Got Acne? Put Oil On It


The best treatment I've ever found for cystic acne (besides, you know, isotretinoin) is actually oil. Which I know sounds counterintuitive, because oil = acne, right? Not so, my friends. In fact, you can have extremely oily, completely clear skin. And plenty of people with very dry skin break out all the time. A pimple might have a ton of oil in it, but that's just because it's clogged, not because the oil actually created the problem. Acne is actually caused by bacteria (which are, in turn, often multiplying as a result of skin changes caused by the release of hormones), which is why antibiotics can often clear it up.

I highly encourage anyone whose skin is bothering them to visit a dermatologist, but if you don't want to/can't go the prescription route, here are a couple natural alternatives that work:

Neem Oil

This hydrating, gentle anti-inflammatory/antimicrobial plant extract can be a huge help if you have cystic acne and/or dry, sensitized skin. Neem isn't exactly news to the rest of the world—in India, it's a drugstore staple right beside witch hazel and aspirin—but it's only recently become readily available in the US.

As far as I can tell, neem's only problem is its scent. The undiluted oil smells like a burned-diesel-fuel-and-peanut-butter smoothie. But here's the thing: there's no reason to stick with undiluted neem; it's effective even at low percentages. I love Evan Healy Neem Immortelle Purifying Infusion, which is herbal but not aggressive, and I've also experimented with adding a drop of pure neem to my moisturizer. And perhaps most serendipitously of all, another acne-fighter you've probably already heard of completely cuts the scent of neem. Which brings us to...

Tea Tree Oil

Perhaps the most popular acne-killing oil, tea tree is very effective and also, very, very aggressive (it's toxic if taken internally, so don't drink it). Some people can use it undiluted and have great results; I'm not one of them, hence mixing it with neem oil. It's amazing stuff, though—highly antiseptic, quick-absorbing, and just as effective as benzoyl peroxide (the literature suggests that it works more slowly than benzoyl, but is also less irritating for skin). People will tell you that tea tree oil cures all manner of stuff, but if we're being pragmatic it's only proven to kill bacteria and fungi without drying skin as much as the usual OTC medications—which is still pretty impressive.

Emu Oil

I'm a vegetarian, so this isn't something on my to-try list, but I felt as though I should mention it because A) this is a site for everyone, and I respect that most other people don't feel the same way about animal products I do. And B) like Viviscal—another product I won't be trying because it's animal-based—emu oil really does appear to work. I've heard other people raving about the difference it makes for cystic acne, and studies suggest that it acts as an anti-inflammatory and promotes wound healing, which might be why it's so helpful for red, compromised skin.

—Lacey Gattis

Photo by Lacey Gattis.

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  • Annelie

    Sweet! I will try tea tree oil next time. Even have a bottle somewhere after having treated...other things... with it :)

  • Sofia Caden

    I had problem skin as a teen, and my sister suffered with acne, we found that most of the drying and oil fighting products on the market only made things worse as your skin fought to hydrate itself thereby making more and more oil. Soothing problem skin with oil works well, and coconut is wonderful. Other facets are a very healthy diet and plenty of water, as well as avoiding any hormone imbalance-ing medication such as the contraceptive pill. Everything gets worse before it gets better, so you should ride out the first break out and push through until the skin starts healing itself

  • Nikki

    Jojoba Oil has also been a miraculous method in ridding my skin of cystic breakouts-and with a touch of Neroli, it has lightened some of the scarring as well.

  • Misia Galka

    I've been using diluted tea tree oil (20% strength in jojoba or avocado oil) for the past month and have steered clear of my prescription BZ cream and I'm loving my skin. If a new blemish does appear I can have it gone in about two days without ever coming through the skin. I do have some red marks though but am about to start trying tamanu oil which is apparently incredible for pigmentation. I would advise anyone who has yet to try TTO on their skin to dilute it in a carrier oil, I burnt my skin once badly without diluting first - will never do that again! Thanks for these great posts Lacey!

    • Roberta Barros

      rosehip oil is also very good for pigmentation, and is anti-aging as well.

    • Ragan

      What kind of avocado oil do you use?

    • Rachel LC

      I second the tamanu oil, with the caveat that I also recommend using it with a carrier oil (I typically use jojoba or rosehip), as it can be fairly drying. That said, I'm seeing great results with pigmentation and quicker healing when I do get minor breakouts.

  • Morgan Ryan

    What about coconut oil?

    • lcrumbs

      It isn't the best option for acne-prone skin. There are really mixed results - it works well for some people and causes others to break out really horribly. Personally I use it as a moisturizer on the dry spots around my nose but I wouldn't recommend using as a spot treatment. I know coconut oil is quite popular online right now but it isn't good for everybody.

  • Tori

    One note about neem oil-avoid if pregnant! Traditionally it's used to aid in preventing pregnancy, there's some debate but I don't think it's worth risking. Also, lavender oil I've found to be very effective for hormonal breakouts since tea tree is too harsh for my skin. Overall I use grapeseed oil am/pm---best my skin has ever looked.

    • magicmollys

      I think I just found a natural supplement to my birth control regimen!

  • Vivian Darkbloom

    Lacey, what combination/ratio of neem and tea tree oil are you using? Thanks!

  • charmystique

    Pure lavender essential oil works fab as well!

  • Serena

    Emu oil is great for piercings! That and Dr. Bronner's *baby* soap saved two piercings that I thought were goners. I got the emu oil recommendation from a safe piercing organization's "bible"; so it was not a shady recommendation.

  • spectacularviews

    If you're looking to fight oily skin with oil, you should looks for oils that are high in Linoleic acid. There's a good list here:

    Right now I'm using a mix of jojoba oil, tamanu oil, evening primrose oil, and turmeric oil. Then I add a drop of whatever essential oil I have on hand.

  • NazNYC

    I've been using tea tree oil for years and the desert essence tea tree oil cleanser. I also love their blemish touch stick (I keep it in my desk drawer at work for emergencies!)

  • Meredith

    I have so many tiny bottles of oils chillin' in my fridge. I've found this list that rates the comedogenicity of oils really helpful for finding the best ones for my skin.

  • jess

    i hate emus after being bitten by one as a kid, but the thought of putting animal fat on my face is gross. might stick with pure zinc to dry out pimples.

  • Molly Beaupre

    I have had problems with acne creams in general so I will be trying the tea tree oil and possibly the mixture. I too am curious as to what your tea tree to neem oil ratio is.

  • BeautyApocalypse

    I've had really good luck with seabuckthorn berry oil. Isn't it amazing how well oil can work on acne? Who'd a thunk it?

  • tish

    do you use the oil as a spot treatment? or all over the face like a toner?

  • Coops

    I'm interested in the Evan Healy Neem Immortelle Purifying Infusion oil - do you add that all over your face after toner? Like you would say, rosehip oil?

  • guest

    Your posts on Into The Gloss lately have been the only ones I keep coming back to for further reading/screen capping/recommendations by other readers. Thanks Lacey!

  • Sage Julia

    I love when you post about acne products! I've been suffering from the worst cystic acne--mostly cheeks and chin, for two years. I've been on THREE antiobiotics and was about to do accutane but then I started doing my own research. I do think, when it's adults (I'm 24), acne can't just be solved topically. I cut out dairy, processed foods, etc, and started taking fish oils and zinc and stuff like that. As for products, I've been using Alaffia's neem cleanser and moisturizer. Bought both from Whole Foods and I've had great results. I've only had about three tiny pimples since starting this regimen, and they went away in less than two days. Everyone's skin is different, but I just wanted to throw that out there, because I wish I had known about Alaffia sooner. The neem cleanser has shea and black soap which are both amazing for acne, and the moisturizer has the same ingredients, as well as a little bit of tea tree oil. Super hydrating but VERY anti-bacterial. They've worked really well for me but now I might try the pure neem as a spot treatment. How many people use pure neem to spot treat? I've read about people breaking out from the undiluted stuff...

  • Clever Girl Reviews

    I find Neem oil when it's at is best has a toasted cumin smell. The other smells are there but to a much lesser extent. Sounds like a Neem, Tea Tree, Honey, Yogurt, and Turmeric mask is in order!

  • Elle m

    few drops tea tree oil in your DIY yoghurt face mask= very nice.

  • Lori

    Gotta put in a good word here for castor oil. I've had cystic, Accutane-level acne my whole life and castor oil has been really helpful with my I thought this was over oh wait I'm in my thirties and still getting pimples acne.

  • Meagan

    Never having acne, when I moved to New York from Texas, and also hit the age 25, my skin freaked, and I have been battling with chin acne for the last three years. It sucks, and most topical treatments weren't working for me, so I picked up a bottle of Tea Tree Oil and have had the best results I've seen in years. I am washing my face, then exfoliating, leaving skin damp, I then apply tea tree oil directly onto chin only, and massage in. I am still working on the "right amount", but am getting results that are much better than washing alone! Thankful for this post, I will try other mixtures to nix it as much as possible, but I vouch for Tea Tree with promising results! Thanks as always ITG, the blog is a blessing

  • Pee

    Agreed! I had horrible pea-sized lumps under my skin; hulked-out cystic acne. It hurt to put my face on a pillow to sleep and I was miserable. My doctor prescribed me the contraceptive pill Dianette, which I've been on for four months, and I've noticed a massive improvement in my acne, and thankfully, haven't reacted badly to the pill (any I've tried in the past have reduced me to an emotionally imbalanced, temperamental wreck!) I haven't had any new spots and I'm using coconut oil (my favourite thing in the whole world ever) to fade the residual purple marks/acne scars!

  • Cristina

    Oily skin is what I have and it is hard for me to find an effective product to use. I am also using a Vitamin C Serum and has done wonders with my skin. Thank you for this information!

  • Carol

    I haven't tried the Osmia blend, but it sounds awesome. I believe thyme oil has also been shown to be as effective as benzoyl peroxide, so that might be part of it.

  • lola

    tea tree oil is the best toner ever

  • Alexandra

    Dr. Alkaitis Organic Nourishing Treatment Oil is incredible healer for acne and acne scars - the base has 6 organic cold pressed oils

  • Chelsea van den Berg

    I love Organic everything: skin care, make-up, food, fabric - basically everything! But being a young adult with dry/combination skin affected by persistent acne, I'm forever on the search for products to help my situation. I've almost tried everything - coconut oil, apple cider vinegar, LUSH products, lemon and honey products, tea tree oil, and to no avail my skin condition has only ever slightly improved.

    I've dabbled with my diet - gluten free and dairy free, strict vegan and still nothing helped my skin situation. I finally decided to go back to a 'normal' healthy diet eradicating unnecessary sugars found in my dairy and gluten free products (AHEM soy!). In conjunction with this diet turn-around I've started used Proactiv Sensitive, which totally contradicts my organic ethical views - but if it seems to be solving my acne woes I'm willing to give it a chance.

    My question is has anyone else had a similar experience?

    • Yin Pang

      I know you wrote that two months ago but I'm in a very similar situation but without going to Proactive. I went to prevention pills, specifically for hormone control. Turns out my hormones have been pretty out of control so I've seen a difference while keeping my organic skincare. I also really don't consume a lot of diary but drink ricemilk instead.

  • Ruby

    Seconded! We should really understand what we need, who we are as people, and really look for what works for each of us.


  • Lana

    How would I apply the neem oil?

  • Lana

    how do you find its use most effective?

  • Brooklyn Groove

    Normalizing Day Oli by Dr Hauschka my favorite oil, great for anyone who has combination- oily/dry skin.

  • Alex

    Not sure if this is available in the US (sorry!) but there's this boutique based out of New Delhi that makes an oil called kukumgadi oil. I previously tried everything for acne including tea tree oil and neem oil and nothing really worked, I then went to an ayurvedic doctor who suggested I try it. It's kinda pricy I'm not going to lie but I"ve had great results and a little goes a long way. In the past three months I've been in New York, New Delhi, and Saigon all of which have quite different climates and its worked in all three.

  • Sara

    I stand by tea tree oil. I've had chronic acne for years. I'm now nearly done with accutane but the month before I went on accutane, I was reconsidering even taking the medication because tea tree oil was really helping my skin. Biggest tip, and this may go without saying, is to TAP on the oil and never rub it in. I did the blend/rub in thing for a few months when I first got the oil and it didn't work as well but when you tap it, your skin clears up so fast.

  • Peter Gayle

    A good and helpful acne treatment for me. Really I am happy to see it here.

  • Natalie Pope

    Whatever you do, don't use coconut oil on your face, especially if you're acne prone. Caused one of the worst breakouts I've ever experienced and my derm was pretty sure coconut oil's pore clogging qualities were to blame.

  • Whitney Vesterfelt

    I've only used Argan oil and I've found it to heal and prevent zits really well too (better than any acne fighting medicine put in skincare products). I'll have to try these oils too!

  • Megi Maradona

    Great article! Indeed, I'm looking for the best solution for acne scars because this is the one of my skin problem. I will recommend this website to my family and friend. I hope you would post more new updates here in this website. See more information about acne scars at

  • Ai

    I've been using tea tree oil for about 2 months now, and this totally made my skin amazing. My skin tone is now even and looks a lot healthier. I'm really happy with the result. FYI I usually use tea tree oil with some toner :)


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