To get rid of your acne, you may have tried spot treatments, blackhead strips, salicylic acid face washes, prescription retinoids, home scrubs, and more. You may even have dabbed toothpaste on a Zit at some point. And if pimples keep bothering you, you’re still looking for the acne treatment X-Factor that will finally do the trick. And that’s why you may have Googled the option of using fish oil for acne.
When it comes to fish oil, there are two ways to get it: by consuming fish, especially oily fish like salmon and mackerel, or by ingesting a fish oil supplement. Both contain omega-3 fatty acids, which are polyunsaturated fatty acids. Fish oil supplements in particular contain two omega-3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). (Fish contains DHA and EPA, as well as other omega-3 fatty acids such as docosapentaenoic acid.)
While many people take fish oil to get its reported heart and brain benefits, the NCCIH does not currently recommend taking a fish oil or an omega-3 supplement. Instead, the agency recommends eating at least 8 ounces (oz) of seafood per week.
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Whether fish oil is good for your face – and fighting blemishes in particular – requires an understanding of what causes acne. “We usually think acne has three main drivers,” says Dr. Tyler Tylermmig, director of dermatological surgery and director of laser and cosmetic dermatology at the University of Texas at Austin. As he explains:
- The pores clog (often because the outer layer of skin cells doesn’t come off as quickly as it should).
- There is an overgrowth of bacteria from clogged pores and excess oil.
- Inflammation, a reaction to clogged pores and bacteria, leads to red, painful pimples.
“Inflammation is the body’s natural mechanism for dealing with anything it doesn’t like, including bacterial overgrowth and the build-up of dead skin cells in a pore. This causes certain types of acne to become red, raised, tender, and juicy, ”says Dr. Hollmig.
CONNECTED: What your breakouts are telling you about your acne
Omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties. “Omega-3 fatty acids primarily block the arachidonic acid pathway, which causes inflammation,” says Dr. Jason Miller, a dermatologist with the Schweiger Dermatology Group in Freehold, New Jersey, and as previous research shows. “There may also be evidence that omega-3s may regulate testosterone, a hormone associated with acne flares.”
People with acne may have lower levels of omega-3 EPA in their blood and higher levels of inflammatory markers compared to a control group, suggesting that people with acne may exist “in the presence of a pro-inflammatory condition,” a small study published in the concluded January 2017 in Prostaglandins & Other Lipid Mediators. The researchers ultimately suggest that omega-3 fatty acids might be helpful as an acne supplement before they start. However, more studies are needed before dermatologists can recommend it as a prevention tool for acne.
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For healthy skin, eating fish is better than taking supplements
Fish oil could theoretically help reduce inflammatory acne – that is, acne that is red, angry, and painful, says Hollmig. However, it is not guaranteed. “This has been studied, although it is unlikely to be sufficient to make firm recommendations.”
Hollmig points to a small previous study that included 13 people with inflammatory acne for three months. The severity of acne decreased in eight people but got worse in four people. Interestingly, these four had mild acne while the eight who got better from fish oil entered the study with moderate to severe acne. The researchers note that people who benefit from taking fish oil may have severe acne. However, this study was very small and short term. In addition, there was no placebo group, which is important in determining the effectiveness and outcome of a study group.
For a later randomized, double-blind, controlled study, the researchers had two groups take either an omega-3 fatty acid or a control oil for 10 weeks. The omega-3 group saw a reduction in both inflammatory and non-inflammatory acne, as did the control group.
That said, consuming fish might be your best bet – assuming you eat fish. Previous research on an Italian population found that eating fish at least once a week reduced the risk of moderate to severe acne compared to seafood by 32 percent. Another study published in Acta Medica Marisiensis in January 2016 also found that people who ate fish were less likely to have acne. In particular, more than 40 percent of people with acne did not eat fish and three-quarters “rarely or never” ate fruit or vegetables, suggesting that a healthy seafood (and many products) diet is critical here.
Overall, the quality of your diet can be more important than just adding a fish oil supplement to your existing habits. “Some studies show that a ‘Western diet’ [typically higher in ‘inflammatory’ processed foods, sugar, and red meat] leads to an increase in acne, while populations who eat a “non-western” diet of lean meat, seafood, vegetables and fruits have fewer breakouts, “says Dr. Miller. If you don’t want to eat fish or take a fish oil supplement, focus on eating more foods that contain alpha-linolenic acid (AHA), a plant-based omega-3 found in flaxseed, soybeans, chia seeds, and walnuts called the NCCIH.
CONNECTED: 7 of the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids
6 things you should know when treating acne
1. Identify your acne in order to find the right therapy
Are your pimples red and tender? Do you have a pustule in the middle? It can be hormonal acne. On the other hand, do you have mostly blackheads and whiteheads? Well, that’s comedonal acne, says Hollmig. Both are treated differently.
2. Treat comedones with peeling acids
Glycolic acid and retinoids exfoliate the skin and normalize cell turnover. Products containing these ingredients are Hollmig’s go-to for this type of acne.
3. Address hormonal acne with an Rx
If you are a woman between the ages of 20 and 40 and have jaw acne, your acne is likely hormonal. In this case, a prescription hormone medication or one that reduces sebum (oil) production might be appropriate, Miller says. Talk to your doctor about whether your hormones can fuel your breakouts.
4. Cut down on processed foods to reduce inflammation
There are many reasons to cut back on added sugars, including improving your heart health, Harvard University notes. However, a diet high in whole plant-based foods can also be a boon to your skin health. “We know that high-sugar diets make acne worse and therefore it is beneficial for many acne patients to simply eat healthier,” says Hollmig. A low glycemic diet of vegetables, fruits, beans, and oats in particular can help improve acne, notes the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD).
Another good skin diet: Mediterranean, which contains fish, but also vegetables, whole grains, fruit and olive oil. A review published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences in February 2020 recommends a Mediterranean diet for an ideal balance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids that support optimal skin health. (Researchers note that in some cases, omega-3 supplementation may be beneficial, but this is determined on a case-by-case basis between the patient and the doctor.)
CONNECTED: A detailed guide to an anti-inflammatory diet
5. Use fewer products
With how stubborn acne can be, it makes sense that you want to toss all the acne fighting topics and supplements on the problem to make it strong, but that can be too much. Even when it comes to acne, “it’s generally the way to go to simplify skin care and save money,” says Hollmig.
6. Look at your whole health
Your diet and the current products you put on your skin are only two pieces of the puzzle when it comes to acne. “There can be several factors that contribute to your outbreaks,” Miller says. “If what you’re doing doesn’t help, schedule a visit to your dermatologist to see if anything else – stress, the environment, hormones, medication – is causing your acne.”
Conclusion: does fish oil help with acne?
Taking a fish oil supplement may not be a cure for acne. “Only a healthy, balanced diet is usually enough for most people. Therefore, it is probably worth discussing the potential benefits of nutritional supplements with your doctor,” says Hollmig. If you end up taking one, even to give it a try, adjust your expectations, he adds, “Rarely is a single supplement a panacea when it comes to skin health.”