Basil and Acne

Basil is a commonly used spice throughout the world. Ocimum is the genus name for this group of 160 species of annual and perennial herbs and shrubs native to tropical and warm climates. Broadly divided into two groups, species in the basilicum group are considered herbaceous annuals while those in the sanctum species group are perennial shrubs. In Ayurveda natural medicine, the medicinal properties of basil (especially holy basil) are well known.1

Basil is Naturally Antibacterial and Contains Anti-Inflammatory Fatty Acids

Some studies suggest that certain species of basil may be effective as acne treatments. Lab experiments show that both sweet and holy basil oils (Ocimum basilicum and sanctum) are active against gram positive Propionibacterium acnes (P. acnes), the bacteria associated with acne development.2

Holy basil extracts from leaves and oil from the seeds have anti-inflammatory properties. It is believed that the linolenic acid in holy basil seed oil inhibits certain pro-inflammatory mechanisms.3 Low levels of linoleic acid in sebum and inflammatory proteins are considered to be factors leading to the formation of acne, and results from a randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial showed that topical application linoleic acid reduced pimple size by 25% in one month.4 With high concentrations of linoleic (52%) and linolenic (17%) acids in its seed oil, holy basil may indeed prove to be beneficial in helping to get rid of acne.3

Clinical Evidence Shows that African Basil Gets Rid of Acne

Ocimum gratissimum, commonly known as African and wild basil, is in the sanctum group of basil species as a perennial shrub.1 It has been even more extensively studied for its effectiveness in treating acne. In one trial published in 2003, both 2% and 5% African basil oil-alcohol based preparations were significantly more effective at achieving a 50% reduction in the number of acne lesions than 10% benzoyl peroxide.5 While the 5% preparations caused some skin irritation as a side effect, the ointment using 2% African basil oil with a cetomacrogol base did not and was just as effective as the 10% benzoyl peroxide treatment.5 In another 4-week, randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial involving 126 college students with acne 2% African basil oil in a cetomacrogol base proved more effective than 10% benzoyl peroxide and was better tolerated.6


Sweet basil is generally recognized as safe when consumed as a spice. Oral administration of formulations made of the above-ground parts of sweet basil are considered possibly safe for short term medicinal use, but may be unsafe if used long-term. Aerial parts and the oils of sweet basil contain estragole, which may be carcinogenic and mutagenic.7

Holy basil is considered possibly safe when orally taken for short-term medicinal purposes (up to four weeks). It is not recommended for use by pregnant or nursing women since there is insufficient information as to safety for this group.3

There is not a monograph listed for African basil, but its essential oils have been used for centuries in traditional Ayurvedic natural medicines. Clinical trials have been conducted with this herb with no serious adverse effects.1,6

How to Use

There is no typical dose of basil. As an edible herb, it is consumed in both cooked and uncooked foods (e.g., salads) and beverages (e.g., herbal teas). Essential oils are used in aromatherapy. In the clinical studies involving African basil, the basil oil was mixed with a cream base.6-7

  1. Kurian, Alice and Sankar, M.Asha. Medicinal plants. s.l.: New India Publishing, 2007. ISBN 8189422421, 9788189422424.
  2. Viyoch, J., et al. International Journal of Cosmetic Science 28(2): Evaluation of in vitro antimicrobial activity of Thai basil oils and their micro-emulsion formulas against Propionibacterium acnes. Wiley Online Library. [Online] March 28, 2006. [Cited: January 18, 2011.] DOI 10.1111/j.1467-2494.2006.00308.x.
  3. Therapeutic Research Faculty. Holy Basil Full Monograph. Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database. [Online] 2011. [Cited: January 18, 2011.]
  4. Layton, A.M. Disorders of the Sebaceous Glands. [ed.] D.A. Burns, et al. Rook’s Textbook of Dermatology. 8th. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2010, Vol. 2, 42. ISBN: 978-1-4051-6169-5.
  5. Martin, K.W., Ernst, E. J. Antimicrob. Chemother. 51(2): Herbal medicines for treatment of bacterial infections: a review of controlled clinical trials. Oxford Journals. [Online] January 14, 2003. [Cited: January 18, 2011.] DOI 10.1093/jac/dkg087.
  6. Orafidiya, Lara O., Agbani, E.O., Oyedele, A.O., Babalola, O.O., Onayemi, O. Clinical drug investigation 22(5): Preliminary clinical tests on topical preparations of Ocimum gratissimum linn leaf essential oil for the treatment of acne vulgaris. Institute for Scientific and Technical Information. [Online] 2002. [Cited: January 18, 2011.] IST-CNRS, Cote INIST : 22357, 35400010835099.0050.
  7. Therapeutic Research Faculty. Basil Basilicum Full Monograph. Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database. [Online] 2011. [Cited: January 18, 2011.]
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