Willow Bark Extract: The Anti-Inflammatory Queen Of Your Skincare Routine
Home remedies for acne and other skin ailments can be hit or miss. An oatmeal bath does wonders for eczema, but don’t rub a lemon on your face in place of a vitamin C serum unless you want to risk blisters and burns (1). One you’ve likely heard and maybe even tried that lands somewhere in the middle: making an aspirin paste for acne spot-treatment. That’s because aspirin is actually related to salicylic acid, the tried and true ingredient at the heart of anti-acne cleansers and chemical exfoliants.
Is Willow Bark Salicylic Acid?
Aspirin is acetylsalicylic acid, and then there’s salicylic acid itself, the popular BHA acid. They’re both derived from something you’re a little less likely to regularly keep stocked in your medicine cabinet (though that may soon change): salicin.
Found in willow bark, most often from the white willow tree, salicin has been used as an anti-inflammatory and pain-reliever since antiquity. Ancient cultures chewed willow bark or made tea from it to treat all kinds of aches and pains, including skin ailments. Hippocrates, “the father of modern medicine,” even recommended willow bark to women to lessen pain during childbirth (2).
Though, of course, medicine has developed a whole lot since Hippocrates’ time, willow bark continues to soothe today. You can find willow bark supplements for pain-relief (or take the aspirin inspired by it), but you’ll also see it in natural-leaning skincare products as an alternative to synthetic salicylic acid. It’s not a one-for-one swap, as the salicin of willow bark requires enzymes not available on the skin to be metabolized and converted to salicylic acid, but it can address many similar concerns.
Does Willow Bark Help Acne?
A number of skin conditions have inflammation at the root—acne, rosacea, psoriasis, eczema, dermatitis—and combating inflammation is where willow bark extract shines. Inflammation is a natural immune response to a stimulus or trigger, like a bacterial infection inside a pimple or a run in with poison ivy. Often presenting as redness, swelling, and tenderness, inflammation is part of the body’s way of dealing with injury or invasion. It’s a necessary thing that can feel quite bad. You can manage its causes to prevent inflammation in the first place, but reach for an anti-inflammatory once it’s happening to reduce the effects.
Can Willow Bark Calm Redness?
Yes, willow bark extract works as a topical anti-inflammatory to soothe skin. While it won’t unclog pores like salicylic acid, it can greatly reduce the redness and swelling of acne lesions. Similarly, it can target the redness of rosacea. Salicin is an astringent (like calamine lotion and witch hazel), meaning it contracts skin cells, shrinks pores and relieves inflammation. Research shows that salicin can also effectively improve wrinkles, dullness, and rough texture (3), and willow bark extract’s tannins (another astringent), polyphenols (phytonutrients high in antioxidants), and flavonoids (a type of polyphenols that likewise have antioxidant properties) contribute to its benefits by aiding in healthy cell regeneration (4).
Let’s just say Hippocrates knew what was up. Willow bark derived or inspired products are well-deserving of their regular position on bathroom shelves everywhere. So when you see willow bark extract on a skincare product’s label, make room to nudge it in beside your bottle of aspirin and salicylic acid acne treatment as another reliable go-to.