Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 9/26/2021
Search for information about home remedies for acne and you’ll find plenty of mentions of apple cider vinegar.
Apple cider vinegar, or ACV, is a popular natural health product that’s available from most health food stores and supermarkets.
It’s made by fermenting pressed apple juice and is often used as an ingredient in sauces, salad dressings, and other recipes.
While apple cider vinegar does have some health benefits, right now there isn’t a lot of evidence that it’s an effective treatment for acne.
Read on to learn how and why acne develops, as well as the latest scientific research on apple cider vinegar as an acne treatment.
You’ll also find info on proven, science-based options that are available to treat acne breakouts, stop them from coming back, and keep your skin clear throughout the year.
Apple cider vinegar is a common natural health product and cooking ingredient. It’s a fermented juice that’s made from crushed apples.
Many apple cider vinegar brands contain what’s called a “mother:” a cloudy, power-like mix of yeast and bacteria that floats inside the bottle. Don’t be alarmed if you see it.
Apple cider vinegar is widely available: You can buy it online and in most supermarkets and health food stores — and it’s generally inexpensive.
Like many other natural food ingredients, apple cider vinegar is widely promoted in the holistic health community as a treatment for, well, just about everything.
According to some enthusiasts, apple cider vinegar can reduce blood pressure, help with blood sugar control, speed weight loss and even prevent the growth of certain types of bacteria.
Overall, the scientific evidence for these claims is mixed. While the high organic acid content of vinegar means it can kill certain types of bacteria, there’s very little research to back up most of the health claims made about apple cider vinegar.
Before we get into the specifics of whether or not apple cider vinegar helps with acne, it’s important to briefly explain how and why acne develops, as well as how most acne treatments work.
Acne forms when your hair follicles (pores) become clogged due to the buildup of sebum and dead skin cells.
Sebum is a type of natural oil that’s secreted by your sebaceous glands, and it’s important for maintaining healthy skin.
Yet when too much sebum builds up, it can cause your skin to become oily and prone to acne breakouts.
Dead skin cells are produced as part of your skin’s cellular turnover process, in which old cells are replaced with new ones.
Your epidermis (the outermost layer of your skin) turns itself over, or replaces itself, every 40 to 56 days.
As part of this process, the old, worn skin cells form into a layer of dead cells that are gradually shed into the environment when you wash your skin.
And when these cells build up on the surface layer of your skin, they can mix with sebum and clog your pores, causing acne to form.
Acne can range in severity. Mild forms of acne, such as blackheads and whiteheads, form when clogged hair follicles develop into open or closed comedones.
More severe forms of acne, such as acne papules, acne pustules and other types of inflammatory acne, develop when bacteria such as Propionibacterium acnes (P. acnes) grow inside a clogged pore and cause it to become swollen and painful.
Acne treatments work in several different ways. Some treat acne locally by reducing sebum or promoting the shedding of dead skin cells.
Others work by killing the bacteria that can multiply inside clogged pores and cause acne to become inflamed and painful.
Certain acne treatments (such as the birth control pill) work by reducing the production of specific hormones that can cause oily skin and acne breakouts.
For the most part, acne treatments can be divided into two categories:
Topical treatments. These work locally on your skin, either to kill bacteria, promote the shedding of dead skin cells or by preventing excess sebum from building up inside your pores. Examples of common topical treatments for acne include benzoyl peroxide, tretinoin and niacinamide.
Systemic treatments. These are medications that come in tablet or capsule form. They work in the same way as topical treatments, but are active throughout your body instead of just on your skin. Examples of common systemic treatments for acne include prescription medications such as oral antibiotics like clindamycin, certain birth control pills and isotretinoin.
This guide to the best acne treatments goes into more detail about how these medications work to stop acne breakouts and prevent them from coming back.
Over the years, research has found that apple cider vinegar has antimicrobial effects, meaning it can reduce the growth of certain types of bacteria.
Take note, though: Most of the studies that link apple cider vinegar with reduced bacterial growth are referred to as “in vitro” studies, meaning they were carried out in test tubes, Petri dishes and other types of lab glassware — rather than on human skin.
As a result of these findings, natural health enthusiasts occasionally position apple cider vinegar as a natural alternative to topical acne medications that kill acne-causing bacteria.
While in vitro studies can provide helpful information about ingredients and medications, they’re not always reliable proof that a substance will perform the same way in humans.
Although the antimicrobial properties of apple cider vinegar are interesting, there’s no research that shows that it’s effective at preventing acne breakouts or stopping the growth of P. acnes on human skin.
There’s also no evidence that it reduces sebum production, cleanses away leftover skin cells or has any effect on the other biological processes that can cause acne breakouts.
In short, despite the claims made by some enthusiasts, there’s no scientific evidence that apple cider vinegar helps with acne.
Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that apple cider vinegar doesn’t work for pimples. In the future, a study could come out showing that apple cider vinegar gets rid of comedonal acne, or that it’s a great natural spot treatment.
However, we don’t have that research yet. And since apple cider vinegar has some real downsides (detailed below), it generally isn’t worth considering as an acne treatment.
Applying apple cider vinegar to your skin, whether as a home remedy for acne or for any other purpose, isn’t recommended.
Apple cider vinegar is acidic, meaning it has the potential to irritate your skin. In fact, there have been reports of people developing chemical burns after applying apple cider vinegar directly to their skin.
Even when it’s diluted with water, apple cider vinegar has been found to produce irritation when applied directly to the skin.
When your skin is irritated, your acne breakouts can quickly become more inflamed, severe and painful.
This means that by using apple cider vinegar, especially when it's undiluted, you run the risk of making your acne worse.
While there’s no evidence that apple cider vinegar treats acne, there are several safe, effective and easy-to-use treatments to help you get rid of acne breakouts for good.
Below are some over-the-counter acne treatments, prescription medications and other proven options for treating acne.
If you have mild or moderate acne, you may be able to bring your breakouts under control with products available over the counter.
Look for the following items (and ingredients) online or in your local drugstore:
Benzoyl peroxide. This medication stops acne-causing bacteria, such as P. acnes, from growing on your skin. It’s a popular active ingredient in cleansers, creams, serums and other topical acne treatments.
Hydroxy acids. Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs) are widely used in cleansers and other acne treatments. They work by removing the outer layer of skin and stripping away dead skin cells that can clog pores.Common AHAs and BHAs include salicylic acid, glycolic acid, lactic acid, citric acid and tartaric acid.
Gentle cleansers. Gentle cleansers use lighter, less irritating ingredients to wash away sebum and dead skin cells. They’re worth considering if you have sensitive skin that can become dry or itchy from ingredients such as benzoyl peroxide or hydroxy acids. This Hers Deep Sea Cleanser for Acne is made with red seaweed extract and rosehip seed to cleanse skin and treat acne breakouts without causing damage or irritation.
Over-the-counter retinoids. These ingredients work by preventing comedones (small, non-inflamed acne lesions) from developing on your skin. Retinoids available over the counter include retinol and adapalene (sold as Differin® gel).
You can learn more about these products, how they work and their effectiveness in this guide to the best over-the-counter acne treatments.
If your acne is severe or persistent, you may need to use prescription medication to get it under control. Your healthcare provider may prescribe one or several of the following medications:
Tretinoin. A prescription retinoid, tretinoin works by increasing the rate at which your skin produces new skin cells. This helps promote the shedding of dead skin to help prevent acne breakouts.Tretinoin is one of several active ingredients in this Prescription Acne Cream, which has a tailored formula to treat your specific acne needs.
Clindamycin. A topical antibiotic, clindamycin works by slowing or preventing the growth of bacteria that can cause inflamed acne breakouts. Like tretinoin, it’s an active ingredient in Hers Prescription Acne Cream.
Birth control. Several birth control pills are approved to treat acne, including Yaz, Estrostep and generic forms of Ortho Tri-Cyclen. These pills treat acne by regulating the production of hormones that can cause oily skin and acne breakouts. You can find birth control online, including several pills that are perfect for stopping acne and promoting clear, blemish-free skin.
Despite its popularity as a natural health cure-all, there’s no evidence that apple cider vinegar is an effective treatment for acne.
In fact, because of its acidity, using apple cider vinegar as a topical acne treatment could end up damaging your skin and making your acne worse.
When it comes to preventing acne and enjoying clear skin, you’ll get the best results by sticking to proven, science-based acne treatments.
Check out this guide to preventing acne breakouts for simple, effective tactics you can use to avoid breakouts, clear up blemishes and enjoy glowing skin.
And if your acne is especially severe, or you simply don’t know what’s causing it, speak with a healthcare professional to get tailored advice for your skin.
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