Alternative Treatments

Why You Should NEVER Take Saw Palmetto for Acne

As I’ve mentioned in my post about my history with cystic acne, I’ve tried basically everything (except Accutane) to get rid of my pimples.

After being failed by what felt like every prescription and over-the-counter acne treatment in existence, I started looking into alternative options.

I focused more on what I was putting in my body instead of the gels and creams I was putting on my skin. I cut out dairy, started eating low GI foods, reduced my caffeine intake, all that good stuff.

As part of this newfound focus on how my internal body chemistry could help my acne, I also started researching nutritional supplements that could help.

And that is what led to the worst acne breakout I’ve ever experienced in my entire life.

What is Saw Palmetto?

Among the other supplements and alternative remedies suggested for treating acne was saw palmetto.

I’d never heard of it before, but there were quite a few YouTube videos of women who claimed that they used saw palmetto to once-and-for-all cure their hormonal acne.

Hallelujah — tell me more!

Saw palmetto supplements are essentially just the dried and crushed fruit of the saw palmetto plant, also called the American Dwarf Palm Tree. You can find it growing wild in Florida.

Traditionally, saw palmetto benefits men who take it as a supplement by supporting their prostate and urinary health. It can treat certain kinds of prostate infections and can even be used in the treatment of prostate cancer. Powerful stuff.

However, women have also begun to experiment with taking the supplement as an alternative acne treatment medicine.

Saw Palmetto for Women

The thinking behind women taking saw palmetto for acne is the (misguided) belief that it can help lower the production of androgens in your body.

Androgens are hormones that both men and women produce, but because androgens are made up of hormones like testosterone, they often get labeled as male hormones.

In addition to testosterone, androgens also include the hormones DHT and DHEA ( dihydrotestosterone and dehydroepiandrosterone, respectively). Testosterone, DHT, and DHEA can all contribute to acne in women when they are produced in excess.

Saw palmetto is thought to be an excellent anti-androgen supplement, so women take it hoping it will counteract what they perceive as an over-production of acne-causing androgens.

HOWEVER, there is no research to support the anti-androgenic claims about saw palmetto.

In fact, clinical trials from 2006 and 2008 revealed that saw palmetto wasn’t any more effective at reducing androgen levels than a simple placebo. And a 2012 review of this research called the anti-androgenic claims about saw palmetto “far from convincing.”

Nevertheless, YouTube is a thing. And since there are women on YouTube claiming that saw palmetto cured their acne, other acne-ridden women are bound to give the supplement a try, too.

I was one of those acne-ridden women.

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I’m not going to call out the YouTuber whose video I watched that convinced me saw palmetto was something I needed to try. But I did watch a video of a woman who seemed to share my pain and struggles with hormonal adult acne.

She praised saw palmetto for its anti-androgenic effects (I didn’t know how unfounded these claims were at the time, and said taking the supplement once a day had drastically helped her hormonal acne.

‘I’ve tried everything else,’ I thought. ‘I have nothing to lose.’ I ordered a bottle off Amazon that day.

The Horrible Side Effects of Saw Palmetto

A few days after I started taking the supplement, I noticed that my skin was purging a bit. This is pretty common with many acne treatments and medications, so I reluctantly came to the conclusion that I’d have to wait the purge out.

A few days later, I had to acknowledge the fact that something was seriously wrong. My face had broken out in dozens of painful, red pimples.

The acne seemed to be coming from every pore on the lower half of my face. My cheeks and jawline were especially affected.

Since taking the saw palmetto supplement was the only drastic change I’d made to my acne treatment routine, I was pretty sure that the supplement was the reason for this heinous breakout. Sure enough, when I stopped taking the saw palmetto, the breakout stopped.

However, let me be clear that “the breakout stopped” doesn’t mean that my skin went back to normal. The breakout stopped getting worse, but the damage was done. More than a month later, my skin is still far from completely recovering from what saw palmetto did to it.

I want to be mad at YouTube and at the saw palmetto plant in general but, in the end, the only person I can really be mad at is myself. I didn’t do nearly enough research into this supplement before taking it.

I thought the words “herbal” and “natural” were enough to safeguard against any major reactions I might experience from the supplement. Needless to say, I was wrong.  Natural supplements, and especially concentrated herbal supplements, can be very powerful.

You should always research a supplement thoroughly before adding it to your Amazon cart.

Because, even though you think your skin can’t get any worse, it can.

Have you ever had a bad reaction to a supplement or skincare product? Tell me what to avoid in the comments section below!


Also published on Medium.

20 thoughts on “Why You Should NEVER Take Saw Palmetto for Acne”

  1. Thanks. After reading this, I decided to head back to the NCBI . gov site to research more. I found licorice root as an anti-androgen in several case studies, so I decided to try it. I’ve been using it for several months now: I sprinkle about half a capsule in my morning smoothie, and my skin makes substantially less oil, resulting in basically no breakouts now. I decided to use half a capsule daily just because I tend to react to most supplements, but I’ve found that’s exactly what I needed. Look into it if you haven’t. The research is interesting, but it’s not for older people with high blood pressure, fyi. Best, Kelly

  2. thank you so much for writing this article. i took OvaBlend by Vitanica- which is a blend with 200mg per serving, which i was taking atleast once daily for about a month. i got a dutch hormone test done in april, showing that i am prone to 5alphaDHT conversion. this is after a two year journey healing from PCOS using only Chinese herbal formulas and supplements- and now consistently ovulating with my PG at 17 (huge increase from 3.9 two years ago). my acne had mostly resolved during this time but was having a bit residual, and so after this blood test my ND put me on the OvaBlend. it started slowly, but my skin has been breaking out with almost 4-5 new zits every day and i did not realize that the supplement that was supposed to be helping was making everything worse. i also noticed in the past week smaller breasts and a bit more hair loss and much more moody—almost like some of my old symptoms, and was so confused because theoretically SP should have helped everything, and everything online is so positive about it. i threw the bottle away today and am so excited to see if my skin will stop breaking out and start healing from this crazy month. reading this article and the comments is confirmation that hormones are so complicated and what works for someone will not work for someone else and can make it all so much worse.

    DIM also was not helpful for me and actually made this worse by inhibiting my estrogen production. to some of the other commenters— don’t recommend things to other people. i have seen some of the best naturopaths in Portland, and they are still getting it wrong.. don’t even get me started on the MDs. i will stick to chinese medicine herbal formulas— much gentler, coherent, and more effective.

    thank you so much!

  3. Saw palmetto has worked for some of us. Your unfortunate experience really should not be a deterrent for others desperate for solutions and Avoiding Accutane. Your article title is misleading and probably clickbait. There are ways to warn people to research what they are using without SCARING them off what could be a solution. Lord knows us acne people will run from anything that will increase it but it s UNFAIR for you to totally discourage others.

  4. Hi Kayla, it sounds like a horrible experience and I think it is important that you share it but writing an alarmist headline is not helpful(!) Maybe something more like “MY bad experience with saw palmetto”? Don’t forget that you did basically zero research and took the wrong herbal medicine at the wrong dosage by a somewhat questionable brand. Anyway, I can tell you are passionate about it, and that’s not a bad thing.
    If you do not have PCOS or are not nearing perimenopause you would not be recommended saw palmetto by a herbalist or naturopath. It can be effective for women who have raised levels of DHT or aldosterone (possibly by reducing 5-alpha reductase enzyme). Thus it may help with thinning hair, cystic acne for those women.
    Saw palmetto needs to be in an oil form within a softgel for best results. The brand you show is a dried herb in a capsule, even though their website misleadingly calls it a softgel. Men with prostate issues are recommended 320mg per day. A woman would usually start with 160mg then see if it needed to be increased to 320mg.
    More appropriate for a younger female (unless they have PCOS) to address general hormone imbalance would be Barlean’s 1,300mg Evening Primrose Oil 2 x/day with food (I’ve found other brands in EPO do not have the same results) for 2 months then decrease to 1 per day (EPO is good for all ages by the way). Sunfood maca capsules, one per day in morning (it is an adaptogen and therefore energizing). Maca is used for both sexes at all ages to balance hormone levels. Don’t get distracted by what you read on the internet, it is taken for everything from male impotence to increased fertility in women(!) but they all come down to one thing: balancing hormones.
    Like any medicine related to hormones one must give it a few months to see full results, as the cycle has to go through it’s stages. If PMS symptoms are still experienced (moodiness, tender breasts etc.) the Natural Factors formula EstroSense is excellent. It will assist in ridding the body of “bad” estrogens circulating.
    These are general recommendations, yet for many people it is all they need; for specific female cycle issues there are specific herbal and hormone protocols that would be in addition.
    Another thing to look at is liver health. Most of us can benefit by taking milk thistle and NAC every day to support the liver as one of it’s hundreds of “jobs” is to break down hormones to release.
    Only buy products from high quality companies who specialize in their areas. Gaia, Life Extension, Klaire Labs, Paradise Herbs, Enzymatic Therapy, Thorne, Herb Pharm, Metagenics, Source Naturals, Ecological Formulas, Himalaya etc.
    If you decide to have your hormone levels checked make sure it is by saliva (not blood or urine) and it is tested in different stages of the cycle.
    I am curious as to whether you tried the drug spironolactone and what your results were.
    Believe me, I know how frustrating and depressing skin issues can be, I wish you the best in finding the solution that works for you.
    CS

    1. I am almost 46, acne and oily skin ever since pregnancies in my 20s, never before that! I took evening primrose oil for 2 weeks. My mood was so improved, I loved that part! Then, I suffered the worst breakout almost overnight all on the bottom half of my face! I am now trying the saw palmetto, only been a few days. I don’t know what my hormones are doing these days! Any thoughts?

  5. So sorry you went through that. May I posit that you are under 40-50?
    For myself and other women I know who have experienced incredibly frustrating and, formerly uncharacteristic breakouts during perimenopause & menopause, saw palmetto has been incredibly helpful.
    Spearmint and stinging nettle added to the diet as herbs/teas also helped, as did cleansing with a benzoyl peroxide bar soap. I wish you & all here good skin & good health!

    1. Hi Samantha,

      I am indeed under 40… I’m actually not quite yet 30. What you’re saying sounds somewhat like the information I was finding on saw palmetto when I was initially researching it before I started taking it. However, for me it just didn’t help. I’m happy to know that it does help some women though!

      Thanks for sharing!

      Kayla

      P.S. I haven’t tried nettle, but I did buy some neem tea a while back and BOY is that stuff bitter!

      1. 🙂 Don’t worry, stinging nettle is very mild & fresh (COOKED!) green are often served as a side dish in the UK, like broccoli rabe. However, dried you can have it as tea — again, dried spearmint leaves/tea helped too — or add it to any recipies as you would parsley. Amazon sells Frontier organic versions of both in Bulk bags, so it’s very affordable as one only needs steep small amounts for teas.
        Sending you all best & healing wishes,

        Sam

    2. This is my experience to a T.
      Although my testosterone looked normal on my DUTCH test, my naturopath gave me Saw Palmetto to counteract the androgens my body was over producing from stress. I did my own research too, and new that I most likely shouldn’t be taking it if I had normal testosterone, but crossed my fingers and decided to trust my naturopath instead. I’m pretty sure he got confused when he gave me it, because it left me with horrible side effects of MORE acne in the same places you have yours. My skin is lumpy around my chin and jawline because of skin colored cysts. On top of that, I broke out in a horrible acne rash in the same spots that oozed and crusted over. So. Much. Scarring. Plus, it delayed my period 5 days when it’s always been on time. Not a fan of this supplement, but I know it has powerful effects on women who need it (PCOS). Women who don’t have PCOS issues, STEER CLEAR. It is not for us. Those who “claim” it worked for them either have PCOS or unknowingly have those same symptoms. That’s the only reason it will work.

      Thanks for sharing your experience!

  6. 450 mg is far too much for a woman to take and that brand in the pic is not a quality supplement that I would put in my body. When looking for supplements, Now Foods is always a good choice as well as Piping Rock, Vital Nutrients, Jarrow or Life Extension. All do extensive research on the supplements they provide. I take Now Foods for cystic acne @ 160 mg twice a day. I also take 1000 mg curcumin (turmeric), 750 mg green tea extract and 100 mg DIM. The DIM will likely help you more than anything, especially if you are on birth control. All of the others will likely help more than the saw palmetto. Sulfur masks are also helpful. Cystic acne has been a life long battle for me. I will be 49 this year. Fight the good fight.

  7. Hi,
    I’m a man and it happened the same. Actually I took SP because the urologist gave it to me as I had discomfort but no diseases. Well 2 weeks later I got pimples on my face. I used to have acne all my life but only on my back never on my face. But now is on my face :/. Not sure if I should blame SP, or was a coincidence as I was turning 30, big point in life where body dramatically suffers a shift. because doesn’t make sense to me that after i left SP…the break out indeed stopped, but acne came back slowly over time. is 2 years since then and well i have mild acne. Took Doxy, peeling and I fought back but i think it will remain there forever, doxy and peeling helped me to counterattack but it keeps coming back. So in principle dermatologists are liars, once acne comes it never goes. I’m planning to try SP again but combine it with Doxy. since the latter is an anti-inflammatory i believe will fight back the break out and something interesting may happen..lol..now my face is a ground play for experiments

    1. Hi Chris,

      In my research I did read that it’s often prescribed to men as a preventative health supplement. Sorry to hear you may have experienced a breakout because of it.

      While I don’t necessarily agree that dermatologists are liars, I do completely think that a lot of the time they prescribe treatments that haven’t had enough research done on them. Just to be clear I don’t think they do this intentionally, but I think there’s a big lack of information out there about acne and what causes it.

      It’s amazing that out of all the things we know about the world and science today, we still can’t quite pinpoint what causes some people to get acne. -_-

      I hope you’re able to find something that works for you soon!

      Kayla

  8. thanks for sharing this. I had suspicions that it was making my acne worse instead of better, but seeing as I only saw positive reviews on Youtube and online, I pushed through for a week. I am mow recovering, and seeing this article has definitely convinced me to go slow on the experimentation. i was just so desperate with my pcos acne that I thought an herbal supplement would be good. Guess not. 🙁

    1. That’s pretty much the same boat I was in, too. I looked online before trying it but didn’t find anything to suggest it would have the horrible effects that it did.

      Sorry you had to find out the hard way, too! Glad you’re recovering though. Good luck moving forward! ❤️❤️

  9. I also got worse, im thinking it might be because i have low estrogen and progesterone and high androgens. I read that SP might lower estrogen and since mine is already to low its probably why i breake out worse.

    1. Hi Janna,

      Thanks so much for sharing your experience here! I’m sorry to hear you had a breakout because of this, too.

      I’m not a doctor or anything, but I’m of the opinion that it really has very little to do with your estrogen and progesterone levels — I think this stuff is just a bad idea for anyone (mostly women) with acne, in general. I more or less feel like it’s just convenient for people to blame unsuccessful users’ hormones as being the reason that it doesn’t work; I really just think it doesn’t work. period.

      Ahh well. We’ll keep trying other solutions!

      Good luck with clearing up your breakout and moving ahead with your acne journey in the future!

      xoxo

      1. Saw palmetto does work for me.

        I have bern taking it for over 2 years, I have PCOS and I wouldn’t be without it.

        It’s best to get your hormones levels checked before staring any hormonal supplements.

      2. Hi Hannah,

        I’m glad to hear it works for you. I wouldn’t want anyone to go through what I did but, unfortunately, it does happen. “/

        Thanks so much for commenting!

        Kayla

  10. I had this same experience. I’ve been taking sp for about a month now and my skin is oilier than its ever been, increase in facial hair growth in places no growth before. I was hoping this was my bodies way of adjusting to the extract but I don’t think I can continue like this! I guess it works differently for everyone, had high hopes for this too!

    1. Ahhh, sorry to hear that. Hopefully you didn’t also get the crazy breakouts too.

      I know not everything “natural” is risk free, but I was truly surprised by the insane reaction my body had to saw palmetto.

      I hope your side effects go away if/when you stop taking it!

      Thanks for sharing. xoxo

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