When I was a teenager, I had bad acne.
I had loving parents who did a lot of things right, but skin care definitely was not their thing. I was encouraged to do lots of things I now know were wrong when it came to skin care.
My family told me I needed to swab my pimples with rubbing alcohol three or four times a day. Now I know this makes the skin dry out and encourages the formation of new whiteheads and blackheads.
I was encouraged to open pimples with a sterilized needle to drain out pus. The scars did eventually heal, about 10 years later.
And I was encourage to scrub, scrub, and scrub some more. My mother told me that the alternative was to do what an uncle of mine had done, take cod liver oil for acne. However, for him, the treatment had worked.
It seems a little counterintuitive to take any kind of oil for clearing up oily skin, but fish oil (which you don't have to take as cod liver oil, it's also available as capsules now) is not just any kind of oil. Fish oil is a good source of omega-3 essential fatty acids, such as decosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Every cell in the human body, including skin cells, can use DHA and EPA to make hormones that stop inflammation.
That is important in clearing up pimples because a pimple is, by definition, a small site of skin inflammation. Pores that are filled with pimples are inflamed from the inside out and also from the outside in.
The acne bacteria that get trapped in a pore by a whitehead or a blackhead secrete peroxides as they consume the skin oils that are trapping them. Then the immune system sends white blood cells known as neutrophils to kill the bacteria by inflaming and killing the pore they infect. Both actions are harmful for the skin. But my uncle who took cod liver oil for acne-back in 1931-was really on the right track for getting well.
Does Fish Oil Really Improve Acne?
Back in the era when caring parents told their children to pop pimples with sterilized needles, caring physicians used to tell their patients that eating seafood would make acne worse. Actually, before about 1970, it probably did.
In the era before reliable refrigeration, people who lived away from the seacoasts never even knew the taste of seafood that had not spoiled. The flavor of shrimp many people used to like was actually the flavor of the "rot" caused by mild spoilage, not enough to give you food poisoning, but certainly enough to change the taste of the shrimp. Poor refrigeration caused the amino acid histidine to decompose into the allergy-provoking chemical histamine, and histidine is abundant in many kinds of fish and shellfish. Seafood made skin break out, but the underlying problem was an allergic reaction to spoiled product.
Then transportation got a lot better. Even by the early 1960's, scientists at the University of North Carolina found that teenagers who ate the most seafood actually had the clearest skin, and that people who went to dermatologists for treatment of acne were especially unlikely to eat seafood. It was another 40 years before scientists learned that the essential fatty acids in fish, especially EPA (which is found in fish oil but not in microalgae or flaxseed oil), kept skin clear.
Acne-Affected Skin Before Using Fish Oil
Acne-Affected Skin After Using Fish Oil
Source: Mark G Rubin and Katherine Kim,
Lasky Skin Clinic, Beverly Hills, California,
and Alan C Logan,Integrative Care Centre of Toronto
A Simple, Holistic Acne Supplement
If you were going to treat skin with fish oil, however, you wouldn't stop there. You would also add chromium, selenium, zinc, and the green tea extract known as ECGC. Two dermatologists in Beverley Hills, working with a colleague in Canada, even did a clinical trial of a product known as perfect skin, which contained 250 mg of EPA (from sardines and anchovies, although I don't think which fish the oil comes from is all that important), 3.75 mg of zinc gluconate, 50 mcg of selenium, 50 mcg of chromium and 50 mg of EGCG from green tea extract. Given no other treatment, five acne patients were asked to take four capsules a day and to come back in two months.
I can't tell you that all of the patients came back with perfect skin. You can take a look at the photographs and see that the product improves the skin, a lot, but it does not eradicate acne in just a few weeks.
In the dermatologist's study, all the patients had reductions in the size of pimples. All patients also had reductions in the number of pimples. Four out of five also had reduction in the number of blackheads and whiteheads, but one in five did not. All the patients in the study, however, reported feeling better about the appearance of their skin.
And if you have ever had acne, you know that if you feel good, you look good.
Do I Wish I Had Taken This Supplement?
If I had a way-back machine, what would I tell the younger me? Or my loving family?
Well, they didn't have fish oil capsules back then. I would probably have to persuade the younger me to do what my uncle did, to take cod liver oil. That is not a bad treatment, after all. Many, many men and women alike in Norway and Iceland, where cod liver oil is literally a breakfast beverage, have wonderful skin.
However, what I would recommend now is taking at least 1000 mg a day of EPA from fish oil along with 15 mg of zinc gluconate, 200 mcg of selenium, and 200 mg of green tea extract. That usually works out to three or four capsules of fish oil, one zinc tablet, two selenium tablets, and two capsules of green tea extract.
I'd also do many other things for my skin, including cleansing with gentle soap and warm water, exfoliation, and moisturizing. I wouldn't worry about diet other than making sure I got plenty of vegetables and fruit (which I did, although I didn't get the omega-3's I know to take now). And I would hide my mother's pincushion!
There are other nutritional regimens that can help heal acne. This one is completely free of side effects and extremely inexpensive. Plus, we know that it works. Try it for 60 days and then please share your results. All experiences, questions, and comments are welcome at the Comments Page. Please allow 72 hours for a personal reply.
- Alestas T, Ganceviciene R, Fimmel S, Müller-Decker K, Zouboulis CC. Enzymes involved in the biosynthesis of leukotriene B4 and prostaglandin E2 are active in sebaceous glands. J Mol Med. 2006; 84: 75-87. doi: 10. 1007/s00109-005-0715-8.
- Allen BS, Smith JG. , Jr Various parameters for grading acne vulgaris. Arch Dermatol. 1982; 118: 23-25. doi: 10. 1001/archderm. 118. 1. 23.
- Arican O, Kurutas EB, Sasmaz S. Oxidative stress in patients with acne vulgaris. Mediators Inflamm. 2005; 14: 380-4. doi: 10. 1155/MI. 2005. 380.
- Basak PY, Glutekin F, Kilinc I. The role of the antioxidative defense system in papulopustular acne. J Dermatol. 2001; 28: 123-7. doi: 10. 1159/000050223.
- Bell IR, Cunningham V, Caspi O, Meek P, Ferro L. Development and validation of a new global well-being outcomes rating scale for integrative medicine research. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2004; 15: 1. doi: 10. 1186/1472-6882-4-1.
- Benton D. Selenium intake, mood and other aspects of psychological functioning. Nutr Neurosci. 2002; 5: 363-74. doi: 10. 1080/1028415021000055925.
- Bremner JD, McCaffery P. The neurobiology of retinoic acid in affective disorders. Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry. 2008; 32: 315-31. doi: 10. 1016/j. pnpbp. 2007. 07. 001.
- Briganti S, Picardo M. Antioxidant activity, lipid peroxidation and skin diseases. What's new. J Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol. 2003; 17: 663-9. doi: 10. 1046/j. 1468-3083. 2003. 00751. x.
- Chiu A, Chon SY, Kimball AB. The response of skin disease to stress: changes in the severity of acne vulgaris as affected by examination stress. Arch Dermatol. 2003; 139: 897-900. doi: 10. 1001/archderm. 139. 7. 897.
- Conklin SM, Manuck SB, Yao JK, Flory JD, Hibbeln JR, Muldoon MF. High omega-6 and low omega-3 fatty acids are associated with depressive symptoms and neuroticism. Psychosom Med. 2007; 69: 932-4. doi: 10. 1097/PSY. 0b013e31815aaa42.
- Cordain L, Lindeberg S, Hurtado M, Hill K, Eaton SB, Brand-Miller J. Acne vulgaris: a disease of Western civilization. Arch Dermatol. 2002; 138: 1584-90. doi: 10. 1001/archderm. 138. 12. 1584.
- Cordain L. Implications for the role of diet in acne. Semin Cutan Med Surg. 2005; 24: 84-91. doi: 10. 1016/j. sder. 2005. 04. 002.
- Davidson JR, Abraham K, Connor KM, McLeod MN. Effectiveness of chromium in atypical depression: a placebo-controlled trial. Biol Psychiatry. 2003; 53: 261-4. doi: 10. 1016/S0006-3223(02)01500-7.
- Dreno B, Amblard P, Agache P, Sirot S, Lioux P. Low doses of zinc gluconate for inflammatory acne. Acta Derm Venereol. 1989; 69: 541-43.
- Dreno B, Foulc P, Reynaud A, Moyse D, Habert H, Richet H. Effect of zinc gluconate on propionibacterium acnes resistance to erythromycin in patients with inflammatory acne: in vitro and in vivo study. Eur J Dermatol. 2005; 15: 152-5.
- El-Akawai Z, Abdel-Latif N, Abdul-Razzak K. Does the plasma level of vitamins A and E affect acne condition? Clin Exp Dermatol. 2006; 31: 430-4. doi: 10. 1111/j. 1365-2230. 2006. 02106. x.
- Enck P, Benedetti F, Schedlowski M. New insights into the placebo and nocebo responses. Neuron. 2008; 59: 195-206. doi: 10. 1016/j. neuron. 2008. 06. 030.
- Fontani G, Corradeschi F, Felici A, Alfati F, Migiliorini S, Lodi L. Cognitive and physiological effects of Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation in healthy subjects. Eur J Clin Invest. 2005; 35: 691-9. doi: 10. 1111/j. 1365-2362. 2005. 01570. x.
- Freeman MP, Hibbeln JR, Wisner KL, Davis JM, Mischoulon D, Peet M, et al. Omega-3 fatty acids: evidence basis for treatment and future research in psychiatry. J Clin Psychiatry. 2006; 67: 1954-67.
- Hitch JM, Greenburg BG. Adolescent acne and dietary iodine. Arch Dermatol. 1961; 84: 898-911.
- Holland DB, Jeremey AH. The role of inflammation in the pathogenesis of acne and acne scarring. Semin Cutan Med Surg. 2005; 24: 79-83. doi: 10. 1016/j. sder. 2005. 03. 004.
- Jain A, Basal E. Inhibition of Propionibacterium acnes-induced mediators of inflammation by Indian herbs. Phytomedicine. 2003; 10: 34-8. doi: 10. 1078/094471103321648638.
- James MJ, Gibson RA, Cleland LG. Dietary polyunsaturated fatty acids and inflammatory mediator production. Am J Clin Nutr. 2000; 71: 343S-8S.
- Katzman M, Logan AC. Acne vulgaris: nutritional factors may be influencing psychological sequelae. Med Hypotheses. 2007; 69: 1080-4. doi: 10. 1016/j. mehy. 2007. 02. 037.
- Kenny E, Muskin PR, Brown R, Gerbarg PL. What the general psychiatrist should know about herbal medicine. Curr Psychiatry Rep. 2001; 3: 226-234. doi: 10. 1007/s11920-001-0058-2.
- Labadarios D, Cilliers J, Visser L, van Stuijvenberg ME, Shephard GS, Wium D, et al. Vitamin A in acne vulgaris. Clin Exp Dermatol. 1987; 12: 432-6. doi: 10. 1111/j. 1365-2230. 1987. tb01942. x.
- Levenson CW. Zinc: the new antidepressant? Nutr Rev. 2006; 64: 39-42. doi: 10. 1301/nr. 2006. jan. 39-42.
- Logan AC. Dietary fat, fiber, and acne vulgaris. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2007; 57: 1092-3. doi: 10. 1016/j. jaad. 2007. 06. 046.
- Logan AC. Linoleic and linolenic acids and acne vulgaris. Br J Dermatol. 2008; 158: 201-2.
- Loney T, Standage M, Lewis S. Not just 'skin deep': psychosocial effects of dermatological-related social anxiety in a sample of acne patients. J Health Psychol. 2008; 13: 47-54. doi: 10. 1177/1359105307084311.
- Magin P, Adams J, Heading G, Pond D, Smith W. Psychological sequelae of acne vulgaris: results of a qualitative study. Can Fam Physician. 2006; 52: 978-9.
- Magin PJ, Adams J, Heading GS, Pond DC, Smith W. Complementary and alternative medicine therapies in acne, psoriasis, and atopic eczema: results of a qualitative study of patients' experiences and perceptions. J Altern Complement Med. 2006; 12: 451-7. doi: 10. 1089/acm. 2006. 12. 451.
- Mallon E, Newton JN, Klassen A, Stewart-Brown SL, Ryan TJ, Finlay AY. The quality of life in acne: a comparison with general medical conditions using generic questionnaires. Br J Dermatol. 1999; 140: 672-6. doi: 10. 1046/j. 1365-2133. 1999. 02768. x.
- Mamtani R, Cimino A. A primer of complementary and alternative medicine and its relevance in the treatment of mental health problems. Psychiatr Q. 2002; 73: 367-381. doi: 10. 1023/A: 1020472218839.
- McCarty M. High-chromium yeast for acne? Med Hypotheses. 1984; 14: 307-10. doi: 10. 1016/0306-9877(87)90134-4.
- Micaelsson G, Edqvist LE. Erythrocyte glutathione peroxidase activity in acne vulgaris and the effect of selenium and vitamin E treatment. Acta Derm Venereol. 1984; 64: 9-14.
- Micaelsson G. Decreased concentration of selenium in whole blood and plasma in acne vulgaris. Acta Derm Venereol. 1990; 70: 92.
- Mojon-Azzi SM, Mojon DS. Opinion of headhunters about the ability of strabismic subjects to obtain employment. Ophthalmologica. 2007; 221: 430-3. doi: 10. 1159/000107506.
- Niren NM, Torok HM. The Nicomide Improvement in Clinical Outcomes Study (NICOS): results of an 8-week trial. Cutis. 2006; 77: 17-28.
- Purvis D, Robinson E, Merry S, Watson P. Acne, anxiety, depression and suicide in teenagers: a cross-sectional survey of New Zealand secondary school students. J Paediat Child Health. 2006; 42: 793-6. doi: 10. 1111/j. 1440-1754. 2006. 00979. x.
- Rapp DA, Brenes GA, Feldman SR, Fleischer AB, Graham GF, Daily M, et al. Anger and acne: implications for quality of life, patient satisfaction and clinical care. Br J Dermatol. 2004; 151: 183-9. doi: 10. 1111/j. 1365-2133. 2004. 06078. x.
- Shaw JC. Green tea polyphenols may be useful in the treatment of androgen-mediated skin disorders. Arch Dermatol. 2001; 137: 664.
- Silverberg NB, Weinberg JM. Rosacea and adult acne: a worldwide epidemic. Cutis. 2001; 68: 85.
- Smith RN, Mann NJ, Braue A, Makelainen H, Varigos GA. A low-glycemic-load diet improves symptoms in acne vulgaris patients: a randomized controlled trial. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007; 86: 107-15.
- Smith RN, Mann NJ, Braue A, Makelainen H, Varigos GA. The effect of a high-protein, low glycemic-load diet versus a conventional, high glycemic-load diet on biochemical parameters associated with acne vulgaris: a randomized, investigator-masked, controlled trial. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2007; 57: 247-56. doi: 10. 1016/j. jaad. 2007. 01. 046.
- Surette ME, Koumenis IL, Edens MB, Tramposch KM, Chilton FG. Inhibition of leukotriene synthesis, pharmacokinetics, and tolerability of a novel dietary fatty acid formulation in healthy adult subjects. Clin Ther. 2003; 25: 948-71. doi: 10. 1016/S0149-2918(03)80116-9.
- Thiboutot DM. Overview of acne and its treatment. Cutis. 2008; 81: 3-7.
- Thomas DR. Psychosocial effects of acne. J Cutan Med Surg. 2004; 8: 3-5.
- Vignes M, Maurice T, Lante F, Nedjar M, Thethi K, Guiramand J, Recasens M. Anxiolytic properties of green tea polyphenol (-)-epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG)Brain Res. 2006; 1110: 102-15. doi: 10. 1016/j. brainres. 2006. 06. 062.
- Zouboulis C, Nestoris S, Adler YD, Orth M, Orfanos CE, Picardo M, Camera E, Cunliffe WJ. A new concept for acne therapy: a pilot study with zileuton, an oral 5-lipoxygenase inhibitor. Arch Dermatol. 2003; 139: 668-70. doi: 10. 1001/archderm. 139. 5. 668.
- Zouboulis C, Saborowski A, Boschnakow A. Zileuton, an oral 5-lipoxygenase inhibitor, directly reduces sebum production. Dermatology. 2005; 210: 36-8. doi: 10. 1159/000081481.