Evening primrose oil contains high concentrations of omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids. These compounds possess potent anti-inflammatory properties, which may help treat and prevent acne.
Evening primrose oil (EPO) comes from the seeds of the Oenothera biennis plant, which grows in North America and parts of Europe.
Although anecdotal evidence suggests that EPO supplements may improve acne symptoms, there is not enough clinical evidence to support these claims.
In this article, we discuss how EPO may help acne, how to use it, and when to see a dermatologist.
Acne vulgaris is one of the most common skin conditions, affecting nearly 85% of adolescents, as well as many adults.
Acne is a chronic inflammatory disease that affects the oil-producing (sebaceous) glands and hair follicles in the skin.
Numerous over-the-counter and prescription acne treatments are available to try. However, medicated acne treatments can sometimes lead to undesirable side effects, such as dry, irritated skin.
Some people find that EPO and other natural products reduce their acne symptoms without the unwanted side effects of conventional acne treatments.
However, there is not much scientific evidence to support the use of EPO for treating acne.
EPO products may help reduce acne by balancing the body’s ratio of omega-6 and omega-3 essential fatty acids.
Essential fatty acids are fats that the human body cannot produce on its own. Therefore, people can only get them from dietary sources, such as plant oils, organ meat, and fish.
EPO naturally contains high quantities of omega-6 fatty acids. On average, EPO consists of about 70–74% linoleic acid and 8–10% gamma-linolenic acid (GLA).
Linoleic acid is an omega-6 fatty acid that promotes skin health by:
- reinforcing the skin barrier
- preserving water in the epidermis
- preventing skin infections
- regulating sebum production
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a deficiency of essential fatty acids can lead to dry, rough, or scaly skin.
In comparison with healthy skin, acne-prone skin tends to produce sebum with higher levels of oxidized squalene, a compound that significantly contributes to inflammatory acne, and lower levels of linoleic acid.
The body breaks down linoleic acid into GLA, another fatty acid with anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties.
However, the enzymes necessary for GLA synthesis are not present in skin cells. The liver produces the majority of GLA, which travels to the skin through the bloodstream.
According to the authors of one 2018 review article, EPO contains not only linoleic acid but also GLA and delta-6-desaturase. Therefore, EPO supplementation may help counteract the adverse effects of essential fatty acid deficiency.
EPO is available in the form of oral supplements or topical solutions. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) do not regulate supplements, so people should use caution when purchasing these products.
People can also use topical EPO as a spot treatment or serum. Topical EPO can lead to skin irritation in people with sensitive skin, so it is important to perform a patch test before applying EPO to the face. This test involves applying a small amount of EPO to the skin on the arm or behind the ear to see whether any adverse effects occur before applying it more widely.
People who can tolerate topical EPO can either apply it to individual blemishes or mix it with their moisturizer and apply it all over their face.
EPO is not an essential oil, but some evening primrose essential oils are available. People should not swallow essential oils or apply them without first diluting them in a carrier oil.
Although there is not much clinical evidence to support using EPO to treat specific forms of acne, secondary and anecdotal sources claim that it may help calm inflammatory acne.
GLA has anti-inflammatory properties, but EPO contains higher concentrations of linoleic acid, which may promote inflammation.
It is unclear whether or not EPO has any effect on hormonal, cystic, or adult acne. However, it may help improve the skin’s barrier function and prevent water loss.
In a 2014 study, researchers examined the effects of oral EPO supplementation on skin water loss in people taking an acne medication called isotretinoin (Accutane).
Half of the study participants took six 450-milligram tablets three times a day for 8 weeks. The individuals who took EPO had less skin water loss than those in the control group.
Standard doses of oral EPO for adults range from 1–8 grams per day. Different brands may have slightly different dosage information, so people should always read the directions carefully.
In general, EPO is safe to use for short-term periods, but its long-term safety remains unclear. Most studies examine the effects of EPO and its metabolites over the course of a few weeks to a few months.
A person should consult their doctor if they plan on using EPO supplements for an extended period.
The compounds present in EPO may offer the following skin benefits:
- improve hydration and elasticity
- reduce wrinkles and fine lines
- soothe itchy, dry, and irritated skin
- regulate sebum production
- treat and prevent breakouts
Unfortunately, there have not been any high quality clinical trials investigating EPO as an acne treatment.
The NIH state that there is not enough evidence to support the use of EPO for any health condition, including acne.
Pregnant women should speak with their doctor before taking EPO supplements because they can increase the risk of certain complications of pregnancy.
EPO supplements may interact with warfarin and other blood thinners. People who take these medications should consult their doctor before using EPO.
EPO is one of many plant-based acne remedies. Alternatives to EPO include:
- tea tree oil
- witch hazel
- aloe vera gel
Although plant-based products may help reduce acne symptoms, their effects can vary depending on a person’s skin type.
A dermatologist can help a person determine which products and ingredients are likely to work best for their skin type and concerns.
People use topical and oral EPO supplements for a wide range of conditions, including:
People should see their doctor or a dermatologist if they have skin-related symptoms that do not respond to at-home or over-the-counter treatments.
Some symptoms to look for include:
- small red or white bumps
- painful, inflamed skin lesions
- soft, fluid filled lumps under the skin
- hard, painful nodules under the skin
A general practitioner can diagnose acne and provide treatment recommendations, while a dermatologist can offer more personalized skin care treatments.
A general practitioner may recommend a person to a dermatologist if they have severe acne that does not respond to treatment.
EPO is a relatively safe natural supplement that may help reduce inflammatory acne symptoms. However, there is not much scientific evidence to support the use of EPO for treating acne.
EPO is available in oral supplement and topical forms. The FDA do not regulate supplements, so people should only purchase EPO products from trusted, well-established manufacturers. It is important not to confuse EPO with evening primrose essential oil.
For specific dosage information, consult the manufacturer’s directions or speak with a healthcare professional.