In the quest to clear your acne, you may have tried spot treatments, blackhead strips, salicylic acid face washes, prescription retinoids, at-home peels, and more. Perhaps, at one point, you even dabbed toothpaste on a zit. And if you continue to be be plagued by pimples, you’re still in search of the acne treatment X factor that will finally do the trick. And that’s why you may have googled the possibility 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 taking a fish oil supplement. Both contain omega-3 fatty acids, which are polyunsaturated fatty acids. Fish oil supplements, in particular, contain two omega-3s called 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-3s like docosapentaenoic acid.)
While many people take fish oil to reap reported heart and brain benefits, at this time the NCCIH does not recommend taking a fish oil or omega-3 supplement. Instead, the agency recommends eating at least 8 ounces (oz) of seafood per week.
RELATED: The Best Types of Fish for a Healthy Heart
Whether fish oil is good for your face — and fights blemishes in particular — requires an understanding on what causes acne. “We typically think of acne as having three main drivers,” says S. Tyler Hollmig, MD, director of dermatologic surgery and director of laser and cosmetic dermatology at The University of Texas in Austin. As he explains:
- Pores become clogged (often because the outer layer of skin cells is not shedding as quickly as it should).
- There is an overgrowth of bacteria from clogged pores and excess oil.
- Inflammation, a response to clogged pores and bacteria, leads to red, painful pimples.
“Inflammation is the body’s natural mechanism for dealing with basically anything it doesn’t like, including bacterial overgrowth and accumulation of dead skin cells in a pore. That’s what causes certain types of acne to become red, raised, tender, and juicy,” Dr. Hollmig says.
RELATED: What Your Breakouts Tell You About Your Acne
Omega-3s have anti-inflammatory properties. “Omega-3 fatty acids work primarily by blocking the arachidonic acid pathway that generates inflammation,” says Jason Miller, MD, a dermatologist with Schweiger Dermatology Group in Freehold, New Jersey, and as past research supports. “There also may be some evidence that omega-3 fatty acids can regulate testosterone, which is a hormone associated with acne flares.”
People with acne may have lower omega-3 EPA levels in their blood and higher levels of inflammatory markers compared with a control group, suggesting that those with acne may exist in “the presence of a pro-inflammatory state,” concluded a small study published in January 2017 in Prostaglandins & Other Lipid Mediators. The researchers ultimately suggest that omega-3s may be helpful as a supplement to stop acne before it starts, but more studies are needed before dermatologists can recommend them as a prevention tool for acne.
RELATED: 8 Diet Dos and Don’ts for Preventing Acne
For Healthy Skin, Eating Fish Is Better Than Taking Supplements
Fish oil could theoretically help decrease inflammatory acne — that is, acne that’s red, angry, and painful, Hollmig says. Nonetheless, it’s not guaranteed. “This has been studied, though probably not sufficiently to make any firm recommendations.”
Hollmig points to a small, previous study that followed 13 individuals with inflammatory acne for three months. Acne severity lessened for eight people but got worse in four. Those four, interestingly enough, had mild acne, while the eight who improved from fish oil entered the study having moderate to severe acne. The researchers note that people who benefit from taking fish oil might be those who have more severe acne. However, this study was very small and short term. Plus, there was also no placebo group, which is important when determining the efficacy and outcome of any study group.
For a later randomized, double-blind, controlled trial, 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 inflammatory and noninflammatory acne — but so did the control group.
That said, fish intake might be your best bet — provided that you eat fish. Past research on an Italian population found that eating fish at least once per week lessened the risk of having moderate to severe acne by 32 percent compared with seafood avoiders. Another study, published in January 2016 in Acta Medica Marisiensis, also found that people who ate fish were less likely to have acne. More specifically, more than 40 percent of people with acne didn’t eat fish and three-quarters “rarely or never” ate fruit or vegetables, suggesting that a healthy diet that includes seafood (and plenty of produce) is key here.
Overall, the quality of your diet may matter more than simply 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, whereas populations that eat a ‘non-Western’ diet full of lean meat, seafood, vegetables, and fruit, have fewer breakouts,” Dr. Miller says. If you prefer not 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, soybean, chia seeds, and walnuts, according to the NCCIH.
RELATED: 7 of the Best Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
6 Things to Know When Treating Acne
1. Identify Your Acne to Pinpoint the Right Therapy
Are your pimples red and tender? Do they have a pustule in the center? That may be hormonal acne. On the other hand, do you have mainly blackheads and whiteheads? Well, that’s comedonal acne, Hollmig says. Both are treated differently.
2. Treat Comedones With Exfoliating Acids
Glycolic acid and retinoids exfoliate the skin and normalize cellular turnover, and products that contain these ingredients are Hollmig’s go-tos for this type of acne.
3. Address Hormonal Acne With an Rx
If you’re a woman in her 20s to 40s and have jawline acne, it’s likely your acne is hormonally driven. In that case, a prescription medication to address hormones or one that reduces sebum (oil) production may be in order, says Miller. Talk to your doctor about if your hormones may be driving your breakouts.
4. Cut Back on Processed Foods to Reduce Inflammation
There are many reasons to cut back on your intake of added sugars, including improving your heart health, as Harvard University notes. But eating a diet rich in plant-based whole foods can also be a boon to your skin health. “We do know that high-sugar diets worsen acne, and thus simply eating healthier is beneficial for many acne patients,” Hollmig says. A low-glycemic diet full of vegetables, fruit, beans, and oats in particular may help improve acne, notes the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD).
Another good skin diet: Mediterranean, which incorporates fish but also vegetables, whole grains, fruit, and olive oil. A review published in February 2020 in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences recommends following 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 instances, omega-3 supplementation might be useful, but that’s on a case-by-case basis determined between patient and doctor.)
RELATED: A Detailed Guide to Following an Anti-Inflammatory Diet
5. Use Fewer Products
With how stubborn acne can be, it makes sense that you’d want to throw all of the acne-fighting topicals and supplements at the issue to strong-arm it out, but that may be too much. Even when it comes to acne, “generally simplifying and saving money on skin care is the way to go,” Hollmig says.
6. Look at Your Whole Health
Your diet and the topical products you put on your skin are just two pieces of the puzzle when it comes to acne. “There may be several factors contributing to your breakouts,” Miller says. “If what you’re doing isn’t helping, schedule a visit to your dermatologist to see if there is something else — stress, environment, hormones, medication — that’s leading to your acne.”
The Bottom Line: Does Fish Oil Help With Acne?
Taking a fish oil supplement may not be a cure for acne. “Just eating a healthy, well-balanced diet is typically adequate for most people, so it is probably worth discussing potential benefits of a supplementation with your doctor,” Hollmig says. If you end up taking one, even to try it out, adjust your expectations, he adds: “Rarely is a single supplement a panacea when it comes to skin health.”