Does Salt Water Help Acne? We Asked Dermatologists

<p>LaylaBird/Getty Images</p>

LaylaBird/Getty Images

When it comes to quick fixes for acne, only a few exist. For years, the best way to obliterate an unwelcome pimple is with a cortisone injection at the dermatologist's office, an overnight pimple patch, heavy-hitting spot treatment, or a few microcurrent wand sessions (it suffocates acne-causing bacteria to shrink breakouts). But could something as simple as washing your face with ocean-derived salt water be the key to clearing up acne-prone skin? And fast?

Using salt water to reduce acne and the redness associated with it is trending on TikTok. While it may help diminish acne, it shouldn't replace a well-rounded acne regimen or your go-to products and treatments. So, before you swap salicylic acid for salt water, here's everything you need to know.

Meet the Experts

Can Salt Water Help Treat Acne?

According to dermatologist Elizabeth Houshmand, MD, salt water from the ocean can dry up pimples and provide an anti-inflammatory effect in mild acne. "This is not a beneficial treatment for severe acne," she says.

While salt water and its pore-cleansing effects may slightly improve acne, dermatologist Marisa Garshick, MD, says salt water is generally not the best way to target the antimicrobial triggers of breakouts. "Some people may see a brightening effect early on when using salt water, which is the case with most interventions for acne breakouts, and it may help to reduce excess oil within a few uses," she shares. "Still, it is best to use ingredients like benzoyl peroxide or prescription antibiotics if needed."

Salt water acts as a mechanical exfoliator and gently buffs away the top layer of the skin. When skin plagued with breakouts is gently exfoliated, Dr. Houshmand says there is less buildup of dead skin cells, which causes some types of acne. Removing dead skin cells on the surface may also produce a mild smoothing and brightening effect. "Theoretically, the salt helps to draw out oil within the skin and, therefore, dry out pimples," she explains.

Related: The 12 Best Exfoliating Tools of 2023

Furthermore, the minerals in salt water, particularly magnesium, are natural inflammation reducers, which Dr. Garshick says may help to decrease symptoms associated with skin conditions such as acne, eczema, or psoriasis. But even if salt water temporarily improves skin inflammation and redness and causes some pimples to shrink, there's no scientific proof showing that salt water is as effective as an acne treatment, which is why Dr. Garshick says it is not specifically recommended for acne.

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globalmoments/Getty Images

Potential Side Effects

Washing or splashing your face with salt water may do more harm than good, especially if you do it frequently. "Salt water is naturally harsh and can irritate the skin, compromise the skin barrier, and potentially worsen acne and eczema, so I don't advise using it," says Dr. Houshmand. Even though there may be marginal advantages to washing your face with salt water, she says more times than not, it dries out the skin, leading to worsening skin conditions and causing other severe skin complications.

As Dr. Houshmand explains, salt water and acne-prone skin have an alkaline pH of about 8, so the water can kill acne-causing bacteria. But that's only the case with ocean-obtained salt water, not homemade salt water. Table salt is more granular and grittier and can scratch, rip, or damage the skin. "Ocean water contains rich, skin-friendly minerals like magnesium, calcium, and potassium that can help combat acne-causing bacteria and skin infections and speed up the healing process," she says.


Washing with salt water even just once may be too much for some skin types, especially sensitive and dry skin, causing them to become irritated, dry, and raw, Dr. Garshick says.

While using salt water to remedy pimples here and there may help, tried-and-true anti-acne products are a much safer bet. "Although sea salt water has antimicrobial properties, they are not strong enough, so something with an acidic pH, like salicylic or glycolic acid, may be more practical," Dr. Houshmand says. "In my opinion, there are so many better washes for acne than salt water."

Skin type plays a role in deciding whether or not washing with salt water is a good idea. Avoid cleansing with salt water if your skin is dry, sensitive, or prone to cystic acne, eczema, rosacea, or psoriasis since Dr. Garshick says it may be too drying and irritating.

Since salt water isn't part of a dermatologist-prescribed acne protocol because it isn't well studied, nor a true antimicrobial that can eliminate acne, most dermatologists, including Drs. Garshick and Houshmand, don't recommend it. Instead, the rule of thumb is to lean more toward scientifically-proven, evidence-based treatments known to improve acne, such as salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, retinol, retinoids, and even sulfur treatments. "We often recommend these ingredients as combination therapies with topical and oral prescriptions," says Dr. Houshmand. "Chemical peels, LED treatments, and laser therapies can also be helpful."

<p><a href="" data-component="link" data-source="inlineLink" data-type="externalLink" data-ordinal="1">Oleg Breslavtsev</a>/Getty Images</p>

Oleg Breslavtsev/Getty Images

How to Use Salt Water to Treat Acne

If you opt for salt water to straighten out your skin, there's a right and wrong way to use it. The best way to reap the water's benefits is to bottle up the real thing. So, the next time you're at the beach, bring an empty bottle and fill it with water from the ocean.

What you don't want to do is make a version of salt water at home. "Creating salt water may not achieve the same composition as that from the ocean," Dr. Garshick says. Instead, try a cleanser like Earth's Cure Ocean Mineral Illuminating Cleanser ($29), formulated with 92 non-irritating ocean minerals, or AHAVA Dead Sea Salt Moisturizing Salt Soap ($12), which you can use on the face and body.

When washing the skin with salt water, Dr. Houshmand says to do it only at night and always follow with a hydrating moisturizer. "Using salt water twice daily may dry the skin and disrupt the skin barrier," she says.

Never overwash, rub, or scrub the skin incessantly with salt water. "It has exfoliation properties, so you shouldn't wash with salt water too often," Dr. Garshick says. Instead, you are better off splashing the water on the skin quickly and then rinsing it off with regular water since exposure to salt and salt water for too long can cause dryness. "When using salt water, some people may opt to do it as a type of exfoliation, so it is best to pair with a gentle hydrating cleanser to minimize any potential for irritation," she adds.

The Bottom Line

Since no scientific data proves saltwater to be an effective acne treatment, sticking with tried-and-true acne solutions is a safer bet. Even if you see improvement in your breakouts from salt water, it's not a long-term anti-acne option, nor is it worth the risks. And don't bet on your next tropical vacation to improve your acne. The skin can respond differently when not in its typical environment—sometimes better, other times worse—so salt water may not be the end-all-be-all to heal your acne.

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