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Thyme for acne: Is it just a trend?

This culinary herb’s anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties may help fight breakouts.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Jul 7, 2023 • 5 min read
Medically reviewed by Laura Phelan, NP-C
thyme as ingredient in skincare products
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Jul 7, 2023 • 5 min read
Medically reviewed by Laura Phelan, NP-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.

Thyme is a common herb found in many kitchen spice racks. But aside from its culinary uses, the plant—which is native to the Mediterranean region—has a long history in herbal medicine as a treatment for respiratory infections, itching, bruises, and sprains.

Social media may have helped this herb gain traction in the skincare world, but its hype is not without merit. Along with its ability to add a fragrant, earthy flavor to your cooking, thyme may also work as a natural acne treatment. Here we’ll explain how to use thyme for acne, how essential oils work, and their potential benefits and side effects. We’ll also include tips for incorporating thyme essential oil into your skincare regimen.

Are essential oils good for acne?

Ice cubes made of thyme tea are just one of the DIY acne treatments that have TikTok buzzing. Although more research is needed, thyme may be an effective herbal treatment for acne, thanks to thymol, an essential oil found in thyme. Thymol provides antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial effects—excellent properties for treating acne. Some laboratory tests showed that thymol had potent antimicrobial activity against acne-causing bacteria. That’s not to say that thyme essential oil is more effective than benzoyl peroxide, as some TikTok videos claim. Benzoyl peroxide is an antimicrobial with years of research that support its use as an effective treatment for breakouts.

Natural alternatives to medicated acne creams continue to emerge as more people look for DIY treatment options that don’t cause side effects. The trend of herbal solutions is evidenced by the increased popularity of active ingredients such as tea tree oil and milk thistle in skincare products. But not all new trends are worth trying (e.g. those that involve comedogenic ingredients such as coconut oil).

Unfortunately, most of the research regarding essential oils does not focus on their antibacterial effects against Propionibacterium acnes—the main acne-causing bacteria (aka C. acnes). That said, tea tree oil is one oil that has had clinical trials to demonstrate its effectiveness against acne.

How do essential oils work on the skin?

Essential oils are volatile, aromatic oils extracted from plants. Their chemical profile determines their potential benefits, such as anti-inflammatory or antibacterial properties.

Essential oil molecules interact differently with the skin, which allows them to be easily absorbed. Since essential oils can penetrate the skin more easily, they’ve been used as permeation boosters to increase drug diffusion through the stratum corneum (the outermost layer of the skin).

Essential oils are highly concentrated and are typically extracted by distilling large amounts of plant material. The main safety concern with essential oils is skin irritation, which may include contact dermatitis. To reduce this risk, essential oils should be diluted in a carrier, such as oil or lotion, before being applied to the skin.

What is thyme essential oil good for?

Thyme’s medicinal compounds are found in its flowers and leaves. The oils are extracted and added to skincare products for their anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and antifungal properties. Thyme essential oil may benefit the skin in the following ways:

  • May treat acne. The essential oil is composed of thymol, carvacrol, and linalool. Together, these constituents have antiseptic, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant properties, which may help treat acne. 

  • May help with recovery from bites and stings. Thyme extract applied to the skin may help relieve discomfort from bites and stings. 

  • May promote healthy hair. In one small study, daily use of a combined treatment of relatively equal concentrations of thyme, lavender, rosemary, and cedarwood essential oils mixed with a jojoba and grapeseed carrier oil improved hair growth when compared to a carrier oil alone. More research is needed to test whether thyme essential oil on its own benefits hair growth, however.

A commonly used form of thyme essential oil for the skin is white thyme oil. This pale yellow or gold oil results following filtration and a second distillation. White thyme oil is milder on the skin and may be less irritating while maintaining many benefits.

The potential downside of thyme for the skin

Natural skincare ingredients are assumed to be safe in general, but this isn’t always the case. Research on herbal remedies for acne is limited, but scientific studies have shown that some of the constituents in essential oils may harm or irritate the skin.

Most reactions occur from an allergy to one or more of the components in the oil, causing allergic contact dermatitis or other more severe reactions. Other negative side effects noted include asthma, headache, and eye irritation. When diluted in a carrier oil, the essential oil derived from thyme is generally safe to use on the skin. However, like all topical ingredients, irritation or allergic reactions are possible.

How to use thyme oil on the skin

Thyme essential oil may be effective for certain skin conditions, such as acne, bites, and stings. If you choose to give it a try, be sure to use it carefully—diluted in a carrier oil or infused in topical creams.

If you have concerns about a potential reaction when introducing new skincare ingredients, it’s a good practice to do a patch test before applying them to the face. Start with a small amount and be mindful when applying to sensitive areas, such as around the eyes, nose, and mouth. 

The effects of thyme as an acne treatment are not well documented, but its antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties may help acne-prone skin. It should be used in concert with cleansers and moisturizers. Consult your dermatology provider before adding thyme tinctures or oils to understand how it may affect your current treatment.

Thyme essential oil is not recommended for individuals allergic to thyme or other related plants due to possible cross-reactivity.

Get professional guidance from Curology

Despite all the buzz on TikTok, more research is needed before thyme essential oil can be recommended for acne treatment. In the meantime, the dermatology providers at Curology offer personalized prescriptions with anti-acne ingredients that are proven effective, such as tretinoin and clindamycin.

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FAQs

What are essential oils?

Essential oils are volatile, aromatic oils extracted from plants. Their chemical profile determines their potential benefits, such as anti-inflammatory or antibacterial properties. Essential oils are highly concentrated and are typically extracted by distilling large amounts of plant material.

What is thyme essential oil good for?

Thyme’s medicinal compounds are found in its flowers and leaves. The oils are extracted and added to skincare products for their anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and anti-fungal properties. Thyme essential oil may help treat acne, recover from bites and stings, as well as promote healthy hair.

What are the potential downside of thyme for the skin?

Natural skincare ingredients are assumed to be safe in general, but this isn’t always the case. Research on herbal remedies for acne is limited, but scientific studies have shown that some of the constituents in essential oils may harm or irritate the skin.

Most reactions occur from an allergy to one or more of the components in the oil, causing allergic contact dermatitis or other more severe reactions.

• • •

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

  1. Kowalczyk, A., et al. Thymol and thyme essential oil—new insights into selected therapeutic applications. Molecules. (September 2020).

  2. Halat, D.Ha., et al. A focused insight into thyme: Biological, chemical, and therapeutic properties of an indigenous mediterranean herb. Nutrients. (May 2022).

  3. Taleb, M.H., et al. Origanum vulgare L. essential oil as a potential anti-acne topical nanoemulsion—in victory and in vivo study. Molecules. (2018).

  4. Orchard, A. and van Vuuren, S. Commercial essential oils as potential antimicrobials to treat skin disease. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. (2017).

  5. Caliskan, U.K. and Karaku, M.M. Essential oils as skin permeation boosters and their predicted effect mechanisms. Journal of Dermatology and Skin Science. (2020 November 24).

  6. Ramsey, J.T., et al. Essential Oils and Health. Yale J Biol Med. (2020 June 29).

  7. Orchard, A. and van Vuuren, S. F. Carrier oils in dermatology. Archives in Dermatological Research. (2019 July 18).

  8. Dauqan, E.M.A. and Abdullah, A. Medicinal and functional values of thyme (Thymus vulgaris L.) herb. Journal of Applied Biology and Biotechnology. (March-April 2017).

  9. Dauqan, E.M.A. and Abdullah, A. Medicinal and functional values of thyme (Thymus vulgaris L.) herb. Journal of Applied Biology and Biotechnology. Ibid.

  10. Hay, I.C., et al. Randomized trial of aromatherapy. Successful treatment for alopecia areata. Journal of the American Medical Association. (November 1998).

  11. Dauqan, E.M.A. and Abdullah, A. Medicinal and functional values of thyme (Thymus vulgaris L.) herb. Journal of Applied Biology and Biotechnology. Ibid.

  12. Ramsey, J.T., et al. Essential Oils and Health. Yale J Biol Med. Ibid.

  13. Sindle, A., Martin, K. Art of Prevention: Essential Oils - Natural Products Not Necessarily Safe. Int J Womens Dermatol. (2020 November 12.)

  14. Kowalczyk, A., et al. Thymol and thyme essential oil—new insights into selected therapeutic applications. Molecules. Ibid.

Laura Phelan is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner at Curology. She earned her Masters of Science in Nursing at Benedictine University and went on to get her post-master’s certificate as a Family Nurse Practitioner at the University of Cincinnati.

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• • •
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.
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Curology Team

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Laura Phelan, NP-C

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