Borage Oil: This Skin-Clearing, Joint-Soothing Remedy May Also Help You Lose Weight
Anyone who suffers from skin conditions like eczema and acne knows the discomfort and embarrassment they can cause. After all, our skin is front and center for the world to see.
Sometimes people turn to their dermatologist for prescription medications to alleviate their symptoms, or they stock up on over-the-counter ointments and scrubs. Other times, they look to Mother Nature for a little relief—and in doing so, they often discover a natural solution that many people (at least on the internet) swear by: borage oil.
Borage oil is made by cold-pressing the seeds of the borage plant to extract the oil—and its benefits certainly aren't exclusive to skin. In fact, some functional medicine doctors use borage oil to help their patients manage everything from eczema to arthritis to hormonal imbalances.
Here, learn everything you need to know about the health benefits, uses, and side effects of borage oil. Plus, what to look for in a supplement.
Borage oil health benefits.
Using borage medicinally isn't a new concept—not by a long shot. Records of its use as a form of medicine date back as far as Ancient Greece, with the physician Dioscoride having written that borage can "cheer the heart and lift the depressed spirits." This quote sums up the primary use of borage in ancient medicine. Back in the day, it was used to treat depression and melancholy and was believed to relieve both grief and sadness.
In fact, the plant's name even reflects this. The word borage is thought to be derived from the Celtic word borrach, which means "a person of courage." Borage was also used to flavor the wine of soldiers going into battle because it was thought to increase bravery, which really brings a more literal meaning to the term "liquid courage."
While borage has been used medicinally as an herb for centuries, borage oil came into prominence much later—in the last few decades. Today, you can find borage oil sold as a liquid or in capsule form, and it's used enthusiastically by a number of holistic practitioners.
"Borage oil is anti-inflammatory, which can benefit a lot of common issues like PMS, breast tenderness, arthritis, and skin inflammation," says Dr. Jolene Brighten, N.D., a functional medicine naturopathic doctor and the founder of Rubus Health—a women's clinic where she specializes in the treatment of hormone disorders.
It's particularly beneficial for people with aggravated, inflamed skin. "Because of the healthy omega plant fats and antioxidants of borage oil, it can improve inflammatory skin issues like acne and eczema by improving the protective skin barrier and boosting hydration," says functional medicine expert Dr. Will Cole, D.C. It's also considered a dry oil, which means it hydrates but doesn't leave a sticky feeling on the surface of your skin.
Borage oil is unique in that it’s a truly fantastic source of the omega-6 essential fatty acid called gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), which is likely what gives it many of its perks.
What is gamma-linolenic acid (GLA)?
GLA is an essential omega-6 fatty acid with significant anti-inflammatory properties, and it plays a large role in borage oil's many purported benefits.
It's most commonly associated with evening primrose oil, but it's also found in borage seed oil and black currant seed oil. As far as its role in the body, GLA helps maintain healthy brain function as well as skeletal health, reproductive health, and a well-functioning metabolism. GLA is also vital in skin health and hair growth, which is why borage oil is included as an ingredient in many skin and hair care products.
Keep in mind: While this list of borage oil benefits is extensive, more high-quality studies are needed before we can officially recommend borage oil to treat any specific condition. That said, here are some of the most promising potential benefits of borage oil to date, based on the current research:
1. It may soothe eczema symptoms.
Eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis, is a condition that causes itchiness, redness, and inflammation of the skin. It's most common among children but can affect people of any age.
Although many claim that borage oil is a great natural treatment for eczema, the available research is mixed, especially with oral supplements. In a 2003 study1 that looked at 140 adults and children with eczema, for example, the researchers didn't find a significant difference between the effectiveness of borage oil supplements and placebos over a 12-week period.
Later, a 2010 review2 of a dozen studies assessing borage oil as a treatment for eczema, all involving a mix of oral and topical applications, was slightly more optimistic, concluding that borage oil might be useful for some patients "with less severe atopic dermatitis who are seeking an alternative treatment." This supports another study3, which found that eczema symptoms were alleviated when children wore undershirts that had been "coated" in borage oil.
Bottom line: For eczema, go with a topical borage oil over a supplement.
2. It may ease rheumatoid arthritis symptoms.
Good news if you have achy joints: There's some decent evidence that borage oil helps patients with arthritis. Borage oil, which we've already established has anti-inflammatory properties, has been shown in studies to improve mobility and reduce symptoms among patients with rheumatoid arthritis. Studies have also found that there were no significant side effects associated with using borage oil as a treatment for arthritis.
3. It may help reverse gum disease.
Gingivitis (inflammation of the gums) isn't an issue you probably think about much, but it can have a big impact on your overall health. Not to sound too much like your dentist, but gingivitis is at the root of many bigger health problems, including respiratory disease, diabetes, coronary artery disease, stroke, and rheumatoid arthritis.
We all know that the key to healthy gums is good oral hygiene, which means brushing your teeth at least twice a day and flossing regularly. But, for people already suffering from periodontal inflammation, borage oil supplements can help get things back on track, some studies4 suggest.
One of the most common tests for gum disease is measuring probing depth. You've probably had this done at the dentist, even if you didn't realize that's what was happening. Basically, think of each of your teeth as sitting in a pocket inside your gums. To measure probing depth, your dentist (or dental hygienist) will insert a metal probe into those pockets to see how much space there is—and the less space the better. The deeper the pocket, the worse shape your gums are in.
In one study5, patients who were treated with GLA supplements saw a significant decrease in their probing depth—in other words, a reversal of their gum disease. Since borage oil is extremely high in GLA, taking it as a supplement in capsule form could help treat gingivitis in conjunction with increased brushing and flossing.
4. It may help ease symptoms of PMS and menopause.
Among the female-specific benefits attributed to GLA are regulation of the menstrual cycle, PMS relief, and reduction of hot flashes and mood swings during menopause. However, no studies have specifically looked into borage oil's effect on these.
But in a study6 looking into the effectiveness of evening primrose oil (also high in GLA) as a treatment for menopausal symptoms—in which researchers gave a group of 56 women either 500 mg of primrose oil or a placebo for six months—the primrose oil was no better at reducing hot flashes than the placebo.
But even though primrose and borage oils have similar GLA content, that doesn't necessarily mean they function exactly the same way in the body—and Dr. Brighten still finds borage oil effective for helping her patients manage hormone-related issues.
"Because I work with women in my clinic who are seeking guidance in optimizing their menstrual cycle hormones, I often recommend borage oil during the luteal phase and omega-3s in the follicular phase," says Dr. Brighten. "In other patients who are struggling with inflammation, joint pain, menopausal symptoms, or cognitive issues, for example, we'll use the supplement daily."
5. It may help with weight loss maintenance.
Borage oil has been shown to be effective at helping people maintain significant weight loss. In one study7, obese participants who had shed an average of 66 pounds, were given 500 mg borage oil supplements or a placebo as they worked to maintain their weight loss. Over the next year, those taking the borage oil supplement had significantly greater success in keeping off the weight than the placebo group. On average, those in the borage oil group regained just 4.8 pounds, compared to the 19.3 pounds regained by those in the placebo group.
Researchers suggest that borage oil's impact on weight regain is thanks to its high levels of GLA, which is believed to help correct an imbalance related to essential fatty acids in people who are overweight and obese.
6. It may help manage diabetes symptoms.
Borage oil is not considered a treatment for diabetes specifically, but rather, for complications that can arise as a result of diabetes. In one animal study, GLA was shown to help treat diabetic nephropathy, also known as diabetic kidney disease, a condition that results in the gradual loss of kidney function. Another study8 found that GLA has a beneficial effect on the course of diabetic neuropathy, a type of nerve damage that can occur in people with diabetes.
7. It has cancer-fighting properties, at least in animals.
Borage oil has been studied as a potential treatment for cancer. As of yet, there isn't much research into borage oil's effect on people with cancer, but a 2012 study by the Mayo Clinic found that GLA could reduce the growth of pancreatic cancer cells in mice. This effect hasn't been replicated in humans, but it's promising nonetheless.
What type of borage oil should you take?
Borage oil is most commonly sold as capsules, but you can also find it sold as a liquid, usually in amber glass bottles. For most purposes, other than treating skin conditions like eczema, a capsule would be the most convenient and effective option. That's what Dr. Brighten typically suggests to her patients.
When choosing a borage oil capsule supplement, always make sure you opt for a cold-pressed borage seed oil that comes from a reputable brand. The FDA does not regulate any supplements, including borage oil, so seeking out a brand that has their product third-party tested for quality and purity is advised.
Liquid borage oil can be applied directly to the skin with no need to dilute or combine with other oils—unless, of course, you want to. "It's great for dry, sensitive, inflamed skin," says Dr. Brighten. As with capsules, this should always be cold-pressed. (These body oils are also great for sensitive skin.)
Although less common, liquid borage oil can also be used in cooking, but it should be added to food just before serving, since heat will damage the beneficial fatty acids.
What are the side effects of borage oil?
While several of borage oil's supposed health benefits aren't supported by the strongest research, most studies have found little in the way of side effects associated with taking it as a supplement.
However, borage oil may be unsafe for women who are pregnant or nursing, people with bleeding disorders, and people with liver disease. You should also avoid taking borage oil supplements within two weeks of a scheduled surgery, as it may thin the blood.
As with other supplements containing fatty acids, like fish oil pills, it's possible that you'll experience minor side effects like bloating, nausea, and indigestion if you take borage oil. But these aren't common. To be safe, always talk to your doctor if you're thinking about trying a new supplement.
Kayleigh Roberts is a freelance writer and editor living in Los Angeles, California. She earned a B.S. from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. She covers culture, entertainment, and health and has written for several notable publications including Elle, Marie Claire, and The Atlantic.