Neem Oil: Benefits For Skin & Hair + More About The Underrated Ayurvedic Beauty Oil

Photo: Leandro Crespi

Neem oil is exactly what you probably picture when you think of natural remedies, with its strong smell and impressive range of uses. The nutrient-rich oil, made from the seeds of the neem tree, has been used since ancient times as a medicinal treatment, and, in modern times, it's used as a treatment for a variety of skin conditions, from dry skin and wrinkles to psoriasis and eczema. If you're considering neem oil as a potential skin treatment (or as a treatment for anything else, for that matter), here's what you need to know.

What is neem oil?

Neem oil is created from the fruits and seeds of the neem tree, a tree that's native to India but also grows in other tropical areas. The neem tree, known formally as azadirachta indica, is a member of the mahogany family and grows naturally in India and Sri Lanka. If you find it in other parts of the world, know that it was transplanted there—which it has been, successfully, in places like West Africa, Indonesia, and Australia. Neem distribution can be traced to the beginning of the century, when Indian emigrants took it with them to places they settled. The neem tree now grows in at least 30 countries thanks to those efforts.

The history of neem oil.

The neem tree also seems naturally designed to spread and thrive. The tree grows very quickly—as much as 20 feet in just three years—and can grow in areas with scant rainfall (as little as 18 inches per year) and extreme heat (up to 120 degrees). What's more, the tree can live and be productive for 150 to 200 years, with a single tree providing benefits for several generations.

The neem tree produces small white flowers and a yellow-green fruit, and literally every part of the tree has been used for medicine and therapeutic treatments. The neem tree has so many medicinal uses (it contains more than 100 pharmacologically active substances), in fact, that in India, it's been called "the village pharmacy." It's no surprise, then, that neem oil has been used for hundreds of years in traditional Indian medicine and ayurveda.

Even within traditional Indian medicine, the neem tree and its by-products hold a special place. Siddha medicine is one of the oldest medical systems in the world, with origins dating back as far as 10,000 B.C., and the first medicinal plant mentioned in ancient Siddha records is—you guessed it—neem. In these times, neem was used as a kind of vaccine against smallpox and other infectious diseases (although it was also used to ward off evil spirits, so it's not shocking that early medical practitioners hadn't fully figured out the best use for neem oil).

According to a 350-year-old Palm leaf manuscript (one of the oldest forms of writing in India) known as Agathiyar Gunavagadam, the neem flower was used to treat bile disorders, while the leaf was used to prevent and treat ulcers. The bark of the tree was used to treat central nervous system disorders, paralysis, and even psychiatric disorders.

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Neem oil uses.

Today, neem oil has so, so many uses, from cosmetic purposes to traditional medicine and even pesticides. While it has traditionally been used for a wide range of medicinal purposes, today, it's used primarily in skin and hair care (although it's also been studied for use as a treatment for digestive disorders and certain STDs).

These uses have been studied to varying results, but researchers say that "neem deserves to be called a wonder plant." We'll go into more detail about neem's use for skin and hair below, but it's worth noting that research has found neem to possess antibacterial properties, as well as, in some cases, antiviral properties. Neem has also been studied as a possible treatment for several forms of cancer, including breast cancer, pancreatic cancer, and prostate cancer and as a treatment for snake venom. (To be clear, as of now, it's not a magical cure for cancer, but it is being looked into.)

"Neem provides health benefits through its blood-purifying properties, which can aid in recovery from infections, as well as acne," said Shrankhla Holecek, ayurveda expert and founder of Uma Oils. "It also helps the body detox and helps with water retention issues."

Neem oil for skin.

One of neem oil's most popular uses is in skin care. It's purported to have a number of benefits for the skin, including treating dry skin and wrinkles, healing wounds, stimulating collagen production, reducing scars, treating acne, and even helping minimize the appearance of warts and moles.

Some of these claims are backed up by research, but others aren't.

One of neem's proven benefits for the skin is helping to speed the healing process. In one study of nine patients, for example, neem was shown to help with the healing of post-surgical scalp wounds. Another study led researchers to the conclusion that neem could be a good long-term acne treatment. Finally, while there are no human studies backing up claims that neem has anti-aging benefits, a study on mice did find that the oil helped with things like skin thinness, dryness, and wrinkles.

Other claims made about neem aren't backed up by any formal research at this time, like claims about its impact on warts and moles or its ability to stimulate collagen production.

Even though not all of the claims made about neem oil are backed up science, there is a lot of evidence that neem is effective as an anti-inflammatory, which translates to benefits for the skin.

Photo: @mukesh-kumar

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Neem oil for hair.

Because neem oil works as an anti-inflammatory and stimulates circulation, it helps treat the scalp and promote healthy hair growth. Some also claim that it helps prevent hair loss (although there aren't studies that explicitly confirm that claim, women with female pattern baldness do have low antioxidant levels, which could be counteracted by neem oil, as it is very high in antioxidants).

Neem oil is also reported to be an effective treatment for hair lice. In India and Bangladesh, for example, villagers use neem oil to treat head lice, and it's reportedly very effective.

Neem oil is also touted as a treatment for dandruff, which, if left untreated, could eventually contribute to hair loss. Because Malassezia fungus is a common cause of dandruff, neem oil can also help treat this root cause since it also has antifungal properties. Ayurvedic expert Shrankhla Holecek confirms that, in ayurveda, "It is oft used in hair care for scalp clarifying and for healthy hair growth and is believed to prevent imbalances that may result in premature graying of hair," she said.

Because neem oil has anti-inflammatory, antibiotic, and antioxidant properties, it can also help treat scalp psoriasis, which can sometimes lead to permanent hair loss if not treated.

"Neem is also believed to prevent imbalances that may result in premature graying of hair," she said.

Finally, because neem oil is antioxidant-rich and moisturizing, it's often used as a treatment for dry and frizzy hair.

Neem oil for scabies.

Yet another of the wonder plant neem's uses is as a treatment for scabies, a skin condition caused by a mite called Sarcoptes scabiei. The condition causes intense itchiness and is very contagious and easily spread through physical contact.

In studies, neem and tea tree oil have been shown to kill mites, although not as quickly or efficiently as some other essential oils, meaning the wonder plant might not be your best option in this case.

Want to learn more about how the health of your skin is greatly impacted by the food you eat and the toxins you're exposed to? Register now for our FREE Functional Nutrition Webinar with Kelly LeVeque.

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