As many as 50 million Americans deal with acne. The blemishes can be painful and, for some, embarrassing.
Now, researchers may have found a new weapon to fight acne — one without harsh side effects.
A study in Germany has pinpointed omega-3 fatty acids — found in fish oil, wild salmon, nuts and seeds — as a nutrient helpful for reducing acne.
Among 100 participants with acne, about 94% had low levels of the fatty acid in their blood, the study discovered. Many also had higher levels of a hormone known to stimulate acne production.
“As someone who loves to treat acne and someone who performs clinical trials, this is a very interesting study,” said Dr. Sandra Johnson, a dermatologist in Fort Smith, Ark. Johnson was not involved in the study.
“We have great treatments for acne, but they come at a financial cost as well as potential side effects,” Johnson said. “It would be more natural, and less risky and less expensive to modify diet to treat acne.”
The study findings were released at last week’s meeting of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology. Research presented at medical meetings should be considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.
Omega-3 fatty acids are commonly found in non-farmed fish, algae and other plant-based foods, including legumes, nuts and seeds.
The researchers said these fatty acids reduce inflammation by stimulating the body to produce anti-inflammatory prostaglandins E1 and E3 and leukotriene B5, and lowering levels of IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor). IGF-1 is known to induce acne.
Lead study author Dr. Anne Gürtler said clinicians should provide patients with information on dietary choices as part of a modern treatment approach for acne. She is in the department of dermatology and allergy at Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich, Germany.
When her team analyzed participants’ blood samples, they found most had levels of omega-3 fatty acids below the recommended amounts of 8% to 11%.
Looking at individual diets, the team found those who regularly ate chickpeas and lentils, while abstaining from sunflower oil, had higher levels of omega-3s. Sunflower oil has been found in past research to aggravate acne.
The study patients who had lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids also had higher levels of IGF-1. Those with severe deficits in omega-3s, lower than 4%, had even more IGF-1 hormone.
Researchers have been looking at dietary influence on acne for many years, Johnson said. Yet, the research has not been of high quality because there has not been much funding for it.
Some think foods like donuts that are high in glycemic index, nuts, hormonally influenced meats and high iodine foods can worsen acne, she said.
Dairy and sugar are among the other dietary culprits that have been blamed for increasing acne.
Dr. Debra Jaliman, a dermatologist in New York City, said she always discusses diet with her patients, in addition to reviewing the products they use on their skin. Jaliman was also not involved in this study.
“Omega-3 seems to be a very important element in our diet in many ways,” Jaliman said, noting its link to other health benefits.
“I notice in my patients, when we change people’s diets, I feel like it really has an effect on their acne, but it could also be that, of course, I’m changing their habits, I’m adding medication. We do a lot of things at once. It’s not like here where it’s a controlled study, but I do think it does have an effect,” Jaliman said.
Topical hormone blockers, a new treatment, are another change that’s revolutionizing the field of acne treatment. The cream blocks excess male hormones on the skin, without requiring consuming harsh, internal medications, Jaliman said. She called it the biggest breakthrough in 30 years.
It’s too early to say whether an omega-3 supplement created to reduce acne according to blood serum levels would improve skin, according to the researchers. Additional study is needed first.
Johnson said she’d like to know about any potential side effects and what the optimal dose of omega-3 fatty acids might be.
“Although there are not a lot of clinical trials to support their use, one can consider eating foods high in omega-3 as well as supplements as an adjunct or a natural alternative for the treatment of acne,” Johnson said.
Although Jaliman said she would like to see research with a larger sample, she also said it wouldn’t hurt for someone living with acne to add some more omega-3 foods to their diet.
“I think the skin is impacted by everything. It’s impacted by stress. It’s impacted by exercise. People who exercise have better skin,” Jaliman said. “I think it’s a reflection of your whole body.”
The U.S. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases has more on acne.
SOURCES: Sandra Marchese Johnson, MD, dermatologist, Johnson Dermatology, Fort Smith, Ark.; Debra Jaliman, MD, dermatologist, private practice, New York City; European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology Spring Symposium, May 12-14, 2022, Ljubljana, Slovenia