Listen, I’ve been putting food on my face for about as long as I can remember. Greek yogurt and honey masks, olive oil and brown sugar scrubs, green tea toners—the kitchen is a skincare wonderland for acne treatments and DIY skincare if you can’t get your hands on a pimple patch. (And as long as you use clean spoons for everything.)
There’s also some science to slapping on home made skincare: “We know that vitamins applied topically can be beneficial to the skin,” board-certified dermatologist Dr Aanard Geria told The Zoe Report, “For instance, chlorella is a form of algae known for its antioxidant benefits as well as magnesium, iron, and zinc, which all fight inflammation.” Green smoothie → green face mask.
That said, some home skincare is better than the rest, and some things you should straight up not be putting on your face at all (hello, every walnut-shell scrub ever).
Tea tree oil
Probably one of the most popular natural acne treatments, Dr Tong actually advises that this can be too irritating on spots! In fact, a lot of essential oils contain fragrance compounds like limonene, linalool, and eucalyptol which can lead to really un-fun reactions or even over-sensitising your skin with long-term use.
If you are dead-set on trying this, dilute pure tea tree oil with a skin-friendly carrier oil first (we’re talking jojoba, rosehip, marula) and patch test first.
As well as being a relatively healthy snack, greek yogurt (if you’re not sensitive to topically applied dairy lol) can actually make for a pretty soothing and mildly exfoliating face mask. The naturally occurring lactic acid is an AHA, an alpha hydroxy acid, which can gently encourage excess dead skin cells to shed, as well as being quite moisturising.
Another one to yeet into the “too irritating” basket according to Dr Tong. Straight lemon juice is not something you want to use on acne, or anywhere on your face really. While it does contain naturally occurring Good Things (like citric acid for exfoliating and the antioxidant Vitamin C for brightening) lemon juice has also been linked to some pretty unfortunate adverse effects. Some people have ended up with burns—specific compounds in the fruit can turn into skin irritants in the sun—as well as uneven lightening of the skin in patches.
Hoe, don’t do it. Quite possibly the only thing that would make my ex-MECCA gal heart shrivel up even more than someone using straight lemon juice on their skin or not wearing sunscreen? That fucking baking soda and lemon mask/scrub thing.
Real quick chemistry lesson: skin’s pH level is between 4 and 6, leaning to the pretty acidic side, and it’s this acidity that helps your skin combat harmful bacteria, allergens and pollution, as well as maintaining moisture. Baking soda has a high pH and is alkaline. So, even diluted, can disrupt the pH of your skin and cause dryness and lead to sensitivity.
On top of that, Dr Tong notes that it’s quite gritty, and much like the cursed walnut scrub, you don’t want to be rubbing your face with anything that abrasive because you can cause microtears (literally, tiny little tears in your skin), damage in the skin, and spread that juicy acne bacteria around you face. If you are opting for a physical scrub—because I get it, scrubbing feels good—here’s what to look for and some of our faves.
Some good news! Honey is an ingredient that is relatively chill and safe to be applied topically, assuming you don’t have an allergy. “It has antibacterial properties, anti-inflammatory properties, and it nurtures the skin,” explains Neil Sadick, MD and founder of Sadick Dermatology in New York to Well+Good.
Dr Tong notes though that while there has been some research into the reparative properties of manuka honey, “it probably won’t do too much for acne.”
“Oh… I guess I could see how people might think this would work,” muses Dr Tong, “possibly because of the calcium carbonate being able to scrub or dissolve some blackheads?” Unfortunately though, for everyone who has ever crawled into the bathroom the night before a party, this one gets a ‘no’ too. It can be irritating on the skin and dry the skin out.
There’s no real evidence that it’s an effective acne treatment and there are dedicated products specifically made to put on your spots in situations like these, which actually can be super effective.
Witch hazel is a pretty common skincare item in the cabinet and Dr Tong does say this “could have a calming effect on acne, but the evidence isn’t strong.”
Further, what makes your skin feel all “clean” n tight after using witch hazel are the tannins in it, a type of antioxidant.
Tannins, apart from being a natural astringent can actually be sensitising overtime, plus witch hazel products often have an ethanol alcohol base, so not only will you be sensitive, you will be dry. [off short article: what’s the deal w alcohol in skincare] As we know, moisture is the essence of wetness and wetness is the essence of beauty. So, do not sign us up.
Apple cider vinegar
This is another one where your mileage may vary—using straight apple cider vinegar on your face could lead to some really bad results or pretty decent ones. Sejal Shah, MD, a board-certified dermatologist told Women’s Health that “while there haven’t been any scientific studies specifically evaluating apple cider vinegar for acne, the acetic acid in apple cider vinegar has both antibacterial and keratolytic properties [able to remove skin lesions, like warts or calluses].”
The problem here is ACV can vary wildly in “strength” from brand to brand (and depending on how you dilute it) and Dr Tong says that “it may be too caustic” for the kind of at-home peels people are DIY-ing.
Homemade scrubs and masks
Brown sugar, oats, honey, salt, sugar, olive oil, coffee, coconut oil—the beginnings of a delicious cake and also the classic ingredients for more DIY scrubs and masks than you can shake a konjac sponge at.
While these are unlikely to help a huge amount with acne, Dr Tong has “mostly no objections to these, especially if it makes the patient feel good.” Thanks, Dr Tong. Unfortunately, some of these ingredients can cause breakouts or potentially excessive dryness to the skin.
Does everyone know that thing where you either cut open a gel painkiller capsule or crush up ibuprofen and make a paste with water to put on a spot? Well, in much the same way ingesting the painkiller would have an anti-inflammatory effect, putting it directly on a spot can be helpful for calming an angry spot down. However, Dr Tong notes that this effect will be temporary.
Aloe vera is another skin-friendly ingredient that, sure, you can slather on your face, but will it have any effect on acne? Aloe is known for its anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and antioxidant properties and while Dr Tong says that it can improve marks such as hyperpigmentation, but there’s not very much evidence it works as an acne scar treatment.
If you’re reading this and you grew up with a mum slathering turmeric face masks on in the kitchen, your mum knows what’s up. Tumeric has antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and anti-tumour effects and applying it on the skin has shown benefits and even improvements to some skin diseases.
But specifically for acne? While there is some research that suggests curcumin (the main component of turmeric) might have some antimicrobial effects on acne causing bacteria, Dr Tong says it’s still too early for us to verify.
Delicious hot leaf juice: green tea can in fact do some good when you’re applying it to your skin (as well as drinking it). High in plant-based compounds called polyphenols, green tea has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antibiotic properties. Dr Tong also notes there is also evidence that one of these polyphenols, epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), can improve acne and oily skin—so yes, you can take my tea mug out of my warm, cosy hands.
Lead image via National Honey Board.