For Teens Only: A Fish Oil Fix for Acne?

In the past, researchers could only speculate that fish oil may help reduce the severity of acne breakouts based on population research. In one study, teens who ate large amounts of fish and seafood also had less acne. So the thought was the omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) found in fatty fish may be playing a role.

But population research has its limits. It can only show a correlation rather than confirm a cause-and-effect relationship. For that, a well-controlled intervention study is needed. Enter the new study published in the September 2014 issue of the peer-reviewed journal Acta Dermato-Venereologica. It changes everything. It’s the first well-controlled, intervention study to investigate the effect of omega-3 fatty acids on mild to moderate facial acne. And, the results are impressive.

The study design

For this study, researchers at Seoul National University in Korea enrolled 45 men and women (aged 18-33 years) with mild to moderate acne. The participants did not have any recent acne therapy nor did they take any other dietary supplements.

The researchers randomly assigned the men and women to one of three treatment groups for 10 weeks: a daily fish oil supplement, a daily borage oil supplement or no supplement (control group). The fish oil supplement (2 capsules per day) provided 1,000 milligrams of EPA and 1,000 milligrams of DHA per daily dose. The borage oil supplement (2 capsules per day) provided 400 milligrams of GLA per daily dose. GLA is an omega-6 fatty acid with anti-inflammatory properties.

During the study, the subjects were asked to avoid any changes to their diet. To confirm this, they kept a food diary with what and how much they ate. The food diaries were analyzed by a qualified nutritionist at each study visit. At each follow up visit, the participants were photographed and two independent dermatologists checked their facial skin, performed acne counts and evaluated the severity of acne. A skin biopsy was also taken at the beginning and end of the study to measure the level of inflammatory markers in skin tissue.

The clear skin results

When the researchers analyzed the diets at the end of the study, they found no differences between the groups. Each group consumed diets with similar total calories, similar nutrient compositions and similar glycemic indices. (We talked about how a high glycemic index is linked to acne in a previous post). Thus, differences in diet habits were unlikely to skew the results.

After 10 weeks, the men and women who took either the fish oil or borage oil supplements had significantly fewer acne lesions compared to those in the control group. The severity of acne was also significantly reduced in both oil groups compared to the control group. Interestingly, both the fish oil and borage oil supplements resulted in similar acne-reducing benefits.

The researchers attribute the benefits of the supplements to their fatty acids (EPA and DHA for fish oil; GLA for borage oil). These fatty acids have the ability to reduce inflammation – one of the most important pathogenic factors of acne – as well as help control non-inflammatory biochemical actions. As a result, the oils have the ability to combat both inflammatory and non-inflammatory acne.

Nutrition Nugget

To boost your intake of EPA and DHA, you can eat more salmon, haddock, mackerel or other fatty fish. One 4-ounce serving of cooked wild salmon, for example, contains 300 milligrams of EPA and 1,200 milligrams of DHA.

Experts recommend that you limit your daily intake of EPA and DHA from all sources (food and supplements combined) to no more than 3,000 milligrams (3 grams) per day.

Finally, if you are considering a fish oil (or borage oil) supplement as part of a treatment program for acne, talk to your doctor first to discuss what’s best for your individual needs.

Here’s to clear skin!

Kathleen Dunn, MPH, RD
Co-author of Eating for A’s

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