Willow Bark and Acne

Willow tree species were originally native to Europe, Asia, and North Africa.1The branch bark taken from 2-3 year old willow trees (e.g., Salix alba, cortex, nigra, and purpurea) is then dried and used for herbal teas and a variety of natural supplements.1 It has long been used for pain relief—even ancient Egyptians, Assyrians, and Greeks recommended willow leaves to treat joint and childbirth pain.2 In addition to its analgesic properties, it is also a strong antiseptic, and has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a topical acne treatment.2

Evidence of Willow Bark's Antiseptic and Anti-Inflammatory Effects

Willow bark contains salicin, which metabolizes in the liver and becomes salicylic acid.1 The acetylated form of salicylic acid is aspirin.1 Willow bark contains salicin, which metabolizes in the liver and becomes salicylic acid. The acetylated form of salicylic acid is aspirin. Unlike aspirin, however, salicin does not irritate the stomach.1 Salicylic acid is responsible for willow bark's antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties that are important for acne treatment.2

Additional polyphenols include tannins, catechins, and flavonoids, which may have antioxidant and astringent qualities.3 Willow bark extracts also inhibit prostaglandins, hormones that regulate pain and inflammation, and randomized, controlled clinical studies corroborate that it acts as a powerful anti-inflammatory.2

Salicylic Acid and Acne

Willow bark's salicylic acid is an alpha-hydroxybenzoic acid that not only is a potent anti-inflammatory but also helps break up comedones.4 Salicylic acid is superior to water-soluble treatments in this respect because it is dissolvable in fats and is able to penetrate the pilosebaceous unit.5


When taken orally willow bark has been safely used for up to 12 weeks. However, there is insufficient information to recommend its use in pregnant women. Lactating women should avoid using willow bark since it contains salicylates which have been linked to adverse side effects on nursing infants.3

Oral intake of willow bark extract could increase risk of bleeding if taken with other anticoagulant drugs (e.g., warfarin and aspirin) or herbs and supplements with similar effects. Because of salicin's antiplatelet effects, avoid using several weeks before any surgical procedure.3

Willow bark has been deemed safe by the FDA for over-the-counter topical use for acne.5 Salicin, however, has been known to cause skin rash.2 People with darker skin tones should use salicylic acid facial peels for acne with caution because it may cause hyper- or hypopigmentation.6 Salicylic acid may cause a burning sensation when first applied but that it actually acts as an anesthetic.4 After getting a peel it is essential to use sunscreen or avoid direct sunlight for the first month because of skin sensitivity.4

How to Use

Willow bark's salicylic acid is used in a number of effective acne treatment products, including facial peels, washes, cleansers, and creams.5 You can also make a tea with chopped or powdered willow bark. Heat 2-3 grams of the bark with water to boiling and cool slightly before drinking (3-4 cups/day maximum).1

Extracts of willow bark are readily available in supplemental form at reputable online vitamin retailers and in various commercial homeopathic medicines.1

  1. Wyk, Ben-Erik Van and Wink, Michael. Medicinal plants of the world: an illustrated scientific guide to important medicinal plants and their uses. s.l.: Timber Press, 2004. ISBN 0881926027, 9780881926026.,/li>
  2. Wynn, Susan G. and Fougère, Barbara. Veterinary herbal medicine. s.l.: Elsevier Health Sciences, 2007. ISBN 0323029981, 9780323029988.
  3. Therapeutic Research Faculty. Willow Bark Full Monograph. Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database. [Online] 2011. [Cited: January 23, 2011.] http://naturaldatabase.therapeuticresearch.com/nd/Search.aspx?cs=&s=ND&pt=100&id=955&ds=&name=WILLOW+BARK&searchid=24789005.
  4. Jacobs, M. Amanda and Roenigk, Randall.. Superficial chemical peels. [book auth.] Zoe Diana Draelos. Cosmetic Dermatology Products & Procedures. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2010, 47. ISBN 978-1-4051-8635-3.
  5. Graber, Emmy M. and Thiboutot, Diane.. Over-the-counter acne treatments. [book auth.] Zoe Diana Draelos. Cosmetic Dermatology Products & Procedures. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2010, 60. ISBN 978-1-4051-8635-3.
  6. Vedamurthy, M.. Salicylic acid peels. Indian Journal of Dermatology, Venereology and Leprology Vol. 70, Issue 2. [Online] March 15, 2004. [Cited: January 23, 2011.] http://www.ijdvl.com/article.asp?issn=0378-6323;year=2004;volume=70;issue=2;spage=136;epage=138;aulast=Vedamurthy.
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