There comes a time in everyone's acne journey when they feel like throwing their hands (that are probs full of spot treatments) in the air and giving up. But don't stress—breakouts aren't the same for everybody, which means the treatment for them isn't either. So if you've tried all the classic pimple products and are lookin' to play around with some natural skincare options, let's talk about tea tree oil first.
You've probably already used an acne product that contains a bit of tea tree oil (or TTO, if you're ~cool~), but what about using straight TTO to help with your breakouts? Is it as easy as just...dabbing it on? Spoiler: Nope. So to help you out, we enlisted help from board-certified dermatologist Elyse Love, MD, to answer your Qs and bring you all the tea-tree-oil facts below.
How effective is tea tree oil for acne?
Even if you haven't tried tea tree oil for acne, you've probably at least heard of it, since it's not only been used as stand-by medicinal treatment for decades, but it's also been shown to be effective in treating acne, especially fungal acne. "Tea tree oil has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties that can help acne in certain cases and at the right concentrations," Dr. Love explains.
But as amazing as tea tree oil sounds, Dr. Love wouldn't recommend it as a first-line treatment if you're looking for the most effective option."There's a reason salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide are so ubiquitous in acne treatments —they work," she says. "Tea tree oil is unlikely to be as effective, but it may be gentler on the skin, depending on the concentration."
Not only that, but Dr. Love points out that there haven't been many studies that look at the the exact concentration of tea tree oil needed for improvement in acne—or the best way to dilute it (you can't put TTO straight on your face; it can be hella irritating) and still reap the acne-treating benefits. So it's definitely worth trying if you haven't found success with other treatments, but it's unlikely to be the single magical cure for your breakouts.
Can tea tree oil make acne worse?
The problem here is that tea tree oil is an essential oil, and pure essential oils are very strong and can be super irritating. So you would definitely want to dilute your tea tree oil with another oil first—like mixing a single dab of TTO in with a few drops of your favorite face oil and blending that over your acne-prone areas.
Or, do what Cosmo's deputy beauty director Chloe Metzger does (who swears by tea tree oil as a spot treatment): Dab it over your zit as the final step of your skincare routine. "All the face creams I layer on first usually provide a pretty thick buffer against the tea tree oil," she says. "My skin is incredibly sensitive and reactive, and as long as I only dab it on once a day, I'm good."
How do you use tea tree oil for acne?
Instead of mixing together your own concoction and hoping for the best, use a tea tree oil-containing product designed specifically for acne. "This decreases the chances of irritation and worsening of acne unintentionally," Dr. Love explains.
But those with sensitive skin or eczema-prone skin should be careful with using tea tree oil-containing products on the face at all since skin allergies to essential oils are common. "I recommend performing a spot-test on the forearm for a week before applying to the full face," Dr. Love says, who recommends only applying tea tree oil to your face every other day when you start to see how well your face really tolerates it.
If you've used the tried-and-true acne ingredients, and for whatever reason, they didn't work for you, give tea tree oil a shot—just don't do it straight-up. As an essential oil, tea tree oil needs to be diluted, but your best and safest bet is to use a product that contains tea tree oil and has been formulated specifically for acne.