Acne, formally known as acne vulgaris, is a skin condition that can cause pimples, whiteheads, or blackheads. It happens when the pores of your skin get blocked with dead skin, bacteria, or oil. While acne is most prevalent among adolescents – even peaking at 87% of adolescents – it can affect people of all ages.
As anyone who’s struggled with acne can tell you, it can be a frustrating condition to manage. In severe cases, it can be painful and even cause scarring. And even less extreme cases can be distressing, given acne’s effect on one’s outward appearance. If acne is giving you trouble, take hope in that there are plenty of diet and lifestyle adjustments that can try to address acne.
Acne often shows up in adolescence and affects teenagers and young adults. About 87% of adolescents – or people aged 12 to 24 – experience at least minor acne. That said, acne is the most common skin condition affecting Americans, with up to 50 million people affected annually.
Beyond adolescents, acne may affect adults due to reasons such as hormone imbalances, gut microbiome changes, stress, and diet.
The hormones naturally created by our bodies play a role in the development of acne. For example, excess levels of the androgen hormones DHT (dihydrotestosterone) and DHEA are implicated in the development of acne.
Occasional outbreaks of acne can be caused by hormonal changes which increase the production of sebum, an oily substance in the skin. Too much sebum can cause the bacterium P. acnes, or sometimes called C. acnes, to grow and develop acne. This is why occasional acne during times of the menstrual cycle is common.
Yes, supplements can indeed help hormonal acne – by acting as antioxidants and promoting hormonal balance. Read on to learn more about which supplements are especially helpful.
If you are pursuing clearer, healthier skin, you may want to consider the role of supplements. Certain supplements have shown promise in managing acne by addressing underlying factors such as hormonal imbalance and oxidative stress. Let's explore some of the top supplements that have gained attention for their potential benefits in supporting acne-prone skin.
When considering whether vitamin A could be helpful for acne, it’s important to distinguish between oral and topical vitamin A supplements. Past research did not find that oral vitamin A was effective to reduce acne. Newer research, on the other hand, shows that a type of oral vitamin A supplement was effective at treating acne. However, this one study is not enough to conclude oral vitamin A supplementation to be effective for acne.
Instead, topical vitamin A, as creams and lotions, has shown some promising signs. Topical medications change the vitamin into a retinoid that can be rubbed on your skin. Topical retinoids have a demonstrated track record of treating skin conditions, including acne. Retinoids have the ability to regenerate and heal your skin. For severe acne cases resistant to topical treatment, the vitamin A derivative oral isotretinoin may be a potential remedy but should be used under the guidance of a dermatologist.
If you’re pregnant or planning to conceive you should avoid using retinoids, as it is unclear if these may impact pregnancy. Moreover, the substance can weaken your skin’s natural UV protection, so too much time in the sun can be especially harmful. Consult a medical professional about your skin and the best plan to target your acne and achieve your skin goals.
Magnesium is an important mineral with involvement in more than 300 enzyme reactions in the body. Its effectiveness as a supplement to treat skin conditions is inconclusive but may be promising. Magnesium has been shown to have a calming effect on the nervous system. Since there is a known association between stress and acne, magnesium may have an impact on acne production.
One study of adolescents showed that a combo dietary supplement containing magnesium, phosphate, and omega-6 and omega-7 fatty acids led to significant skin improvements in a 6 month period It is unclear how much the magnesium itself played a role as several additional ingredients were used in the formula.
This controlled case study found an association with serum levels of magnesium with severity of acne. Associations do not mean direct causation so more research will be needed. While further research is needed to establish the direct effects of magnesium on acne, ensuring adequate magnesium levels through diet or supplementation may be beneficial for individuals struggling with acne.
Zinc, a mineral that is available as an oral supplement and as a topical treatment, can help promote healthy skin. Studies have shown that people experiencing certain skin issues tend to have less zinc in their blood than those with clearer skin. One study, in particular, had 48 people with acne take methionine-based zinc complex with antioxidants supplements three times per day. After just eight weeks, 38 of the subjects had experienced an 80-100% reduction in pimples. Due to the formula being a blend of multiple ingredients it is challenging to fully understand the exact role zinc played in the outcome. Moreover, an analysis of previous studies found that zinc may even decrease your skin’s oil production, a key part in maintaining healthy skin.
Taking too much zinc does not translate to additional benefits, so you should try to keep your dosage below 40 mg per day. Also ensure you are getting enough sources of copper, since zinc and copper compete for absorption. Always check with a medical professional before proceeding to start any new supplements or topicals.
Researchers are increasingly finding a clearer connection between vitamin D levels and acne. A 2014 study, for example, found a correlation with vitamin D levels and skin health. Another study of 39 people found that people with clinical vitamin D deficiencies who also had acne saw improvements in their symptoms upon taking oral vitamin D supplements. The results from this study suggest that those with skin issues consider testing their vitamin D levels among other nutrients.
Whether a low level of vitamin D in the blood is a contributing factor or just a marker of health risk is a newer topic of research and scientific discussion. Consuming around 800 IU of vitamin D daily remains the recommendation for most adults. You can meet this daily goal through sun exposure, eating vitamin-D rich foods, and appropriate supplementation.
Fish oil and algae oil are great sources of omega-3, an essential fatty acid. Research shows that diets rich in fish containing omega-3 resulted in less oil produced by the skin. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids have also been shown to have beneficial properties that can be good for skin health. While omega-6 fats are common in many foods, omega-3 fatty acids are not as common in foods. The best food sources of omega-3 fats include oil fish such as salmon and mackerel. For those who eat plant-based diets, omega-3 is available as an algae-derived supplement.
B-vitamins have yielded mixed results in managing skin health. Studies of vitamin B12 supplements actually showed that this supplement can actually lead to the emergence of acne or exacerbate existing acne when taken in high doses. However, another study showed that pantothenic acid – or vitamin B5 – helped reduce facial lesions caused by acne after being applied topically for 12 weeks. Vitamin B5 is known to support the metabolism of fatty acids, which may potentially manage excess sebum production that can contribute to acne.
Vitamin B6, or pyridoxine, has several beneficial roles in the body including helping regulate hormone balance. It also works in the production of GABA, the neurotransmitter that can help produce a sense of calm, especially when experiencing PMS. For these reasons, vitamin B6 may even help with hormonal acne however studies are needed to confirm this. It also plays a role in managing homocysteine levels and oxidative stress. Keeping oxidative stress levels under control is necessary for controlling acne.
Further randomized, placebo-controlled are needed to better understand B-vitamins and skin health.
Vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin that your body doesn’t naturally produce, which means you have to get it through your diet. It’s essential to many areas of your health, including your skin health. This study shows that topical vitamin C may be helpful in promoting healthy skin.
The top layer of skin – the part that’s visible, known as the epidermis – contains high concentrations of vitamin C. The vitamin works as an antioxidant to help maintain healthy skin. Antioxidants help neutralize unstable, cell-damaging compounds known as free radicals. Free radicals can negatively affect your skin health. Vitamin C and its antioxidant properties are especially required in the production of collagen, the major protein in skin and connective tissues. While evidence does not show that having strong, healthy collagen is a solution for acne, it can support the overall health and appearance of skin.
Recent studies have shown that the use of probiotics may be effective in promoting healthy skin. The topical application of probiotics in skincare has been shown to increase skin properties that keep the skin moist and target factors that can potentially lead to acne formation. Probiotics can bring out the production of healthy ceramides that restore healthy fats and boost healthy skin.
Oral probiotics may also support skin health and acne through their impact on the gut microbiome. Research shows that people with acne tend to have key differences in their levels of gut bacteria compared to those without acne. Modulation of the gut microbiome through diet, lifestyle, and probiotics may indirectly influence the skin microbiome. However, research is still preliminary. There are so many potential benefits with skin health and probiotics however additional clinical trials are needed.
Maca root supplements are primarily known for their potential benefits in hormonal balance, energy levels, fitness performance, and sexual health. While some anecdotal evidence suggests that maca root may help improve certain skin issues, including acne, there is limited scientific research specifically investigating its effects on acne.
Stress and hormones can impact acne, so maca root may indirectly manage acne through its impact on stress response and hormonal balance. Maca is a powerful adaptogen and may work through promoting a more optimal functioning of the hypothalamus-pituitary axis. This axis is the network in the brain that communicates with all endocrine glands (hormone-producing glands) in the body, thereby altering function of the thyroid gland, ovaries and testes, adrenal glands, and more.
Research points to about 3 grams of maca daily for best effects. Maca powder can be taken daily mixed with a drink or added to smoothies, yogurt, or baked goods.
Selenium is an important mineral for skin health, immune function, thyroid function, and antioxidant activity in the body. While the research on the direct effects of selenium supplementation on acne is limited, evidence shows that selenium is necessary and beneficial for the skin. Selenium has antioxidant properties. Research shows that selenium can help protect the skin against the oxidative stress caused by UV light exposure. It is also necessary in production of glutathione, the major antioxidant system in the body and necessary for skin health. Studies show that those who supplemented with selenium had increased levels of glutathione in the body and improved skin health.
Addressing acne through managing oxidative stress is a process that likely requires a combination of nutrients that work synergistically to support antioxidant function in the body. You can boost antioxidant status in the body through eating antioxidant-rich foods, supplementing appropriately with antioxidant supplements, and getting good sleep and regular exercise.
Green tea extract contains several types of polyphenols, which are plant compounds that possess a variety of health benefits. These compounds, such as catechins like EGCG, provide the major antioxidant benefits of green tea. In fact, up to 30% of the dry weight of green tea leaves is made up of EGCG.
A large portion of research on green tea and skin points to the benefits of green tea on protecting the skin against oxidative stress induced by UV light exposure. Some research has studied the use of green tea for acne, but most of the studies used topical formulations on the skin. The research does indicate that topical forms of green tea polyphenols may help with sebum production in the skin and reduce acne. There is limited research, however, on the oral use of green tea for acne.
One study did show that women who supplemented with a green tea supplement daily had improved levels of testosterone and insulin levels after the intervention. High testosterone and androgen levels in women is associated with increased acne production.
A healthy diet plays a clear role in skin health. A recent scientific review article discussed the role of diet in managing acne. Some foods (rich in omega 3s and probiotics) were found to be potentially helpful while some foods were found to worsen skin health. For example, it was found that achieving a low glycemic load in the diet, meaning maintaining a healthy blood sugar balance, maintained healthy skin,. A low glycemic dietary approach generally focuses on reducing processed foods and refined carb foods, and focusing more on adequate sources of protein, healthy fats, fruits, vegetables, and complex carbs.
Dairy may also have an impact on acne. The research is still not conclusive, although some evidence does point to the potential for whey protein in milk and some dairy products to increase insulin levels, thereby potentially contributing to acne production. Whey protein is known for stimulating insulin production, but that is also why it can be a helpful protein post-workout to encourage nutrient uptake into muscles. While reducing some forms of dairy may benefit some to reduce acne, it might not be necessary for everyone. Other compelling ways to support maintaining blood sugar already at normal levels exist, as described above regarding low glycemic load. And dairy provides additional nutrients, like calcium, vitamin A, and protein, that may make it a helpful part of a balanced diet.
Diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids may help with acne. One randomized, double blind controlled trial found that participants with mild-to-moderate acne who supplemented with either omega-3 fatty acids or gamma-linoleic acids for 10 weeks had less acne than those who did not supplement with either. Diets with adequate food sources of omega-3 fats, such as oily fish like salmon, may benefit people with acne.
A diet comprising a variety of antioxidant-rich foods may also be helpful. As previously discussed, oxidative stress is one of several major factors that can contribute to acne. Consuming nutrients that boost antioxidant activity in the body may be helpful. Several vitamins and minerals act as antioxidants, including vitamins A, C, and E and the minerals selenium, zinc, and copper. Fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains also provide antioxidants.
If acne is a problem for you, you should talk to your dermatologist and consider making some slight dietary adjustments.
Odds are, you’ve heard some common myths surrounding acne. One popular myth is that only teens get acne. While it’s true that acne is often more common in adolescents, they’re far from the only people who can experience acne. Hormone imbalances and oxidative stress that can contribute to acne development can happen at any age.
Another common myth is that acne is caused by dirty skin. Acne does involve blocked pores, but pore blockage can be caused by a number of factors, including hormones, genetics, gut health, and diet. A healthy daily skincare routine can be one step out of other things you can do to address acne.
And finally, we’ve all heard the myth that popping pimples somehow makes them go away more quickly. On the contrary, popping them can do more harm than good! Instead of popping pimples, try incorporating some of the supplement, diet, and lifestyle strategies already discussed.
While there are many do-it-yourself options to help manage acne, seeking the help of a dermatologist is best in several situations, which may include:
While there’s no magic solution for acne, there are things you can do to help the situation. A balanced diet, regular hydration, exercise, good sleep, and stress management can lay a firm foundation for skin health – along with applying sunscreen to protect from UV damage. The supplements discussed above can be part of a balanced approach to promoting healthy skin.
It is essential to approach acne treatment holistically and consult with a healthcare professional or dermatologist for personalized advice. They can provide comprehensive guidance on addressing acne, including lifestyle changes, skincare routines, and the right supplements that may be beneficial for your specific condition.