The Zoe Report’s Chemistry Lesson is an ongoing series where leading cosmetic chemists break down the science behind how your favorite beauty products work. For this installment, experts explain the benefits of neem oil — and why you should consider working it into your skincare routine.
Modern skincare enthusiasts are living in wild times. Cutting-edge innovations abound — you can inject neutralized toxins into your face to erase fine lines, or harness electrical micro-currents to quite literally zap a zit — and yet, the pull toward ancient, natural remedies is strong. The current interest in Ayurveda, the holistic healing system of India, is a prime example. Its simple practices of dry brushing, facial massage, and turmeric spot treatments originated nearly 5,000 years ago — and are still touted today by experts. The same could be said about neem oil skincare. The Ayurvedic ingredient isn't new, but if this is your first time incorporating it into your skincare routine, there are a few things you should know.
“Neem oil is derived from the neem tree found in India,” Regina Feldman, the founder of VEDA Spirit Ayurvedic Wellness and Treatment Center, tells The Zoe Report. “‘Neem’ translates to the sanskrit ‘nimba,’ meaning ‘bestower of good health.’” As such, the substance has a reputation for supporting healthy skin on almost every level imaginable. Ready to get acquainted with the super-moisturizing, skin-softening, acne-clearing, inflammation-taming, pollution-fighting power ingredient? Ahead, industry experts (including dermatologists, cosmetic chemists, and Ayurvedic practitioners) explain everything there is to know about neem oil.
To start, neem has one important point of differentiation from other Ayurvedic skin remedies, like saffron and sesame oil: You shouldn’t eat it. “Neem is not usually for internal use — it is powerful as a topical oil,” Feldman says. Traditionally, people have relied on “a paste of fresh neem leaves” to spot-treat blemishes and other skin issues, Shrankhla Holecek, an Ayurvedic expert and the founder of wellness and beauty brand UMA Oils, tells TZR. More commonly, a potent oil is extracted from the seeds and leaves of the neem tree.
“It reduces acne, controls irregular pigmentation, and improves the complexion.”
“Specifically for the skin, neem has a ‘cooling’ effect on inflammation throughout the body,” Dr. Tanuj Nakra, a board-certified doctor and founder of AVYA Skincare, tells The Zoe Report, calling it “a powerful anti-inflammatory botanical.” Since inflammation is the root of so many skin issues — pimples, redness, and irritations like eczema and dermatitis are all variations of inflamed skin — neem has a unique ability to solve a lot of problems. “It reduces acne, controls irregular pigmentation, and improves the complexion,” Nakra says.
How, exactly, does it do all that? It’s chock-full of vitamins, Omega fatty acids, and chemical compounds that work together to amplify each others’ benefits. “Neem contains vitamin E, which can be beneficial in fading scars,” Dr. Aanand Geria, a board-certified dermatologist with Geria Dermatology, tells The Zoe Report. “The triglycerides in neem oil, combined with vitamin E, also make it an amazing skin moisturizer.” Cosmetic chemist Ron Robinson, founder of BeautyStat Cosmetics, tells TZR that vitamin E “makes neem great for providing free radical protection,” as well. (FYI: Free radicals are pollution particles that accelerate aging — so free radical protection is essential for overall health and youthful skin.)
“One of its most important compounds is nimbidin, which has clinically-proven anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties,” Nakra adds. “Antibacterial” is a big one: This is what gives neem the ability to gently clear away acne-causing bacteria — and thanks to that vitamin E content, it does so without stripping the skin’s barrier. Geria notes that nimbidin is also antifungal, which comes in handy for treating certain strains of acne and dandruff.
“Pure neem oil is very strong.”
According to Feldman (and scientific studies), neem oil features Omega-6 and -9 fatty acids, otherwise known as linoleic and oleic acids, respectively. Some experts maintain supplementing the skin’s supply of linoleic acid can help clear breakouts. Oleic acid, on the other hand, naturally occurs in skin cells and helps them stay hydrated and plump.
Finally, neem oil is rich in carotenoids, which are aces when it comes to brightening spots of hyperpigmentation and lingering acne scars, per Feldman.
“Pure neem oil is very strong,” Geria says, which is why you’ll notice most neem-touting skincare products use it in low concentrations. Most often, neem is diluted in a carrier oil or a mix of carrier oils (think: sesame, jojoba, or almond oils), so don’t be discouraged if you see it listed toward the bottom of ingredients lists — a little goes a long way.
Interestingly, neem’s beauty benefits aren’t the only reasons it's popping up in an increasing amount of clean, non-toxic products: Neem also acts as a natural preservative. “The purpose of preservatives is to prevent bacterial or fungal growth in manufactured products,” Nakra explains. “Neem's potent antibacterial properties function as a preservative. It's one of the reasons AVYA Skincare products do not have added preservatives — neem and other compounds perform that function naturally.” Robinson says this checks out. “There is some merit to this, given neem oil has been shown to have antimicrobial properties,” he agrees.
Despite the sheer amount of power inherent in a single drop of neem oil, dermatologists and cosmetic chemists maintain that it’s generally safe for all skin types to use. “As with any powerful ingredient, pay attention to the concentration when using neem extract,” Holecek says. There’s also a chance of allergic reaction, so spot-test any new products on your arm before applying to your face, just to be safe.
The only significant risk of neem oil? According to Geria, it’s, uh, a little stinky. “Neem oil has a strong, garlic-like odor, so it should be avoided before social events,” he says. “If the smell is too strong, you can dilute it with lavender essential oil.” A small price to pay for healthy, glowing skin, right?
Neem oil may have been around for 5,000 years… but it’s still got it. Ahead, see how experts recommend working it into your skincare routine.