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Acne, zits, and pimples, those ugly little bumps that seem to show up the day of a big date are the absolute worst. Acne is the most common dermatological concern affecting 73% at one time or another (1).
This being said, almost everyone struggles with acne at some point in their lives. Unfortunately, it doesn’t just stop after the teenage years, adult acne is a real thing.
There is a lot you can to do improve acne, nutrition is a key component. There are many supplements that can help reduce acne breakouts by targeting a few of the underlying causes of those yucky bumps.
Types of Acne
How Does Acne Happen?
Acne is a complex condition and the causes are not completely understood. What we do know is that it occurs when skin cells and skin oil, called sebum, clog up a pore.
Sex hormones, such as estrogen and testosterone, increase sebum production. Insulin plays a role in increasing sebum as well.
This is partially why acne is common in teenagers who have surging hormone levels.
The clog of sebum and skin mixes with a bacteria called P. acnes and causes a mild infection that results in an inflamed pustule. Colonization with P. acnes can also increases inflammation, leading to more sebum production and acne.
The key to preventing acne is to prevent the pore from getting clogged in the first place and also to prevent the clogs from getting infected by bacteria. Lowering inflammation can decrease sebum production and prevent the clog from getting inflamed.
Antibacterial herbs and supplements will help prevent the infection and may decrease the numbers of P. acnes on the skin.
How Severe Can Acne Get?
9 Helpful Supplements for Acne
Here are a few supplements that have been shown by research to prevent acne:
The omega-3 fats, EPA, DHA, and ALA, are touted for their amazing anti-inflammatory benefits. EPA and DHA are primarily found in fatty fish, like salmon, which is why it is so healthy. ALA is the plant form of omega-3s found in walnuts, chia, and flaxseeds.
Although ALA is an omega-3, it must be converted into EPA and DHA. This conversion is notoriously ineffective, therefore ALA may not be quite as powerful as the other two.
How does omega-3 fight acne?
As I mentioned, one of the major triggers of acne is inflammation. Since the omega-3s from fish are highly anti-inflammatory, it is no surprise that they can decrease the occurrence of acne.
A study of over 1000 teenagers found that those who ate the most fish and seafood had significantly less acne compared to those who ate less (2).
Further research into inflammation and acne has found that one of the inflammatory chemicals called LTB4 increases sebum production and when LTB4 is inhibited there is a significant improvement in acne. EPA, one of the omega-3 fats, can suppress LTB4, which would in turn decrease breakouts (3, 4).
A 2014 study evaluated the impact of omega-3s on acne. Forty-five participants received either 2000 mg EPA/DHA, 400 mg borage oil (high in omega-6), or a placebo for 10 weeks.
Those who received either of the oil supplements showed significant decreases in inflammatory acne lesions. Inflammatory markers also decreased in both groups when compared to a placebo (5).
How to Take Omega-3 Fats
When choosing a fish oil supplement look for one that contains both EPA and DHA. The supplement should be sourced from smaller fish, which have less risk of heavy metal contamination.
Krill oil is a good choice with a lower risk of contamination.
If you are looking for a vegan source of EPA and DHA try algal oil, made from algae the only plant-based source available.
The dose of omega-3s needed to help lower inflammation and improve acne is between 2-6 grams per day.
Turmeric is a yellow-colored spice common in Indian and Middle Eastern food. It has been extensively researched for the anti-inflammatory power of its active ingredient called curcumin.
How does turmeric fight acne?
In addition to being able to lower inflammation, curcumin also has anti-bacterial properties. The combination of anti-inflammatory powers with the ability to kill bacteria makes it a powerful supplement for reducing breakouts.
A systemic review of 18 studies on the impact of turmeric and skin found curcumin to be very effective both topically and orally for improving acne and several other skin-related conditions (6).
A 2013 study evaluated the impact of curcumin on P acnes on animal skin. The curcumin was able to significantly inhibit the growth of P. acnes on skin (7).
Curcumin can also inhibit other types of bacteria on the skin that may trigger acne pustules (8).
How to Take Turmeric
Although you can definitely try adding turmeric to your food, the curcumin in the spice is notoriously poorly absorbed. Also, turmeric is only about 3% curcumin so you would have to eat a lot to get any real benefit.
For the most anti-inflammatory benefit, you want to take a curcumin supplement. The recommended dosage is 500-1500 mg per day of curcumin per day. The supplement can be broken up into three doses per day.
Curcumin needs fat to be absorbed, since it is fat soluble, so take it with a meal. Additionally, look for a supplement that contains piperine, a black pepper extract that can improve absorption.
One of the causes of acne is the presence of a bacteria called P. acnes. This bacteria is what makes the clogs in the pores to become infected. This is why one of the traditional treatments for acne is antibiotics, to kill off the P. acnes.
The problem is that antibiotics can have some negative side effects, particularly for digestive health. They also can kill off healthy bacteria, which can put you at risk for other infections or even antibiotic resistance.
But, probiotics may be a viable alternative.
How do probiotics fight acne?
When there are lots of healthy bacteria in and on the body, there isn’t room to allow for colonization by bad bacteria. A 2014 study found that the introduction of another bacteria called S. epidermidis, can inhibit the growth of P. acnes (9).
Further research is needed to determine the ideal bacterial strains and doses needed to inhibit acne completely.
How to Take Probiotics
Probiotics have many benefits, not just for skin health. They can also keep the digestive tract healthy and boost the immune system.
When looking for a probiotic, you want to look for at least 10 billion CFUs (colony forming units) and a variety of bacterial strains. Make sure to take your probiotic on an empty stomach for optimal absorption.
For the most benefit, switch up the product from time to time to mix up the types of bacteria you are taking.
Finally, be sure to “feed” your new healthy bacteria with plenty of fiber, it’s what they love to eat!
You can also try fermented foods high in probiotics such as yogurt, sauerkraut, and Kombucha for an added benefit.
Zinc is an important micronutrient used for reproductive and immune health. It has also been extensively studied as a possible alternative treatment for acne. It has anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties that can attack two causes of acne (10).
It also needed for wound healing, so it may help repair damage done by acne breakouts.
How does zinc fight acne?
A 2001 study compared the effectiveness of zinc versus a common antibiotic on acne. Subjects received either 30 mg of zinc or 100 mg of the antibiotic, called minocycline for three months.
Zinc reduced acne by 31%, while the antibiotic reduced acne by 63%. Although zinc was not as effective as the antibiotic, which was an expected result, it has fewer side effects on the microbiome and may still be a viable treatment (11).
How to Take Zinc
Zinc can be taken orally or used topically in creams to help treat acne. If you want to take a zinc supplement, it should only be used in the short-term for less than a month when breakouts are really bad, as zinc can interfere with copper absorption.
The RDA for zinc is 9 mg per day for women and 11 mg per day for men. The maximum daily amount recommended in a supplement is 40 mg per day, excessive zinc can cause stomach upset.
Too much topical zinc can cause redness and irritation, if that happens you want to stop using the product.
Berberine is a yellow-colored substance found in the roots and leaves of plants from the berberis family. Plants in this family include goldenseal, goldenthread, berberry, tree turmeric, and Oregon grape.
How does berberine fight acne?
This substance has been found incredibly effective for reducing acne due to its anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. Berberine may also help regulate insulin and blood sugar. Uncontrolled blood sugar has been found to exacerbate acne.
A 2012 study evaluated the use of 600 mg barberry extract on acne of 49 teenagers. The subjects received the supplement for 4 weeks. Those who received the supplement experienced a 45% reduction in acne lesions when compared to a placebo (12).
How to Take Berberine
There are no side effects reported with berberine other than minor stomach upset. This can be mitigated by splitting the dose in two.
The usual dosage is between 500-1000 mg a day. It is best to take it in a capsule form, since it is extremely bitter if taken in tinctures or other forms.
Guggul is an oily resin, or sap from the Guggul tree. It has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for centuries for its various medicinal properties.
How does guggul fight acne?
Recent research has found that it may have anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties that are beneficial for acne. The plant compounds in it are effective for reducing redness and swelling.
It can also reduce sebum production and block the metabolism of acne-causing bacteria causing them to die off. It seems to be particularly beneficial for those with oily skin that is prone to acne breakouts (13).
How to Take Guggul
The active ingredient in Guggul is called guggulsterones. The recommended dose is 25 mg of the active ingredient twice a day.
Guggul does interact with certain blood thinners and birth control pills, so you may want to ask your doctor if it is safe if you are taking any medications.
Aloe vera has been used for centuries for its soothing and healing properties. It is a succulent plant that has thick leaves which contain a gel inside. It has been used topically for burns and other skin irritations.
How does aloe vera fight acne?
It is a common ingredient in many skin creams and lotions. The gel in aloe vera has powerful antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, which has led to its use in treating acne. It is also a powerful antioxidant, protecting the skin from damage.
A 2014 study evaluated the use of the combination of aloe vera and a tretinoin (retin-A) cream on acne. Sixty subjects used a combination cream with aloe and tretinoin, tretinoin alone, or a placebo for 8 weeks.
Those who received the tretinoin in combination with the aloe had significantly less inflammatory acne lesions compared to the other groups. Redness also decreased significantly (14).
How to Take Aloe Vera
Aloe vera can be used in many different ways both topically and orally.
You can always use a topical acne cream that contains aloe vera to reduce swelling, redness, and inflammation.
If you want to take aloe vera orally, it is available in drinks and capsules.
The dosage for the drink is about 3-6 ounces a day. For capsules, 50 mg of aloe extract is the recommended dose.
Allergic reactions have been reported although rare and the product should be discontinued if you have an allergic reaction.
Evening Primrose Oil
Evening primrose oil is extracted from a flower common in the United States and Europe. It helps balance hormones, therefore it may be particularly beneficial for people with hormonal adult acne. It also promotes wound healing due to its high gamma-linoleic acid (GLA) content.
How does evening primrose oil fight acne?
GLA is an omega-6 fat that is highly anti-inflammatory and helps the skin heal. It can also help prevent excessive dryness caused by many acne medications (15).
More specific research is needed on how to use evening primrose oil to reduce breakouts.
How to Take Evening Primrose Oil
Supplements are usually found in 1,300 mg doses once a day. There are no major side effects reported, since evening primrose oil is just a type of fat, but some people do complain of headaches or stomach discomfort. It can also be applied topically as a moisturizing oil, if desired.
Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin that acts as a powerful antioxidant found to have many benefits for skin health. It is also an anti-inflammatory.
Usually vitamin A is used topically as an acne treatment. You may have heard of a skin cream called Retin-A (trentinoin) that is commonly used for acne and wrinkles. It is able to help the skin renew and prevent pores from getting clogged.
How does vitamin A fight acne?
The research on oral vitamin A and acne has been mixed. A 2015 study evaluated the use of a vitamin A supplements on acne breakouts.
Subjects were given 20 mg/day of isotretinoin, a derivative of vitamin A for 3 months. Ninety percent of the subjects had improvements in acne (16).
The results of this study most recent study are promising, although other previous studies have not shown such a powerful affect.
How to Take Vitamin A
The RDA for vitamin A is 900 mcg for men and 700 mcg per day for women. Most multivitamins contain enough vitamin A to meet basic needs. It is best not to exceed the RDA when it comes to vitamin A.
Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin which means too much could cause toxicity. High doses can cause liver damage.
The upper limit for vitamin A is 3000 mcg, but it is best not to a get near that amount. Vitamin A supplements are also not recommended during pregnancy, as they may cause birth defects.
A good option if you don’t want to overdo it on supplements is to consider eating foods high in vitamin A, particularly liver and orange-colored fruits and vegetables.
Final Thoughts on Acne
Taking a combination of anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial supplements can help reduce acne by attacking breakouts at their root cause. But, your diet plays a role as well.
Two of the underlying causes of acne are hormones and inflammation. This means that balancing your hormones, in particular insulin, can help decrease the frequency of breakouts. You can control insulin and blood sugar by lowering your intake of sugar and processed foods.
An anti-acne diet should be based in whole grains, lean proteins, and vegetables. Increasing your intake of anti-inflammatory foods, such as fish and vegetables, can also help.
Stress can make acne worse, so it is important to implement some stress management techniques into your daily routine.
Finally, acne is treatable, but the best treatment depends on the type of acne you have and the underlying cause. Only a dermatologist can make specific recommendations to help clear up your skin.
A comprehensive treatment for acne should include tailored supplements, dietary changes, stress management, and treatment by a trained doctor.
Keep Reading: 7 Best Anti Aging Supplements
ⓘ Any specific supplement products & brands featured on this website are not necessarily endorsed by Ana.
Stock Photos from antoniodiaz / solar22 / EstherQueen999 / Shutterstock
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About the Author
Ana Reisdorf is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with 11-years experience in the field of nutrition and dietetics. After graduating from California State University, Long Beach, she began her career as health educator, helping educate patients on a variety of nutrition-related conditions. Email Ana.