Salt water for acne: Does it actually work?

Along with toothpaste and crushed aspirin, salt water is often cited as a quick and easy fix for pimples.

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Molly McLaughlin
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Still waiting to grow out of those pimples? While they're more common for teenagers, breakouts can occur at any stage of life and can be frustrating for frequent sufferers.

Unfortunately, figuring out how to deal with your skin as you get older doesn't get much easier.

The process can be overwhelming, especially due to the plethora of products and home remedies that claim to cure acne with varying levels of evidence to back them up.

Along with toothpaste and crushed aspirin, salt water is one of the treatments that is often cited as a quick and easy fix for pimples.

If you're wondering whether it actually works, we've put together a comprehensive guide exploring the benefits and risks of salt water for the skin, along with some evidence-backed alternatives.

Whether you’re experiencing a one-off breakout or in the midst of a long-term struggle against pimples, understanding how to treat your acne is the first step towards clearer, healthier skin.

How is salt water used in skincare?

Salt water, also referred to as saline water, is water that contains a significant amount of dissolved salt, typically sodium chloride.

The term usually applies to ocean or sea salt water, which has an average salinity of about 3.5%.

Saline solution, like the liquid used to clean wounds and store contact lenses, contains 0.9% salt, which is a similar composition to a person's tears.

When it comes to your skincare routine, there is no industry definition of what the term salt water means.

A salt water solution can be incorporated into products in a range of concentrations and can contain varying amounts of minerals and trace elements depending on its source. The Dead Sea, for example, is a popular source of sea salt in skincare because of its high mineral content.

For those who don't have easy access to the beach, homemade salt water can be made by stirring 35 grams of salt into approximately a litre of water [1].

Sea salt water is not to be confused with bath salt, which is actually made of magnesium sulphate but is named for its resemblance to large grains of table salt.

Does salt water help acne?

Many people find their skin responds well to a swim in the ocean, and ocean baths were prescribed for a variety of ailments in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Although the effects of sea salt on acne haven't been extensively studied, these positive outcomes may be due to the exfoliating and drying effects of salt water which can help clear up a breakout.

Additionally, salt has been used to preserve food for centuries because it has antibacterial properties, so it can have a similar effect on your skin, reducing the growth of acne bacteria [2].

However, too much salt water can lead to the opposite outcome.

Over-exfoliation can irritate the skin barrier, creating tiny cracks that become infected and develop into pimples themselves.

Salt kills bacteria by drying it out, and it can be harsh on your skin's moisture barrier. For this reason, people with combination or dry skin may find salt water does more harm than good, and even those with an oily skin type should use salt water to treat acne only in moderation.

Does salt water have any skin benefits?

Salt water therapy, also known as balneotherapy, is an alternative remedy that some people find helps with psoriasis symptoms and other skin conditions. Because salt water has anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties, it can help soothe and calm inflamed skin.

Swimming in salt water can also help to remove dead skin cells, improving the skin’s appearance and temporarily relieving itchiness.

The scientific evidence for balneotherapy is limited and issues related to dryness and irritation can occur alongside the short-term benefits [3].

To minimise damage, salt water therapy should always be used in conjunction with a regular moisturising routine. If you're struggling with psoriasis or other skin conditions, we recommend consulting your doctor or dermatologist for personalised advice.

Are there any risks to using salt water on your skin?

Everyone's skin is different, but frequent exposure to salt water (like washing your face with it every day) can strip yours of its natural oils, leading to dryness and irritation.

Those with a more sensitive skin type are likely to experience redness, irritation, and even broken skin after prolonged contact with salt water.

This is because salt water can damage the skin barrier, making it susceptible to infections and resulting in acne flare-ups.

Like all physical exfoliants, sea salt is effective at removing dead skin cells, but it is far from gentle on your face. The process by which it draws moisture out of the skin may leave it feeling tight and rough, which is the opposite of how you want your skin to feel after your skincare routine.

Proven ways to treat acne

There are a variety of treatments available for acne-prone skin that, unlike salt water, are proven to get results.

A basic skincare routine involves several key steps to help manage breakouts.

First, start with a gentle cleanser to remove excess oil and impurities. Then, use a mild exfoliant to remove dead skin cells that can clog pores and apply any targeted acne treatment.

Finally, add moisturiser and a broad-spectrum sunscreen to hydrate and protect your skin.

It's important not to skip moisturising even if your skin is on the oilier side, because dehydration can actually lead your skin to produce more sebum to compensate. Read on for some of the key active ingredients to look out for in your skincare products.

Topical treatments

Ingredients such as retinoids, azelaic acid, salicylic acid, glycolic acid and benzoyl peroxide are recommended for mild-to-moderate cases of acne because they offer effective relief with few negative side effects [4].

Some of these ingredients are available in the form of pimple patches as well as cleansers, toners and creams.

Patches (like Software's AHA/BHA Pimple Patches) allow the slow release of salicylic acid and other actives, while also acting as a barrier between the pimple and any further infection.

Topical retinoids like tretinoin are especially helpful as a maintenance treatment after a breakout subsides because they work to prevent the formation of comedones by reducing sebum production.

Alternative remedies, like basil oil, copaiba oil, green tea, peptides, seaweed oil, and tea tree oil applied to the skin, have also been shown to have a positive impact on acne.

Software’s acne treatment provides personalised formulas designed by a qualified dermatology team. Depending on your skin concerns, the acne treatment can be made up of different concentrations of retinoid, niacinamide, hyaluronic acid, AZA Acid and antibacterials.

Software also offers an Acne Kit that can be used in conjunction with your treatment or as a standalone. It is made up of our Salicylic Foaming Wash, Ceramide Repair Balm, AHA/BHA Pimple Patches and daily Acne Supplement capsules, for a comprehensive skincare routine that targets blemishes from all angles.

Systemic treatments

Oral and topical antibiotics, while often effective in treating acne, are only recommended for short periods and when absolutely necessary due to the risk of the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Topical corticosteroids are another option that can be employed for short periods of time to reduce inflammation.

Since sebum production can be related to hormonal changes, the oral contraceptive pill is also used to manage acne in certain patients [5].

Can sea salt help my skin?

In conclusion, salt water's potential benefits for the skin are mixed.

While we know that sea salt can be an effective physical exfoliant, removing dead skin cells and drying out the skin, its results for those who are acne-prone are not so straightforward.

Regular application of salt water to the skin can lead to irritation, damage the skin barrier, and potentially worsen conditions like acne for many people.

Ultimately, while salt water may offer some benefits, it should not be seen as a standalone treatment for acne.

If you find it improves your skin, proceed with care and make sure to incorporate lots of hydrating and moisturising products into your skincare routine alongside the salt water. More research is needed to study the treatment's long-term results.

Image credit: Getty Images

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