Why some people are plagued by pimples and others remain spot-free is still not fully understood by conventional medicine, but several factors are suspected to play a role, including family history, hormonal changes and stress. Still, the doctor’s answer to the problem is usually the same: a topical cream or gel containing retinoids, antibiotics, benzoyl peroxide or azelaic acid, or for more severe cases, oral antibiotics or retinoids. For women, oral contraceptives are also commonly prescribed. Aside from often being ineffective, these drugs come with a host of nasty side-effects, from minor skin changes such as redness, burning and peeling (seen with the topical treatments) to psychological and systemic effects, including depression and liver damage (associated with the medications taken orally). So, it’s no surprise that many acne sufferers—as well as skin scientists—are looking for better ways to manage this distressing condition. Fortunately, a number of drug-free treatments are proving to be useful weapons in the fight against acne.
- Thyme. The latest acne research suggests that the herb thyme may be better at fighting spots than the standard prescription preparations. Researchers from Leeds Metropolitan University have recently tested the effects of thyme, marigold and myrrh tinctures on the acne-causing bacteria Propionibacterium acnes in the lab. They found that, while all three herbal preparations were able to kill these bacteria after five minutes of exposure, the thyme tincture was the most effective. What’s more, thyme’s anti-bacterial effect was more potent than that of the standard concentrations of benzoyl peroxide—the active ingredient in many acne creams and gels. The tincture was not tested on human skin, however, and the results have yet to be published. But these initial findings, recently presented at the Society for General Micro-biology’s Spring Conference in Dublin, suggest that thyme may have an important role to play in the development of future acne treatments. If you’re keen to try thyme tincture for yourself, be sure to consult a qualified herbalist.
- Tea tree oil. Derived from the Australian myrtle tree Melaleuca alternifolia, tea tree oil is another natural antibacterial that may help to beat acne. It proved to be just as effective as benzoyl peroxide in one trial. Both a 5-per-cent tea tree oil gel and a 5-per-cent benzoyl peroxide lotion significantly improved mild-to-moderate acne in a group of 124 sufferers. Tea tree oil, however, had fewer side-effects (Med J Aust, 1990; 153: 455–8). More recently, a study of 60 acne sufferers showed that tea tree oil gel was significantly more effective than a placebo at reducing spot numbers and severity (Indian J Dermatol Venereol Leprol, 2007; 73: 22–5).
- Ayurvedic herbs. An Indian trial of the Ayurvedic herb guggul (Commiph-ora mukul) against the antibiotic tetracycline in 20 people with cystic acne found that, after three months of twice-daily treat-ment, both treatment groups saw a similar, significant reduction in spots. However, guggul outperformed tetra-cycline in those who had particularly oily faces (J Dermatol, 1994; 21: 729–31). In another Indian study that used both topical and oral Ayurvedic herbal extracts of Aloe barbadensis (Aloe vera), Azardirachta indica (neem), Curcuma longa (turmeric), Hemidesmus indicus (Indian sarsparilla), Terminalia chebu-la (yellow myrobalan) and Withania somnifera (ashwa-ganda), all were found to work against acne (J Ethnopharmacol, 2001; 78: 99–102).
- Green tea extract. This has been getting some attention as a potential acne treatment. Green tea contains potent anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds called ‘catechins’, such as epigallo-catechin-3-gallate (EGCG), which may be beneficial to the skin. In a study by University of Miami researchers, 20 acne patients were given a 2-per-cent green-tea lotion to apply to their skin twice-daily for six weeks. The number of acne lesions decreased by more than half over the course of the study. Acne severity was also improved (J Drugs Dermatol, 2009; 8: 358–64).