Almost everyone knows the physical – and social – problems that acne can cause.
That’s not an overstatement. Acne vulgaris (the medical term for acne) affects more than 75% of all adolescents, and around half of those who are 25 or older still have acne to some degree. (1) Even if teens grow out of it, many still carry around acne scars for life, and anyone’s who had a bad case remembers the social anxiety that it created.
They probably also remember how difficult acne is to treat. Regular face cleaning is a good idea but it doesn’t prevent or get rid of acne, and harsh cleansers or chemical treatments may make things even worse. Avoiding greasy foods doesn’t prevent the telltale whiteheads and blackheads, either (although avoiding chocolate and dairy products does help some patients). (2)
Lucky sufferers can be helped by over-the-counter medications, but enormous numbers of people with serious cases of acne have to see their doctor or a dermatologist for prescription medications or outpatient surgical procedures.
But what if there were home remedies that could effectively treat acne?
There actually are a few DIY solutions that many acne patients swear by – and that some dermatology experts suggest. One of those treatments is apple cider vinegar.
What Causes Acne?
To understand why apple cider vinegar might be an effective weapon against acne, it’s important to know what causes the condition.
You probably already know the simple answer: acne pimples are really clogged skin pores. But what does that mean?
Underneath every pore on your skin, there’s a gland called a sebaceous oil gland. It releases oil known as sebum, which travels to the skin to keep it moist. However, if bacteria or dead skin cells clog a skin pore, or too much oil is created by the gland, the pore is compromised. Sooner or later, the oil buildup will attract bacteria and a pimple will develop.
Acne is most common during the teenage years, because the body’s hormone production changes drastically during puberty. That can cause sebaceous glands to produce much more sebum than usual, overwhelming the pores. The same type of thing can happen during pregnancy and among women who take birth control pills (or people who take prescription corticosteroids), since those all affects hormone production.
So no matter what ends up causing clogging pores, the real culprits here are the bacteria that cause the lesions we know as acne pimples and blemishes.
Some over-the-counter acne treatments help kill bacteria, but most just dry out existing pimples during breakouts. Prescription acne medications are either designed to reduce the production of sebum or kill the bacteria growing in clogged pores. Some work, some don’t. But they’re all somewhat expensive and many require at least one or two doctor’s visits.
That’s where apple cider vinegar comes in.
Apple Cider Vinegar and Bacteria
One of apple cider vinegar’s established health benefits is its effectiveness as an antibacterial agent. (3) In some infections, it can kill as many as 95% of bacteria.
Much of that effectiveness is due to the acetic acid that’s the primary active ingredient of ACV, created when apples are fermented. It’s not the only organic acid in apple cider vinegar, though. There are a number of them, including lactic acid, malic acid, citric acid and succinic acid. As a group, they’re called alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs).
And it just so happens that AHAs have been shown to be effective against the bacteria Propionibacterium acnes, or P. acnes. (4) You’ve probably guessed from its name that P. acnes is the key bacteria in the development of acne, so you can also guess the rest of the story if you’ve done any reading about the science behind home remedies.
Apple cider vinegar would appear to be an ideal astringent for treating acne outbreaks – but not enough studies have been done to prove it. There’s been some encouraging initial work, though, as almost all of the participants in one research survey who applied lactic acid lotion to their acne-prone skin experienced a significant reduction in breakouts. (5)
Apple Cider Vinegar and Scarring
There’s another possible benefit that doesn’t directly involve bacteria. Acne often leaves behind serious blemishes, discoloration and scars. One of the way doctors help with that problem is to perform a chemical peel, using acid to exfoliate or remove the damaged outer skin layers so healthy skin can grow and prosper.
What acids are used in a chemical peel? The same AHAs that are in apple cider vinegar.
Once again, you’ve probably guessed that not enough research has been done to definitively show that you can use apple cider vinegar at home to get rid of acne scars. But many people have effectively used ACV as a DIY exfoliant, or in an apple cider vinegar toner or face wash, to balance their skin’s pH levels as part of an overall skin care regimen.
Why Some Doctors Oppose Using ACV for Acne
Many medical professionals suggest ACV as a possible home acne remedy. Many others strongly advise against it.
Their primary concern is possible side effects. The acids in apple cider vinegar can make it a strong irritant, and if it isn’t properly diluted it can actually cause chemical burns on the skin. This is usually not an issue if the ACV is removed quickly after application, but it can be a serious issue for those with dry or sensitive skin, or if it’s applied to open wounds. These doctors’ bottom line: there are proven treatments that don’t carry the same risks.
For those with normal skin types, however, there’s little risk in at least giving ACV a try.
How to Apply Apple Cider Vinegar for Acne
The general formula for using ACV to treat acne is using one part apple cider vinegar for every four parts water, but start with less vinegar or more water if you have somewhat sensitive or dry skin.
Apply the mixture with a cotton ball, and wash it off with water after 5-10 minutes. Start with just a spot treatment on one pimple to see how your skin reacts. If you don’t have problems, you can apply the ACV/water solution to all of your acne spots several times per week. It may take weeks before you see a major effect, so be patient.
Some people have seen good results when adding tea tree oil, witch hazel or honey to the mixture, since each is known for its antibacterial and/or antioxidant properties. Some also add their favorite essential oils, since the smell of ACV is – to put mildly – somewhat unpleasant.
If the ACV treatment is too harsh, there’s one other thing you can try: some companies make acne moisturizers, facial exfoliation pads and other skin care products that include apple cider vinegar as one of their ingredients.
You might also like Apple Cider Vinegar For Sore Throat: Pros, Cons And Science