Essential Oils, Plant Extracts and Acne
Essential oils and other plant extracts have been used since ancient times in the treatment of disease and other disorders. Many of the biologically active molecules and compounds in well known plants have been characterized and studied. Indeed, a significant number of effective pharmaceuticals are derived from naturally occurring plant sources.
Ethnobotanists continue to scour the globe and investigate the medicinal practices of indigenous cultures in search of new compounds for treatments to improve human health. In this section we cover many of the commonly available essential oils and other plant extracts that have utility in the treatment of acne.
Essential oil is a volatile and often aromatic hydrophobic liquid (oil) derived from plants, usually through steam distillation. Essential oil contains many of the compounds that comprise a plant’s natural defense against bacteria. In this overview, we look at some comprehensive research that compares the antibacterial activity of many types of essential oils, with a focus on activity against Propionibacterium acnes.
Tea tree oil is probably the most commonly recommended essential oil for use in treating acne. Tea tree oil is isloated from the leaves of the Tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia), which is native to western Australia. The oil contains several biologically active terpine family molecules which are potent antibacterialand anti-fungal agents. Tea tree oil is one of the most studied and regulated essential oils used for medicinal purposes.
A plant well known for the soothing qualities of it’s tea, chamomile is also the source of a commonly used essential oil. Essential oil is generally produced from either German Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) or Roman Chamomile (Anthemis nobilis) and has a light, fruity aroma. There is some research that indicates that components found within these essential oils may possess antiseptic and antibacterial properties. It is occasionally prescribed in naturopathy for the treatment of acne. It is important to test for sensitivity to chamomile oil prior to use as some people can have severe allergic reactions to this essential oil.
Most often distilled from the Blue Gum Eucalyptus Tree (Eucalyptus globulus), eucalyptus essential oil is a well researched product whose active components are used in a variety of OTC preparations, such as cough drops. The primary component of eucalyptus essential oil is cineole (eucalyptol), a molecule that has potent antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties. Eucalyptus oil is usually well tolerated, but is usually diluted for topical treatments of acne. It has a pungent camphor like scent.
Lavender oil is a very popular essential oil that is used in a wide range of soaps, shampoos and cosmetics. It has a light and pleasant floral aroma and is generally well tolerated. The essential oil is derived from the flowers of the lavender plant. The major components of lavender oil are linalool and linalyl acetate, but lavender oil contains a wide range of phytochemicals, many of which are also components of other essential oils, such as tea trea oil and camphor oil.
The essential oils of lemon and orange are distilled from the rinds of the fruit. These essential oils are what give citrus fruits their characteristic scent. The primary component of citrus essential oils is a small molecule, D-limonene. D-limonene is used in a range of products to impart a citrus aroma. It is also a very effective solvent, and is used increasingly as a biodegradable cleaning agent. In the naturopathic treatment of acne, citrus oils are often an important component of essential oil blends and can help improve the penetrative qualities of topical preparations.
Thyme oil is a powerful essential oil that has a long history as an antiseptic, antibacterial and antifungal agent. Originally used in the traditional medicine of the Native Americans and others, the primary component of thyme oil, thymol, is the active ingredient in the mouthwash listerine. Pungently aromatic, thyme oil should be diluted before use, as the concentrated oil can be very irritating to the skin.
Held in high regard by many cultures, high demand and relative rarity combine to make true sandalwood essential oils quite expensive. With a distinctive and pleasant aroma, sandalwood oil has long been an important part of Ayurvedic medicine, with applications both for physical and mental disorders. The primary component of sandalwood oil are a group of related molecules known as sesquiterpenic alcohols. Some research indicates that these compounds have both anti-viral and antibacterial activity.
Clove oil is derived from the clove plant (Syzygium aromaticum) and has been extensively used in both western and traditional medicine. Clove oil is a potent analgaesic and antiseptic and was once used extensively in dentistry as a numbing and disinfecting agent. In naturopathic medicine, clove oil is used as extensively in treatments for respiratory diseases and skin diseases, such as acne. The primary component of clove oil is eugenol, a molecule that is also found in nutmeg and cinnamon. Recent research has indicated that eugenol is highly toxic to P. acnes, the bacteria commonly involved in acne infections.
Ylang ylang essential oil is distilled from the flowers of the Perfume Tree (Cananga odorata). Due to its pungent sweet and floral aroma, Ylang ylang is used extensively in aromatherapy and perfumery applications. In naturopathic medicine, Ylang ylang is often added to topical preparations and is believed to help normalize sebum secretions. While the science behind that claim is quite limited, the essential oil of Ylang ylang does contain a number of terpene family molecules which are known to be effective antibacterial agents.
Essential oil can be distilled from a wide variety of strains in the mint family. Mint essential oil is used extensively in a number of applications, from flavoring agents to aromatherapy. The primary component in mint essential oil is menthol, a small organic molecule with a wide variety of applications. Menthol has analgesic properties and generates a cooling sensation upon topical use. In addition, menthol is a vasodilator which can increase blood flow to the area of application. In naturopathic medicine, menthol is often used as a cough suppressant and as a topical analgaesic. In the treatment of acne, it is most often used in a complementary role along with other essential oils.
Rose essential oil, which is derived by distillation or carbon dioxide extraction from rose petals, is widely used in the perfume and cosmetics industry. High quality rose oil can be very expensive and many preparations that claim to be rose oil are actually blends of other similar oils. Rose oil is frequently used in aromatherapy and as a skin rejuvenating agent, but there is little research or evidence to suggest an effective role for rose oil in the treatment of acne.
Rose Hip Seed Oil
Rose seed oil is derived from the seeds found within rose hips. Rose hip seed oil is used frequently in naturopathic medicine for the treatment of acne. It is one of the few plants that produces significant quantities of retinoic acids, which are highly active biological molecules. Rose seed oil contains all-trans retinoic acid, also known as tretinoin, the active ingredient in Retin-A and Renova. Topical use of rose seed oil can decrease the activity of the sebaceous glands and is used to improve oily skin. Because rose seed oil contains retinoic acid, the precautions and contraindications of its use are similar to prescription topical retinoid treatments.
Carrier oils are used to dilute concentrated essential oils to their working concentration. Many essential oils can be irritating or damaging if applies in pure form.
Jojoba oil is one of the most popular carrier oils when constructing blends of essential oils for topical use. Technically speaking, jojoba oil is not actually an oil at all, but is actually a liquid wax. Refined jojoba oil is odorless and colorless and serves as a good solvent for almost all essential oils. Jojoba oil is produced from the seed of the Jojoba plant (Simmondsia chinensis), a native of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. Jojoba oil is useful in preparing naturopathic treatments for acne due to its limited comedogenicity.
Other popular carrier oils
Olive oil, grapeseed oil, avocado oil, coconut oil and sweet almond oil.
Additional Plant Extracts
Many other plant extracts are used in the naturopathic treatment of acne. These can be water soluble extractions or simply processed plant material.
Aloe vera extract is a very popular component in a wide variety of applications. Applied topically, aloe vera is used as a soothing agent to reduce pain and inflammation associated with sunburns and other skin irritations. It can also be taken orally for use as a digestive aid. In the naturopathic treatment of acne, aloe vera is often combined with other herbs in water based topical salves to decrease redness and swelling and to normalize sebum secretions. Aloe vera extract contains a number of active ingredients, including a range of polysaccharides, lectins and mannans.
White Willow Extract
Extracts from white willow bark have been used to reduce pain and inflammation since the time of Hippocrates, in 500 BC. White willow extract contains significant amounts of salicin, a close relative of the widely used pain reliever aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid). In naturopathic medicine, white willow extract is often combined with water based topical mixtures and masks to help decrease inflammation and pain associated with inflammatory acne.
Witch hazel astringent is sold in most drugstores and supermarkets. Extracted from Winterbloom, a deciduous shrub native to the United States, witch hazel was an integral part of several Native American medicinal treatments. The extract contains a blend of biological molecules that have antibacterial, anti-fungal and anti-oxidant activity. In addition, witch hazel induces a contraction of dilated blood vessels, which can be helpful in decreasing redness and swelling. Witch hazel is commonly used in naturopathic medicine for the treatment of acne.
Papaya and Mango Extracts
Papaya and mango are two tropical fruits that possess many properties that make them useful in naturopathic medicine. Both contain high levels of anti-oxidants and other important phytochemicals. But what makes them especially unique and useful, is the high levels of protease enzymes present in their fruit. In both naturopathic and more mainstream applications, papaya and mango juices and extract are used in clarifying and exfoliating masks and scrubs. The proteases are capable of breaking down old, keratinized cells at the skin surface, assisting the natural exfoliation process and improving skin clarity. It is important to use caution when working with papaya and mango, as some people are allergic, particularly to the skin of the fruit.