As far as we’re concerned, acne is up there among the most offensive four letter words in the English language. More than four out of five of adults have had to deal with acne at some point in their lives.When pimples rear their ugly heads, it can be hard to decide how to fight back. There are literally hundreds of cleansers, creams, scrubs, and gels that promise to zap your zits, but most contain harsh chemicals that can cause irritation and dry out skin.Natural remedies, which have been used for centuries, tend to be gentler on our skin. The downside? They also tend to be gentler on zits, and are often maligned by doctors for their lack of effectiveness.

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Now, scientists are looking more closely at some of the historical treatments for acne to see if they might be able to compete with modern brands—and they’re finding positive results.

Dr. Margarita Gomez-Escalada, a researcher from Leeds Metropolitan University, pitted alcohol tinctures of several common herbal remedies against conventional chemicals to see if the natural options were as effective at killing the acne-causing bacteria, Propionibacterium acnes. All killed the bacteria within five minutes, but thyme stood out as particularly effective, said Dr. Gomez-Escalada in a presentation at the Society for General Microbiology’s Spring Conference in Dublin. Extracts of thyme were more effective at killing bacteria than benzoyl peroxide, the most widely used acne medication on the market today.

“While thyme, marigold and myrrh are common herbal alternatives to standard antibacterial skin washes, this is the first study to demonstrate the effect they have on the bacterium that causes the infection leading to acne,” Dr. Gomez-Escalada explained. “Our results suggest they can be just as, if not more, effective than chemical treatments.”

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Currently, there are few well-tested natural acne remedies available. Tea tree oil, from the leaves of the Australian tree Melaleuca alternifolia, is the exception to the rule. Studies have shown that tea tree oil can be an effective, natural way of fighting breakouts. One study, for example, compared the use of five percent tea tree oil against five percent benzoyl peroxide. Both treatments significantly reduced the patients’ acne, and though the tea tree oil took longer to work, it had fewer undesirable side effects. With results like those presented by Dr. Gomez-Escalada, thyme may soon join tea tree oil as a scientifically supported natural acne treatment.

Don’t go subbing thyme for your usual acne treatments just yet, though. A lot more work needs to be done to determine whether thyme will be as safe and effective at fighting acne as conventional products, and if so, at what concentration. This lab-based research is the first step toward turning thyme into an over the counter acne therapy.

“The next experiments we intend to do will simulate the skin more closely, by drying the bacteria onto a glass surface,” said Dr. Gomez-Escalada. Complete development of a thyme-based product, she explained, “will probably take between five to 10 years.” For natural enthusiasts with acne, that day can’t come soon enough.

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