Omega-3 and Acne: What’s the Link?

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Regardless of your age, persistent acne can feel daunting. You may have tried countless treatment options, from diet changes to medical treatments, but nothing worked.

Some people claim that omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids could improve acne on your body thanks to their putative anti-inflammatory effects on your body.

Three types of omega-3 fatty acids are:

  • Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
  • Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
  • Alpha Linolenic Acid (ALA)

EPA and DHA are mainly found in fish and fish oil, and ALA is found in certain nuts and seeds. They are essential, which means that you must get them from your diet or supplements.

This article looks at the link between omega-3 fatty acids and acne.

Acne is commonly considered an inflammatory skin condition and is characterized by tender bumps and pimples.

These are usually red or pink in color and can be accompanied by dark spots depending on your skin tone. They are also filled with pus and tend to be on the face, neck, back, and chest.

Typically, bacteria and excess oil clog the pores and hair follicles in your skin, causing puffy, tender pimples as part of your body’s inflammatory response (1, 2, 3).

These acne lesions can increase the activity of pro-inflammatory mediators on your skin, such as interleukin-1, which then trigger a series of inflammatory events (2, 4).

It used to be thought that only some types of acne were associated with inflammation, but recent research suggests that inflammation plays a role in almost all types of acne (2).

Inflammation isn’t the only contributing factor, however. Other things that can affect the development of acne are (1):

  • Hormones
  • Medication
  • stress
  • Age
  • pollution
  • humidity
  • certain foods

Summary

Acne is an inflammatory disease characterized by pimples and lesions that develop in response to clogged pores and the buildup of bacteria and oil.

Because of the underlying causes of acne, some people believe that omega-3 fatty acids can prevent or improve it.

Omega-3 fatty acids and inflammation

Omega-3 fatty acids, especially EPA and DHA, have anti-inflammatory effects. So it is speculated that they can fight acne indirectly by targeting inflammation (5).

In a small study, participants with acne had lower blood levels of EPA and higher blood levels of certain inflammatory markers than participants without acne (6).

However, it’s not clear whether supplementing with EPA or other omega-3 fatty acids can prevent or treat acne.

A randomized, controlled study of 45 people with mild to moderate acne found that taking 2,000 mg of EPA and DHA supplements daily for 10 weeks significantly reduced both inflammatory and non-inflammatory acne lesions (7).

On the other hand, a study of 13 people with inflammatory acne did not see any significant changes in acne severity or the number of inflammatory lesions after taking a fish oil supplement containing 930 mg of EPA daily for 12 weeks (5).

While some participants saw improvement in their acne, other participants’ symptoms worsened. These mixed results suggest that the effectiveness of omega-3 supplements for acne may depend on the following factors (5):

  • the person
  • the kind of omega-3
  • the type of acne
  • other unknown factors

Overall, research on the link between omega-3 fatty acids and inflammation-related acne is limited. More extensive studies are needed (8).

Dietary Supplements vs. Food Sources

Most of the studies on the use of omega-3 fatty acids in acne treatment have focused on supplements, particularly EPA and DHA. ALA supplements have not been studied for their effects on acne.

There are also no studies on the effect of increased dietary intake of omega-3 fatty acids in acne treatment.

However, some observational studies suggest that people who ingest omega-3 sources are less likely to suffer from acne than those who don’t eat these foods (9).

For example, a study of over 500 patients in dermatology clinics found that those who ate fish at least once a week were 32% less likely to have moderate to severe acne (9).

While these results suggest that eating more fish – the best food source of omega-3s – may protect against acne, they don’t tell us how other food sources of omega-3s or omega-3s alone do can affect the condition.

Summary

Since acne has been linked to inflammation, it is speculated that anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids may prevent or treat it. While some studies suggest omega-3 supplements reduce acne severity, others provide mixed results. Ultimately, more research is needed.

Taking omega-3 supplements for acne can cause undesirable side effects.

For example, in the 13-person study mentioned above, 4 people with mild acne had worsening symptoms after taking EPA supplements for 12 weeks at the start of the study. On the other hand, those with moderate to severe acne had an improvement in symptoms according to the study (5).

The effect of omega-3 fatty acids on acne can vary greatly depending on the person. Because research on the subject is limited, it is difficult to predict whether you will experience improved or worsened acne from taking omega-3 fatty acids.

Omega-3 supplements can have other side effects as well.

Fish oil is the most common type of omega-3 supplement. Side effects of taking fish oil are (10):

  • bad breath
  • Body sweat that smells like fish
  • a headache
  • heartburn
  • nausea
  • diarrhea

That being said, fish oil generally appears to be safe for most people. Still, it’s best to speak to a doctor first to see if fish oil or another type of omega-3 supplement is right for you.

Summary

It is possible that omega-3 supplements can make acne worse in some people, although there is limited research on the subject. Ingesting omega-3 fatty acids in the form of fish oil can also have mild (albeit rare) side effects.

Although some studies have shown promising results, research on the relationship between acne and fish oil supplements, fish, and other forms of omega-3s is still limited. Therefore, there are no standardized recommendations for treating acne with omega-3 fatty acids.

For example, the American Academy of Dermatology doesn’t recommend taking fish oil or omega-3 supplements for treating acne (11).

If you have acne and want to increase your omega-3 intake, consuming more fish is a good place to start. Try to eat at least 227 grams of seafood per week. Salmon, mackerel, herring, and sardines are particularly good sources of omega-3 fatty acids (10).

Children and pregnant women should be careful with mercury in fish as it can damage the brain and nervous system of unborn and young children. Opt for low-mercury fish, which includes salmon, cod, and shrimp (12).

The vegetable sources of the omega-3 fatty acid ALA include flax seeds, chia seeds, and walnuts. Keep in mind, however, that most of the studies on omega-3s, inflammation, and acne have focused on EPA and DHA.

Summary

There are no standardized recommendations for the use of omega-3 fatty acids to treat acne. Eating more fish, flax seeds, chia seeds, and walnuts will increase your omega-3 intake without the need to take a supplement.

Acne is an inflammatory disease that causes pimples and lesions on the skin. It can affect people of any age, although it is more common in teenagers.

Omega-3 fatty acids, especially EPA and DHA, have been shown to reduce inflammation and have been studied to treat acne.

However, the limited research available has focused primarily on dietary supplements and is showing mixed results. Ultimately, more studies are needed.

If you’re interested in getting more omega-3s to see if they improve your acne symptoms, try increasing your fish consumption or using a dietary supplement after consulting a doctor.

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