. “It helps to remove oil from greasy, acne-prone skin, leaving pores appearing temporarily smaller.” Research also shows that aside from its potent anti-acne benefits, willow bark extract—often infused in toners, face washes and treatment creams—has the ability to increase antioxidant enzymes and reduce oxidative stress.
Find it in: Eminence Clear Skin Willow Bark Booster-Serum