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Is milk thistle beneficial for acne?

The research is limited—but some evidence points in favor of using this plant for its potential skin benefits.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Jul 7, 2023 • 6 min read
Medically reviewed by Elise Griffin, PA-C
Milk Thistle Supplement
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Jul 7, 2023 • 6 min read
Medically reviewed by Elise Griffin, PA-C
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

Time to introduce a new, trendy ingredient: Silymarin is an herbal extract derived from milk thistle seeds. It has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. But does milk thistle help with acne? While the research is limited, it is positive and further studies can help to better understand this! 

Using milk thistle for acne and other skin concerns might be worth a try. First, learn about the potential benefits of milk thistle for your skin, how to use it, and its possible side effects. 

What is milk thistle, and how does it work?

Milk thistle is a tall plant with prickly spines that grows primarily in dry climates. You can identify it by its shiny green leaves with white marbling. It’s considered a noxious weed—however, it has herbal extracts like silymarin with proven health benefits.

thistle latin carduus

Studies show that silibinin, which is derived from milk thistle, can be protective for your liver.¹ There is promising research that silymarin may be neuroprotective against neurologic conditions including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.² Limited studies have also shown that routine silymarin administration resulted in lower blood sugar.³ 

The active components in milk thistle are silybin (aka silibinin), silychristin, and silydianin, which are collectively known as silymarin.⁴ Silymarin has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. In recent years, silymarin has made a splash in skincare as a potential treatment for people with acne, although more research is needed.⁵ While this ingredient is one of many currently trending, there isn’t a lot of research on how milk thistle works on the skin. 

How does milk thistle benefit your body?

A quick search reveals that milk thistle has many potential benefits, but it’s most widely known for its effects on the liver. Most research credits silymarin as the source of its antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties. 

Here are just a few research-backed benefits of milk thistle:

  • Helps protect the liver. As we mentioned, studies show that silibinin has liver-protective properties and the potential to be used in therapies for liver disorders.⁶ 

  • May help treat rosacea. There’s some limited evidence that silymarin may help treat rosacea when combined with methylsulfonylmethane (another supplement). Results of a double-blind placebo-controlled study showed that the combination supplement including silymarin improved skin redness (erythema), itching (pruritus), papules, and hydration.⁷ 

  • Can scavenge free radicals. Milk thistle benefits the skin potentially because of its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, which help fight free radicals.⁸ Free radicals can occur from UV radiation, environmental pollutants, and certain chemicals, and they can also come from inflammation.⁹ Free radicals may play a role in the development of acne,¹⁰ so the protection that milk thistle may offer against free radicals is another potential benefit. 

  • May help treat acne. Pores clogged with dead skin cells and excess sebum (oil) can cause acne. Inflammatory acne can pop up when bacteria feed on sebum, which could lead to cystic acne and acne scarring. Oxidative stress may also play a role in acne formation.¹¹ The antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of silymarin could help treat acne, but more research is needed.¹² 

What does milk thistle do to acne?

One study showed that oral supplementation with milk thistle (silymarin) significantly reduced the number of inflammatory acne lesions.¹³ That said, there is not enough evidence to recommend milk thistle for hormonal acne or for routine use in acne patients in general. More research is needed to fully understand the potential benefits.  

How to use milk thistle

milk thistle powder

Milk thistle is available over the counter as an oral supplement. In general, it can be used up to two times per day, in the morning and evening. However, we recommend talking to your medical provider or a dietician before starting a new supplement regimen. 

You can also find topical milk thistle—silymarin—in serums, moisturizers, and face masks. Neither oral nor topical milk thistle has been studied well enough to prove that it can help treat acne, but there is some weak evidence of its benefits for the skin.

For example (as mentioned above), in one small study of rosacea patients, a combination of topical silymarin and methylsulfonylmethane improved skin redness, papules, itching, hydration, and skin color.¹⁴ In another study, oral milk thistle helped reduce pimples and acne lesions after at least two months of supplementation.¹⁵ 

The potency and composition of active plant-derived chemicals vary significantly with different extraction methods, so it's hard to compare different treatments.¹⁶ The results of these small studies might not hold up upon further investigation. We don’t have enough evidence to recommend oral or topical milk thistle. 

That said, it is generally fine to use topical products containing milk thistle. So, if you want to give it a try, we recommend adding it to your existing skincare routine instead of replacing acne treatments (like salicylic acid or tretinoin) that are proven to work.

If you’re looking for tips to help prevent acne breakouts and improve your skin’s health, you can add some skin-friendly vitamins and make some changes to what you eat

Who should avoid milk thistle?

Several studies found silymarin to be generally safe without major side effects.¹⁷ However, there isn’t a lot of information available regarding the interactions of milk thistle with other medications, like those used to treat cancer or liver conditions. We recommend that you seek advice from your medical provider before using milk thistle orally or topically or if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding because it is still possible to experience milk thistle side effects. 

Take care of your skin with Curology

Curology Custom Formula Cleanser Moisturizer and Lip Balm  - The vegan diet and acne: Is there a link?

While milk thistle may help with acne, there are treatments with effective active ingredients for your acne-related skin concerns. Seeking professional guidance from a licensed dermatology provider to determine your skincare needs will save you a lot of time and effort!

Curology helps take the guesswork out of your skincare routine. A licensed dermatology provider will work with you to examine your skin, assess your skincare goals, and provide custom treatment options. To sign up, just answer a few questions and upload some selfies. If Curology is right for you, you’ll be paired with one of our licensed in-house dermatology providers, who will personalize a prescription formula for your unique skin. You can sign up for your trial today!*

FAQs

What is milk thistle, and how does it work?

Milk thistle is a tall plant with prickly spines that grows primarily in dry climates. You can identify it by its shiny green leaves with white marbling.

How does milk thistle benefit your body?

Here are just a few research-backed benefits of milk thistle:

  • Helps protect the liver. As we mentioned, studies show that silibinin has liver-protective properties and has the potential to be used in therapies for liver disorders. 

  • May help treat rosacea. There’s some limited evidence that silymarin may help treat rosacea when combined with methylsulfonylmethane (another supplement).

  • Can scavenge free radicals. Milk thistle benefits the skin potentially because of its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, which help fight free radicals.

  • May help treat acne. Pores clogged with dead skin cells and excess sebum (oil) can cause acne.

What does milk thistle do to acne?

One study showed that oral supplementation with milk thistle (silymarin) significantly reduced the number of inflammatory acne lesions.

• • •

P.S. We did the homework so you don’t have to:

  1. Polachi, N, et al. Modulatory effects of silibinin in various cell signaling pathways against liver disorders and cancer - A comprehensive review.European Journal of Medicinal Chemistry. (2016 November 10). 

  2. Borah A, et al. Neuroprotective potential of silymarin against CNS disorders: insight into the pathways and molecular mechanisms of action.CNS Neurosci Ther. (November 2013).

  3. Voroneanu, L., et al. Silymarin in type 2 diabetes mellitus: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials.Journal of Diabetes Research. (2016).

  4. Abenavoli, L., et al. Milk thistle in liver diseases: Past, present, future.Phytotherapy Research. (October 2010).

  5. Salib, A.S., et al. Effects of oral antioxidants on lesion counts associated with oxidative dress and inflammation in patients with papulopustular acne. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Dermatology Research. (2012).

  6. Polachi, N, et al. Modulatory effects of silibinin in various cell signaling pathways against liver disorders and cancer - A comprehensive review.European Journal of Medicinal Chemistry. Ibid.

  7. Berardesca, E., et al. Combined effects of silymarin and methylsulfonylmethane in the management of rosacea: Clinical and instrumental evaluation. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology. (2008 January 31).

  8. Pinnell, SR. Cutaneous photodamage, oxidative stress, and topical antioxidant protection.J Am Acad Dermatol. (January 2003).

  9. Lobo, V., et al. Free radicals, antioxidants, and functional foods: Impact on human health.Pharmacognosy Review. (July-December 2010).

  10. Sarici, G., et al. Oxidative stress in acne vulgaris.Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology. Ibid.

  11. Sarici, G., et al. Oxidative stress in acne vulgaris.Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology. (2010 June 7).

  12. Salib, A.S., et al. Effects of oral antioxidants on lesion counts associated with oxidative dress and inflammation in patients with papulopustular acne. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Dermatology Research. Ibid.

  13. Ahmed SS, et al. Effects of Oral Antioxidants on Lesion Counts Associated with Oxidative.Journal of Clinical & Experimental Dermatology Research. (2012).

  14. Berardesca, E., et al. Combined effects of silymarin and methylsulfonylmethane in the management of rosacea: Clinical and instrumental evaluation. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology. Ibid.

  15. Salib, A.S., et al. Effects of oral antioxidants on lesion counts associated with oxidative dress and inflammation in patients with papulopustular acne. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Dermatology Research. Ibid.

  16. Fenclova, M., et al. Poor chemical and microbiological quality for their reported unsatisfactory and non-reproducible clinical outcomes.Scientific Reports. (2019).

  17. Soleimani, V., et al. Safety and toxicity of silymarin, the major constituent of milk thistle extract: An updated reviewPhytotherapy Research. (2019).

Elise Griffin is a certified physician assistant at Curology. She received her Master of Medical Science in physician assistant studies from Nova Southeastern University in Jacksonville, FL.

* Subject to consultation. Subscription is required. Results may vary. 

• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Elise Griffin, Physician Assistant Curology

Elise Griffin, PA-C

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