Will omega-3 supplements help clear up acne?

Dear Alice,

I am 21 and have had consistent acne. I have tried topical creams (benzoyl peroxide, Retin-A, and topical antibiotics; as well as oral antibiotics for a number of months before). But, the acne keeps coming back.

For acne, does taking omega-3 fish oil supplements help? If so, how does it help, for what length of time should it be taken, and how many milligrams should one take?

Dear Reader, 

Blemishes, zits, pimples — no matter what you call them, they can be a real bummer! As you’ve clearly seen, there are an abundance of acne treatments out there, but finding the one that works best for you can be a frustrating process. While treatments such as benzoyl peroxide, retinol, and topical antibiotics may work for some people, everyone’s skin is different. What works for one person may not necessarily work for you. So, what’s the deal with omega-3 fatty acids? Omega-3 fatty acids, which can be found in fish as well as fish oil supplements, show some promise in reducing acne in people who take them — however, more research is needed. While adding fish oil supplements to your diet may impact your acne situation, you might also find it helpful to examine your diet in general, as some foods may contribute to your acne problem. In addition to topical treatments, there are also prescription medications you could try. A health care provider (such as a dermatologist) could help you determine the best treatment for you. For more information on omega-3 supplements, read on! 

Scientists have found that omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory effects. This bodes well for omega-3s and their potential for helping to clear up acne since inflammation is one of the most significant factors influencing acne severity. It’s believed that the anti-inflammatory effects of omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil supplements reduce inflammation in the skin, which in turn reduces the redness and swelling during acne breakouts. While there isn’t a ton of research on the effects that omega-3 might have on acne, researchers have found some early evidence that points to promising results. 

One study (albeit very small) followed five people managing acne from ages 18 to 23 who took a supplement containing omega-3 fatty acids for two months. After the study period, the researchers found a significant decrease in the average number of acne lesions, and none of the participants experienced an increase in inflammatory acne lesions. That said, it’s worth noting that the placebo effect may have played a role in the findings (particularly since acne has been shown to be rather susceptible to the placebo effect). A larger study followed 45 participants with mild to moderate acne who took an omega-3 supplement for ten weeks. After the study period, results showed that both inflammatory and non-inflammatory acne lesions had decreased on average. Again, the placebo effect may have played a role. While both of these studies are encouraging, there have been similar studies that have shown mixed results — some participants’ acne decreased, some increased, and some saw no effect.  

If you want to try consuming more omega-3 fatty acids, they’re commonly found in fish and seafood or in fish oil supplements. In addition to potentially helping acne, there is some evidence to suggest that omega-3 fatty acids reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke, and heart disease. Though some studies showed no significant benefits, the overall trend across the literature was neutral to positive. Increased intake of omega-3 fatty acids has also been associated with lower cholesterol and improvement in mood disorders such as depression. But don’t run to the fish market just yet — some fish (such as king mackerel, swordfish, and shark) contain high levels of mercury, which can be hazardous to your health if consumed in large quantities; other types of fish (such as trout, salmon, and sardines) are comparatively lower in mercury and contain high levels of omega-3 fatty acids. The American Heart Association recommends eating fish in moderation — about once or twice a week — and avoiding fish with high mercury content if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. 

While adding fish oil supplements that contain omega-3 fatty acids to your diet may be helpful, it may also be beneficial to examine what else is in your diet that could be contributing to your breakouts. High-glycemic foods — such as white bread, potato chips, pastries, and sugary drinks— may contribute to acne development and severity. These high-glycemic foods can lead to blood sugar spikes, which may cause inflammation throughout the body. Some studies found that after switching to low-glycemic foods such as fresh vegetables, beans, and oats, patients reported having less acne. You may also try supplementing your diet with foods that are high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as cold-water fatty fish (salmon, tuna, sardines), grass-fed beef, flaxseeds, or chia seeds. You could also try looking for products that are fortified with omega-3s. To determine if your diet is contributing to your breakouts, you may reflect on if you know a specific food or beverage triggers a breakout. If so, what happens if you stop eating or drinking it for a while? You may find a food diary useful in helping you keep track! 

Given how little is still known about the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids on acne, you may wish to speak with a health care provider to discuss details such as dosage and length of treatment, as well as other prescription options. You mention trying several types of topical treatments. There are a few other at-home remedies you might consider trying as well: 

  • Washing your face with a gentle cleanser to clear your skin of oils 
  • Using water-based or noncomedogenic products to reduce the risk of causing acne 
  • Wearing sunscreen regularly 
  • Avoiding touching and picking at areas where you experience breakouts 
  • Showering after physical activity to prevent oil and sweat from blocking your pores 

Just remember that getting rid of acne can take a while, so try to be patient. Once you find the treatment that works best for you, you’ll be admiring your clear skin for years to come! 

Last updated Oct 01, 2021
Originally published May 14, 2010

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