Dermatologists weigh in on DIY acne treatments

When it comes to natural remedies for any ailment, it can be tough to know what's real and what is going to be a waste of money at best, or dangerous at worst! Acne is no exception. Just Googling DIY treatments for acne left me with more questions than answers. That is why I am so grateful that so many experienced dermatologists agreed to share their expertise when it comes to natural acne treatments.

First, it's crucial to know what is causing your acne before choosing a treatment. "Acne is full of misunderstandings and home treatments," Dr. Jonathan Wolfe of Einstein Healthcare Network in Philadelphia told me. "First, knowing what is true and what is not can help figure out what is best used to treat your skin." Dr. Wolfe explained that the typical culprits we hear about, like chocolate, greasy foods, and stress, have little effect on acne. However, diets high in dairy and carbohydrates can contribute to an acne problem.

Always be cautious

Just because a treatment is "natural" does not mean it is effective or even safe. It's important to be cautious when making your own acne treatment. "While one or two may actually help, I don't recommend any DIY acne treatments," Dr. Janet Prystowsky, board certified dermatologist and founder of Livad Skincare in Manhattan, N.Y., told me. "There is too little research and too much guesswork behind the claims." Dr. Prystowsky explained that if some of these DIY treatments were so effective, we should see research backing them up. However, there isn't a lot of evidence out there. If you have any doubts about a particular treatment, run it past your doctor first.

Start with an OTC treatment

Most of the dermatologists I spoke with recommended trying an over-the-counter (OTC) acne treatment before mixing up your own. They explained that these solutions can be very effective and cost-efficient. "The single most effective DIY or OTC measure is using a benzyl peroxide wash, available without prescription in a 5% strength," Dr. Sharyn Laughlin, board certified dermatologist at Laserderm and founder of Cyberderm, told me. "You may have to get it from behind the counter through the pharmacist. A 10 percent concentration is usually by prescription only."

Aspirin

If the OTC meds aren't doing the trick, there are some natural ideas. If you're looking to make a great spot treatment for one or two pimples, grab a bottle of aspirin next time you're at the pharmacy. The main ingredient in aspirin is salicylic acid, which is the same ingredient found in many acne creams.

"Crush one aspirin in water and make a paste," Debra Jaliman, MD, a New York City-based dermatologist and the author of Skin Rules, told Health. "Apply the paste directly to the pimple with a cotton swab and leave on for 10 minutes."

Argan oil

There are also many essential oils that can help. This may sound counterintuitive, since acne is caused by an excess of oil, but don't be scared off. Many of the dermatologists I spoke with recommended oils, such as argan oil.

"Add argan oil to your nightly skincare regimen one to two times per week," Manhattan dermatologist Dhaval Bhanusali, MD, FAAD, told me. "Even though it is an oil, it regulates sebum protection and actually helps prevent breakouts (and is an amazing moisturizer)."

Honey and tumeric

Honey has been called a natural acne treatment because it can help kill the bacteria that causes acne. "A reasonable home remedy is a paste of turmeric and honey applied as a spot treatment to lesions," says Dr. Laughlin. "The anti-inflammatory components of turmeric with the anti-microbial benefits of honey make this a rational treatment to deal with two of the factors." No tumeric on hand? No problem; try substituting cinnamon instead. "Honey and cinnamon can also lower bacteria and have been used in a mask-like form to lower skin bacteria," says Dr. Wolfe.

Tea tree oil

Another essential oil getting a lot of attention for its effect on acne is tea tree oil, but you need to use it correctly. "Tea tree oil can be an effective way of treating acne since it is an antiseptic," Dr. Wolfe told me. "Combining it with coconut oil can be an effective drying agent for pimples."

Because tea tree oil is antiseptic, it will take care of those bacteria causing issues on your skin.

It could also help with the inflammation. "Tea tree oil is a mild antiseptic and mild anti-inflammatory," Jessica Krant, MD, board-certified dermatologist and assistant clinical professor of dermatology at SUNY Downstate Medical Center, told Health. "Leave it on for a few hours or overnight."

While tea tree oil has been found to be effective on acne, it can be dangerous if taken incorrectly. "Tea tree oil may be as effective as benzoyl peroxide but it should only be used topically," NYC dermatologist and director of the New York Laser & Skin Care Arielle N.B. Kauvar, MD told me. "Some people develop an allergic rash to tea tree oil. When taken orally, it can cause toxicity to the nervous system, decrease in white blood cells, stomach and intestinal disorders, and growth of breast tissue in boys. It is also toxic to the eyes and ears." When applying your tea tree oil, just be careful to apply a thin layer to skin and avoid your eyes, ears, nose, and mouth.

Green tea oil

Green tea oil has also been found to be helpful for clearing up acne. You could buy an over-the-counter acne product that already has the extract in it. "Green tea extract lotion has been shown to reduce acne," says Dr. Kauvar.

Check with your pharmacist for a lotion that contains green tea powder or extract. "A lotion of two percent green tea extract helped reduce acne in two studies of adolescents and young adults with mild to moderate acne," Dr. Brent Bauer, MD told Mayo Clinic.

Apple cider vinegar

There are many natural acne savers that you may already have in your cabinet. One of them is apple cider vinegar. "Scientifically, the use of apple cider vinegar (which can lower skin bacteria by changing the pH of your skin) can help," explains Dr. Wolfe.

Apple cider vinegar can be used as an all-over toner to both clear up and prevent acne. There are plenty of testimonials online from people who can't stop raving about their results from this kitchen staple.

"I don't mean to sound like a commercial, but that apple cider vinegar toner changed my skin," wellness blogger Erica Scime told Mind Body Green. "After just a couple weeks my skin was softer, my pores were smaller, my scars were faded, my skin tone was the most even it had ever been, and there wasn't a pimple to be found on my face. Not to mention the fact that my apple cider vinegar toner was natural, organic and made from one ingredient that I already had in my kitchen cupboard."

Ice

An acne issue usually has several components, and one of them is inflammation. When your skin becomes inflamed, it looks red and swollen, like that pimple that shows up just in time for your sister's wedding. A sure-fire way to get rid of inflammation is using ice. "Wrap an ice cube in a washcloth and hold it on the pimple for a minute," Dr. Jaliman told Health. "It will vasoconstrict the blood vessels and take down the redness and swelling." While this won't get rid of the blemish completely, it will make it less noticeable.

Hit the produce aisle

There are many fruits high in vitamin C that could be helpful when used directly on your skin. "Papaya, which is in many over the counter products on the market today, is an all natural acne remedy that removes dead skin cells and excessive oil from the skin," says Dr. Wolfe. "Some have used Vitamin C in a peel paste for similar reasons."

While a little fruit on your face seems like a harmless remedy to try, make sure you're being careful to avoid any fruits that are too acidic. This acidity will be irritating to your skin. "The one that makes me cringe most: applying lime juice to pimples," explains Dr. Bhanusali. "You can actually get a photosensitive reaction from sunlight and the lime, which can cause blistering and even scarring. I saw this a few years ago with a patient who applied the juice to her pimples and then went outside. It took a long time and lots of treatment to get her back to baseline."

Mix up your own mask

Rebecca Lee, a registered nurse from New York City and founder of Remedies for Me, recommends making your own natural face masks to fight acne. Lee uses a variety of ingredients you can find at your local grocery store. She prefers a combination of food products and natural oils. One mask combines lemon for its astringent properties, sugar for a gentle exfoliant, and green tea powder. "Green tea powder is an antioxidant powerhouse," Lee told me. "It also acts as an anti-microbial agent and decreases inflammation."

Egg whites

Next up on the list of grocery store secrets is egg whites. "Egg whites are an age-old beauty secret," Dr. Krant told Health. "The protein and vitamins in egg whites help to tighten and draw oils out of the skin, which may help unclog pores and reduce inflammation." To avoid being exposed to salmonella or other diseases from raw eggs, look for pasteurized egg whites in a carton. You'll get the same benefits without contaminating your kitchen counter.

No harsh soaps or scrubs

The dermatologists I spoke with were all very clear when it came to overwashing your face: don't do it! When we wash too much, we're taking away good oils from our skin. When this happens, our skin senses that it is too dry and makes a lot more oil to compensate, causing acne. "Avoid over-cleansing or scrubbing. Use a gentle cleanser and wash twice daily," says Dr. Kauvar. "Don't scrub your skin or use harsh soaps. Irritation can cause inflammation and further aggravate acne."

Stick to a once-a-day washing schedule, and make sure to avoid soaps with harsh ingredients or particles in them. "Harsh scrubs containing physical particles like sugar, salt , and abrasive materials that cause physical exfoliation should be avoided," says Dr. Laughlin. "It is a blind approach, since it removes surface cells — both the dead or ready to be exfoliated, and healthy and living cells."

Too much of a good thing

While all of these natural remedies could be helpful, remember that you can always have too much of a good thing. Overdoing them can have the opposite effect you're going for. "Anything used in excess can cause more problems than benefits when it comes to home acne remedies," says Dr. Wolfe. "Compounds like banana peels, sodium bicarbonate, lemon juice, steam baths, [and] garlic can irritate the skin and should be used with caution." Pay attention to how your skin feels when you're trying these treatments. Any burning or irritation is a sign that it's time to stop.

Forget the Windex

If a DIY acne remedy sounds too odd or harsh for your skin, steer clear. "Many folk remedies are best avoided. Spot treatment with toothpaste or Windex (popularized by the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding) is too harsh and drying," explains Dr. Laughlin. "This may damage the skin, and the resulting inflammatory response can lead to a brown spot or scar." Remember that your skin is an organ. Would you spray your heart with Windex?

The basics work

When it comes to natural remedies, it's often the simple ones that we forget. First, if you've been dealing with a new acne problem, make sure you're washing your makeup off each and every night. "Have makeup wipes near your bed — it's one of the most common reasons why women breakout," says Dr. Bhanusali. "The makeup clogs the pores and leads to tough breakouts. They are especially tough in our actress patients given the use of production makeup."

Once you wash your face, make sure it's hitting a clean surface every night. "Clean your pillowcase and sheets. Daily pollutants, dead skin cells, and oils can gather on your beddings," explains Rebecca Lee. "Daily contact with your skin and your dirty pillowcases can irritate your gentle skin, while clogging pores."

Be careful

Any blemish on your skin is a lesion, which means your skin or barrier is broken. So whatever substance you put on your pimple, you're putting into your body. Because you're mixing up your own DIY treatments, it's impossible to keep the mixture completely clean. "Since many of these recipes use kitchen and household ingredients, it's very possible to contaminate your recipe," says Dr. Prystowsky. "Some ingredients, like raw eggs, are particularly dangerous to use. You don't want to save $5 in the beauty aisle, only to pay $200 at the doctor."

When to see the doc

If you are just not able to manage your acne, whether with over the counter or DIY treatments, it is time to see your dermatologist. Save yourself some time and go directly to the expert. If it's been more than six weeks of trying your own treatments, Dr. Kauvar recommends scheduling an appointment with your dermatologist.

Dr. Sharyn Laughlin recommends seeing a doctor if you've noticed any scarring from your acne. No OTC or DIY remedy will help with scars, so it's best to see a dermatologist right away.

What to expect

When you go to the dermatologist, expect to answer questions about when the acne started, what seems to make it better, and what you've tried so far. Your physician will most likely look at three options. "Acne can be treated in three ways," Dr. Neal Schultz, a NYC dermatologist, host of DermTV.com and creator of BeautyRx by Dr. Schultz, told me. "First, with these topical products; second, with oral medications which are usually prescribed by your dermatologist, such as antibiotics, birth control pills or even Accutane; lastly, by actually physically cleaning the pores, and cleaning the clogs out, and that's usually performed by a facialist or by the dermatologist."

If you've been battling with that pesky acne, just remember, there are plenty of options to try!