Acne can be embarrassing. But it can also be dangerous if the bacteria that causes it grow out of control. Acne is typically caused by bacteria that grow within hair follicles. As the follicle becomes infected, our immune system launches an inflammatory attack against the bacteria. It attempts to surround and encapsulate the bacteria to prevent them from infecting the rest of the body. This is what causes the red bumps on our skin which are called papules.

The immune system forms a sac to surround the bacteria in an attempt to quarantine and remove it. This is what whiteheads are – little white sacs – which are also called closed comedones.

In some cases, the comedones may be oxidised and mixed with dead cells. This forms what many call blackheads.

If the infection continues to grow, the comedones will eventually leave pock marks on the skin. These can last for years – if not for the rest of our lives. This is due to the bacteria damaging the follicles and neighbouring epidermis cells.

To help prevent this eventuality, the bacteria should be brought under control quickly.

Bacteria that cause acne

Acne is typically the result of two kinds of bacteria; Propionibacterium acnes and Staphylococcus epidermidis.

These days most doctors immediately prescribe antibiotics for a serious case of acne. As a result, we have a growing population of antibiotic-resistant strains of these two species of bacteria.

The antibiotics typically used to treat acne include Clindamycin and Erythromycin. However, since many strains of these bacteria have now become resistant to these and other antibiotics, Dalacin T and Stiemycin are often used instead.

Besides encouraging antibiotic resistance, antibiotics like these can cause adverse side effects which include diarrhoea, stomach discomfort, nausea and vomiting. Other side effects sometimes seen as a result of taking these antiobiotics include fevers and liver problems.

Antibiotics can also permanently disturb our gut’s populations of probiotics – our microbiome.

So what about natural alternatives?

Essential oils combat acne bacteria

Researchers from the School of Pharmacy at the UK’s De Montfort University studied the effects of a combination of three essential oils from herbs. The scientists worked with the UK’s Penny Price Academy of Aromatherapy to develop an essential oil formula to fight these two acne-causing bacteria.

The formulation tested was composed of three essential oils:

• Essential oil of rosewood (Dalbergia spp.) (0.53 mg/mL (milligrams per milliliter)

• Essential oil of clove bud (Syzygium aromaticum) (0.11 mg/mL)

• Essential oil of litsea (Litsea spp.) (0.11 mg/mL)

The final mixture equates to about 5 parts rosewood oil to one part clove and one part litsea.

The essential oil formula was then tested against the two bacteria mentioned above, specifically in relation to acne.

The application of the essential oil was then compared to the antibiotic activity of the antibiotics mentioned above – Dalacin T and Stiemycin.

The researchers found that the essential oil formulation significantly inhibited both bacteria. And the essential oils inhibited the Propionibacterium acnes bacteria the greatest.

The essential oils inhibited the two bacteria better than the antibiotics in one set of tests and they were equal to the antibiotics in the other testing.

The researchers concluded: “This formulation may serve as a valuable alternative for the control of acne vulgaris-associated bacteria.”

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria also inhibited

The researchers also found that the essential oils inhibited antibiotic-resistant strains of the two acne-causing bacteria.

This is a critical issue, because our antibiotics’ ability to continue to fight acne has a rather short life expectancy. A 2000 study from Japan found that nearly 30 percent of S. epidermidis bacteria were resistant to erythromycin, roxithromycin and clindamycin – and that was nearly two decades ago.

A study 12 years later has found that about 70 percent of S. epidermidis bacteria were resistant to one of the antibiotics, and about 37 percent of P. acnes bacteria were resistant to some antibiotics.

We can see from these two snapshots that more and more strains of these skin bacteria are quickly becoming resistant to our popular antibiotics.

In other words, we are quickly getting to a point where none of our antibiotics will work against these skin bacteria. Once the bacteria that cause acne figure out all our antibiotics, we will find that none of them will work.

Why do essential oils fight antibiotic-resistant bacteria?

The antibiotic ability of essential oils stems from the plants they come from. These aromatic plants are living organisms, and they produce natural antibiotics to respond to bacteria. This is why they are so effective.

Bacteria have a hard time becoming resistant to aromatic plants because the plants are always making adjustments to the antibiotic chemicals they produce. This is because the plants are faced with these bacteria in nature. Their survival is based upon their ability to fight off bacteria. If they didn’t, the plant species would die.

It is sort of like the old spy vs. spy comic: Once one of the spies makes a new weapon, the other spy creates a new antidote to that weapon.

This is as opposed to the pharmaceutical antibiotic strategy which is to find a chemical that inhibits bacteria and keep throwing the same chemical at the bacteria over and over and over again. Soon the bacteria figure out how to resist that chemical.

In other words, nature is smart.