5 Home Remedies for Acne That You Have to Try and 5 to Avoid at All Costs

Jeff Hautala
By Jeff Hautala, Co-Founder of Exposed Skincare

If you’ve tried looking up home remedies for acne, chances are you’re a bit overwhelmed and skeptical. Can apple cider vinegar really clear your acne in three days? Is honey as magical as people say it is? And what about essential oils? You’re absolutely right to be skeptical—there are countless articles out there supporting home remedies for acne that have no scientific data to back up their claims. At Exposed Skin Care, we do our research, and we never recommend a product that doesn’t work. To keep you on the right track, we’ve explained the three main causes of acne and prepared a list of five home remedies that address those issues, and five that definitely do not.

Home acne remedies
There are several home remedies for acne in your own kitchen, but beware: some of these “remedies” can actually make acne worse.

Inflammation + Bacteria + Oil Production = Acne

All acne starts with inflammation. Bacteria and oil production are a natural part of your skin, and left to their own devices, they rarely create acne. But once the skin becomes inflamed—boom, acne. Because of this, we recommend erring on the side of gentle remedies rather than remedies that are too harsh.

Inflammation causes the skin to swell slightly and this causes the pores to constrict and trap oil, dead skin cells, and sometimes bacteria inside the pore. If there are limited bacteria in the pore, then it will often turn into either a blackhead or a whitehead. Contrary to popular myth, blackheads are not actually caused by dirt. They get their dark color because the pore doesn’t close completely, so air gets in and oxidizes the oil to turn it a darker color, sort of like how an apple turns brown when you bite into it and then leave it on the counter. Whiteheads result if the pore closes completely and the inflammation traps the oil and dead skin cells beneath the surface of the skin.

Oil production is a main cause of acne because if your skin is producing more oil than necessary, then very little inflammation is necessary to clog the pores, but it can also exacerbate issues created by the other cause of acne: bacteria. The bacteria primarily associated with acne, p. acnes, consume the oil our skin makes as their main food source, so under ideal circumstances, they can actually help prevent oil buildup. But when the skin produces too much oil, they have extra food and their numbers can multiply rapidly, increasing the likelihood that they will get trapped in a pore when the skin becomes inflamed and cause a pimple or cyst.

5 Home Remedies for Acne That Really Work

Treating acne can be a slow, frustrating process. The best acne treatments take a few weeks to really work, and even then, they might not work for you specifically. It can be hard to use a product or remedy for several weeks only to see no results (or worse, more acne) and have to start all over again. We want to save you the frustration by recommending the 5 best home remedies for acne: honey, tea tree oil, zinc, green tea extract, and lemon juice.

1. Honey: The Closest Thing to a Real Miracle Cure

We don’t like to call anything a “cure-all,” a “miracle cure,” or say something is guaranteed to work, but honey comes pretty darn close. Raw honey has antibacterial properties, anti-inflammatory properties, it can help absorb excess oil, and it speeds up the wound healing process, which means it’s a great home remedy for acne scars as well.

It’s important to use raw honey because added ingredients can dilute these helpful properties or even irritate the skin. Some sources suggest that a particular kind of honey called Manuka honey could be even more helpful in treating acne, but you can still see good results from regular raw honey. You don’t have to buy the most expensive or “organic” honey out there, “raw” just means that when you check the ingredient list, “honey” is the only ingredient listed.

As an additional note: honey can be combined with many of the other home remedies for acne in this list to combine acne-fighting powers and it serves as a great, albeit sticky, base for DIY face masks.

2. Tea Tree Oil: Bye-Bye Bacteria

Cystic acne is notoriously difficult to treat even with prescription options, so many people don’t consider home remedies for cystic acne. But tea tree oil is an excellent option. Tea tree oil is an essential oil with powerful antibacterial properties and some anti-inflammatory properties, if used in the right concentration. Some research suggests it could be strong enough to be effective in treating cystic acne.

Multiple scientific studies show that tea tree oil is not just antibacterial, it can kill p. acnes bacteria specifically, in concentrations as low as 0.5% Some products offer tea tree oil in higher concentrations, but the research says that a 3% concentration and a 10% concentration have the same effectiveness. The only difference is that the higher concentration is much more likely to cause serious irritation, which leads to inflammation and more acne.

At Exposed Skin Care, we saw how useful tea tree oil could be for everyone with acne, so we included it at safe concentrations in several of our products, like our Acne Treatment Serum.

3.  Zinc: The One Dietary Change We Recommend

So far, there is no proof of a correlation between diet and acne, but some studies suggest that people with acne tend to have a zinc deficiency. Adding a zinc supplement to your diet or eating more foods rich in zinc can reduce inflammation and reduce oil production by balancing out hormones that cause increased oil production when they’re out of whack. It’s a little different from applying honey or tea tree oil to your acne directly, but getting more zinc may still be one of the most effective home remedies for acne.

It’s important not to take in too much zinc because it can mess up your copper levels, so before adding zinc to your diet, check for the other symptoms of a zinc deficiency: hair loss, low blood pressure, low body temperature, and/or digestive system issues.

4.  Green Tea Extract: The Best Home Remedy for Sensitive Skin

This is probably the best home remedy for acne if you have sensitive or dry skin. Green tea is a very soothing ingredient with excellent anti-inflammatory properties. Drinking green tea can help reduce inflammation in general, but it provides the most benefits for acne when it’s applied directly to the skin. There are a couple of ways you can do this.

One of the most creative DIY green tea solutions we’ve seen is green tea ice cubes. These are great as a spot treatment for highly inflamed or painful acne, since ice and green tea both reduce inflammation and numb pain. But green tea can be more than a spot treatment too. We recommend mixing it with honey, tea tree oil, aloe vera, or other good home remedies for acne to make a green tea face mask. You can also use green tea for acne through Exposed Skin Care products. Many of our products include green tea extract, like our Clear Pore Serum, because we understand the importance of protecting the skin throughout acne treatment.

5. Lemon Juice: Use with Caution

Lemon juice can be a very powerful acne-fighting ingredient, but it comes with a few warning labels. First, lemon juice sold by the bottle typically isn’t as effective. For the best results, you’ll want to use fresh lemons. Second, lemon juice should never be used alone because it will almost definitely irritate the skin. We recommend combining it with one or two of the other ingredients on this list to dilute its harshness. Third, it can create light or dark spots when left on dark skin for too long or when used in high concentrations.

Despite all these warnings, lemon juice is one of the most effective home remedies for acne, especially if you primarily have blackheads or whiteheads. It exfoliates the skin, meaning it can help remove dead skin cells and excess oil that could be clogging pores.

5 Home Remedies for Acne to Avoid

We love to promote home remedies for acne, but there are some that simply don’t work, or can actually make acne worse. Avoid the setbacks and stay far away from these home “remedies”: apple cider vinegar, baking soda, toothpaste, coconut oil, and oatmeal.

1.  Apple Cider Vinegar: Too Acidic

This is a very popular home remedy on the internet, but unfortunately, there’s no science to suggest it actually works If anything, there’s proof that it makes acne even worse. The most common explanation for why apple cider vinegar works is that its acidity helps exfoliate the skin. But the truth is, apple cider vinegar is too acidic. Although excess oil can cause acne, we still need a thin layer of oil to protect our skin from irritants, and apple cider vinegar can easily strip the skin of all oil, leaving it irritated and exposed.

Some people believe apple cider vinegar really works because it stings and burns, but that’s a common myth. Stinging and burning are clear signals from your skin that say it’s being damaged, and that never helps improve acne. Left on the skin too long, it can even cause chemical burns. Definitely one to avoid.

2. Baking Soda: Too Basic

Baking soda has the opposite problem from apple cider vinegar: instead of being too acidic, it’s too basic. Everything has a pH rating between 0 and 14, where 0 is the most acidic, like battery acid, 14 is the most basic, like lye, and 7 is neutral, like water. Our skin is naturally slightly acidic, so applying a basic substance like baking soda can throw off our natural pH, which is sure to cause irritation and potentially more acne.

As an added note, some sources recommend combining baking soda with apple cider vinegar, and we just want to express what a truly terrible idea this is. Baking soda and apple cider vinegar can be used to unclog a bath tub drain, which means it is far too harsh for your skin.

3.  Toothpaste: The Wrong Chemicals

Because toothpaste effectively kills the germs in your mouth, some sources claim it can also kill p. acnes bacteria and “dry out” acne. This might be the most popular of the home remedies for acne that simply do not work. Just because something can kill one type of bacteria, that doesn’t mean it kills all bacteria, and this is one of the main problems with toothpaste. It’s designed for your teeth, not for your skin. Which leads us to the next issue: your teeth are much tougher than your skin, so it can stand up to some of the harsh chemicals in toothpaste, like sodium lauryl sulfate, fluoride, and baking soda, which we already know is bad for the skin. These chemicals can irritate the skin, cause inflammation, and lead to acne. In fact, if you have acne around your mouth, toothpaste is one of the most likely culprits.

4.  Coconut Oil: Hello, Clogged Pores

Coconut oil is one of the only home remedies for acne that isn’t too harsh. Coconut oil is very gentle and may actually be good for dry or sensitive skin—if it didn’t clog pores. Before applying anything with oil in the name, you should check where it is on the comedogenicity scale, a scale from 0 to 5 which measures how likely something is to clog your pores. Coconut oil ranks as a 4, meaning it is very likely to clog pores, so even though it can make your skin soft and keep it from drying out or getting irritated, it can also clog pores and lead to blackheads and whiteheads.

home remedies for acne using coconut oil
Even though coconut oil is restorative and gentle, we don’t recommend it because it can clog pores.

5.  Oatmeal: Too Much Exfoliation

One of the home remedies for acne that sounds good but can really do some damage to your skin is the honey-oatmeal mask. It’s true that honey is one of the best ingredients for any DIY skin care solution, but it can’t make up for the excessive exfoliation power of oatmeal. Although it’s good to exfoliate the skin and remove excess dead skin cells and oil, oatmeal takes things too far. Its cut edges may not seem so harsh to our fingertips, but when they are rubbed over the skin on our face (which is much thinner and more sensitive), they can do more damage than good. Some recipes call for cooked oatmeal, which may be less abrasive, but we still don’t recommend it. If you’re looking for a good exfoliating agent, we recommend cutting open a green tea bag and adding that to a tablespoon of honey instead. The leaves will help reduce inflammation while they exfoliate the skin.