Green Tea and Acne

Research into safer alternative treatments for inflammatory skin conditions has revealed the role of green tea as a natural acne treatment. The Chinese have used green tea for centuries as a remedy for a variety of hormonal and inflammatory conditions, but using green tea for skin conditions is a relatively new practice in the West. Acne is a common skin disease that can cause both physical and emotional scarring for those who suffer from it.1

If you have ever been afflicted with acne breakouts, you have probably tried a variety of pills and potions to help get rid of it. The problem is that many acne medications (including benzoyl peroxide, vitamin A, antibiotic creams, and pharmaceutical medications) carry a risk of side effects which can sometimes prove to be more severe than the acne itself (e.g., allergic reactions and birth defects).2

Acne is a skin disease typically characterized by inflammatory and non-inflammatory areas of skin, blackheads, whiteheads, pus-filled pimples, and large papules. According to some statistics, acne affects 60-70% of Americans at some time during their lives, and can lead to scarring in more severe cases.3

The causes of acne are still not completely understood, but researchers have confirmed that a variety of factors play a role, including:

  • Androgen hormones. An increase in the commonly-termed sex hormones (e.g., testosterone, dihydrotestosterone, and dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate) can cause excess production of sebum, which feeds bacteria and prolong the inflammation that accompanies acne.3-4
  • Bacterial. Acne contains bacteria (P. acnes) that stimulate inflammatory cytokines. P. acnes may be both a cause and an exacerbating factor for the skin condition.5
  • Genetics.3
  • Non-androgen hormones. Dysregulation of hormones that affect metabolism (e.g., insulin and IGF-1).3
  • Oxidative and Psychological Stress. Emerging research indicates that both systemic stress of both types impact the development and worsening of acne.5

Green Tea and Acne: The Link

Green tea is a rich source of antioxidants called catechins.1 As such, its antioxidants may be able to combat the oxidative activities of free radicals that appear to be involved in many aspects of acne development and progression.5

Green tea may be able to prevent and treat acne via multiple mechanisms:

Regulating Hormones

Scientists at the Tang Center for Herbal Medicine Research at the University of Chicago identified a specific green tea catechin called (-) epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG) as the main hormone-regulating catechin. Multiple animal studies show that injections of EGCG modulate androgens and other hormones which contribute to acne development.1

It has also been shown that insulin resistance, promoted by consumption of milk and/or diets composed of foods with high glycemic index values, is a factor in inflammatory acne development.6 Excess insulin produced in response to insulin resistance triggers the secretion of IGF-1; both hormones can stimulate secretion of growth hormone which in turn stimulates the sebaceous glands to produce more sebum.6 Animal studies have demonstrated that EGCG in green tea boosts the ability to utilize glucose more efficiently and counteract insulin resistance, helping regulate insulin, IGF-1, and growth hormone levels.7

Diabetes drugs (e.g., metformin) which inhibit IGF-1 and increase sensitivity to insulin have been shown to improve acne in women with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). This suggests that acne associated with insulin resistance, diabetes, PCOS, or other metabolic disorders may therefore be responsive to green tea therapy as well.6

Anti-Inflammatory Effects

Evidence from other animal studies indicate that a green tea protein called tristetraprolin may also play a role in the prevention and treatment of inflammatory disorders like acne by decreasing production of pro-inflammatory cytokines.8 Antibiotics and antioxidants successfully reduce the inflammatory conditions of acne, and green tea catechins have proven to exert both antibiotic and antioxidant effects.5

Small clinical trials have demonstrated successful treatment of acne with topical application of ointments that contain green tea extract. Experts state that green tea's anti-inflammatory activities may be one of the mechanisms accounting for the reduction of acne lesions in these studies.5

Stress Reduction

Recent behavioural tests on animals have demonstrated that EGCG also exerts anti-anxiety effects in much the same way as chlordiazepoxide (e.g., Librium®). It does this by limiting the activities of an amino acid that inhibits GABA, a neurotransmitter in the brain that blocks excitatory neural transmissions.9

Increased antioxidant intake and decreased insulin levels have both been associated with lower risk of depression. Green tea's high antioxidant content and EGCG's demonstrated ability to reduce insulin resistance both corroborate the mental health-boosting effects of green tea.5

These results suggest that green tea may be therapeutic for acne patients by reducing stress, which research indicates can be particularly high in people suffering from the condition. Recently published studies revealed that reports of clinical depression in acne patients are significantly higher than in the general population, as are levels of anxiety and even rates of suicide.5


Uronic acids in green tea exhibit antibacterial properties against a number of different microbes, including P. acnes and S. aureus. In vitro studies on human and mouse cell lines demonstrated that green tea hot water extracts prevented bacteria from adhering to host cells. The highest inhibitory effect was shown against P. acnes.10

Evidence for the Use of Green Tea for Acne

There is no solid evidence that drinking green tea in any amount can help cure acne, but this may be because not much clinical research has been done in this area. Animal studies indicate that EGCG's anxiety-reducing and insulin-modulating effects may help prevent or treat acne.7,9 The results of these studies suggest that oral supplements of the powerful green tea antioxidant might be something worth trying to alleviate the stress of acne lesions.

The use of topical green tea creams has shown great promise in preliminary human trials as an alternative acne treatment. In one clinical study (not placebo-controlled), a 2% green tea lotion applied twice daily for six weeks reduced acne lesion counts by almost 60% and acne severity by almost 40%.11 The researchers involved also concluded that green tea proved to be both a well-tolerated and economical acne treatment.11 Another small, 8-week clinical study looked at the effects of a 3% topical green tea solution and found it significantly reduced sebum production in healthy adults.12

How to Use Green Tea For Acne

Some people simply drink strongly brewed green tea in the hope that it will cure acne. Green tea extracts containing EGCG catechins, as well as antioxidant EGCG supplements, are readily available for purchase online retail locations or local drugstores, general merchandise, or health food stores.

Topical creams containing 2-3% of green tea extract are also available, and human studies have demonstrated their effectiveness in treating acne.11-12

  1. Liao, S. The medicinal action of androgens and green tea epigallocatechin gallate. Hong Kong Medical Journal Vol. 7 No. 4. [Online] December 2001. [Cited: 30 December 2010.]
  2. Berson, Diane. Office on Women's Health: Acne. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. [Online] 16 July 2009. [Cited: 29 December 2010.]
  3. Fulton, James. Acne Vulgaris. eMedicine from WebMD. [Online] 17 December 2010. [Cited: 28 December 2010.]
  4. Baumann, Leslie, Saghari, Sogol, Weisberg, Edmund. Cosmetic Dermatology: Principles and Practice. 2nd. New York: McGraw Hill Professional, 2009. ISBN 0071490620, 9780071490627.
  5. Bowe, Whitney P. and Logan, Alan C. Lipids in Health and Disease 9: Clinical implications of lipid peroxidation in acne vulgaris: old wine in new bottles. BioMed Central Ltd: Lipid World. [Online] 9 December 2010. [Cited: 31 December 2010.] DOI 10.1186/1476-511X-9-141.
  6. Melnik, Bodo C. and Schmitz, Gerd. Experimental Dermatology 18(10): Role of insulin, insulin-like growth factor-1, hyperglycaemic food and milk consumption in the pathogenesis of acne vulgaris. Wiley Online Library. [Online] 25 August 2009. [Cited: 29 December 2010.] DOI 10.1111/j.1600-0625.2009.00924.x.
  7. Bose, Mousumi, et al. The Major Green Tea Polyphenol, (-)-Epigallocatechin-3-Gallate, Inhibits Obesity, Metabolic Syndrome, and Fatty Liver Disease in High-Fat–Fed Mice. The Journal of Nutrition Vol. 139 No. 9. [Online] 1 September 2008. [Cited: 30 December 2010.]
  8. Cao, Heping, et al. Green tea increases anti-inflammatory tristetraprolin and decreases pro-inflammatory tumor necrosis factor mRNA levels in rats. Journal of Inflammation Vol. 4 No. 1.[Online] 5 January 2007. [Cited: 29 December 2010.] DOI 10.1186/1476-9255-4-1.
  9. Vignes, Michel, et al. Brain Research 1110(1): Anxiolytic properties of green tea polyphenol (−)-epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG). ScienceDirect. [Online] 19 September 2006. [Cited: 30 December 2010.]
  10. Lee, J.H., Shim, J.S., Chung, M.S., Lim, S.T., Kim, K.H. Phytother Res. 23(4): In vitro anti-adhesive activity of green tea extract against pathogen adhesion. PubMed: U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health. [Online] April 2009. [Cited: 30 December 2010.]
  11. Elsaie, M.L., Abdelhamid, M.F., Elsaaiee, L.T., Emam, H.M. J Drugs Dermatol. 8(4): The efficacy of topical 2% green tea lotion in mild-to-moderate acne vulgaris. PubMed: U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health. [Online] April 2009. [Cited: 29 December 2010.] PMID: 19363854 .
  12. Mahmood, T., Akhtar, N., Khan, B.A., Khan, H.M., Saeed, T. Bosn J Basic Med Sci. 10(3): Outcomes of 3% green tea emulsion on skin sebum production in male volunteers. PubMed: U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health. [Online] August 2010. [Cited: 29 December 2010.] PMID: 20846135.
  13. Small raised solid bumps.
    The skin's natural oil.
    Propionibacterium acnes.
    Insulin-like growth factor 1.
    Glycemic index values indicate how quickly a food converts into glucose, or sugar, in the blood. Foods like simple carbohydrates are easily digested and converted and therefore have a high glycemic index value.
    Other symptoms include increased facial and body hair, failure to ovulate, and increased risk of diabetes.
    Tests conducted in a laboratory setting that do not involve human or animal subjects.
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