Supplements for Acne: Fact or Fiction?

Jeff Hautala
By Jeff Hautala, Co-Founder of Exposed Skincare

Supplements for acne are part of a growing trend in skin care focusing on more natural solutions rather than lab-made creams and medications. Going natural is all fine and good, but does it actually work? It depends on who you ask. At this point, there’s no clear answer on whether or not supplements for acne can actually reduce acne. The only thing we can say for sure is that no supplement can “cure” your acne because acne is not the kind of condition that can be “cured” in the traditional sense. That doesn’t mean there isn’t hope though! Through a consistent, gentle skin care routine, you can significantly reduce acne and get clear skin, but there is no cure that can guarantee clear skin forever. With that being said, how effective are different supplements for acne? Are they worth a shot?

herbs and vitamins for supplements for acne
Natural supplements and vitamins are one potential option for acne treatment, but many of them are lacking the research to back up their usefulness.

What Exactly Are Supplements?

Before we can determine if supplements are a good treatment for acne, it’s important to understand what supplements are. Supplements are products designed to supplement your diet with additional nutrients you might be missing, and they typically come in pill form.

Because supplements are ingested orally, they are classified as a systemic acne treatment because they affect multiple body systems, unlike topical treatments which are applied directly to the skin. Topical treatments affect the various factors of acne, including inflammation, bacteria, and oil production, at the skin level, but systemic treatments affect the systems that cause that inflammation, bacteria, and oil production in the first place. Some people argue that topical options are preferable because they affect the skin specifically, which makes for better results because the treatment isn’t being allocated to all the systems in the body. Others claim that systemic treatments are better because they cut off the causes of acne at their systemic source rather than waiting for them to affect the skin. In reality, both topical and systemic can be very effective, but the question is: are supplements an effective systemic treatment?

Why Supplements for Acne Might Work

Even though there’s no definitive evidence that supplements are a top choice for treating acne, there are several reasons to believe they might be able to help. First, supplements can help reverse the negative side effects of essential vitamin or mineral deficiencies, which could potentially include acne. Second, certain vitamins and minerals can help improve the immune system to help fight off acne-causing bacteria, called p. acnes. Finally, most supplements help reduce oxidative stress and fight free radicals, both important factors in fighting acne that we’ll explore more later.

Why Supplements for Acne Might Not Work

There’s some solid, if not circumstantial, evidence that supplements could help improve acne, but there are also several reasons they might not be the best treatment idea. The biggest problem with using supplements for acne is that it can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing. Unless you have a strong background in nutrition (and even then), don’t start any new supplements without first consulting with a doctor or your dermatologist. Taking too much of any given vitamin or mineral can cause all kinds of negative side effects, some of which are life-threatening. The second problem with supplements is with their limited regulation. The FDA regulates supplements, but under different criteria than other drugs and foods and only after they are already being sold in stores. Finally, studies show that supplements are only effective for those with a deficiency of that vitamin or mineral, and very few people in the Western world have vitamin or mineral deficiencies.

So What’s the Consensus?

With all this in mind, we think it’s fair to say that the idea that supplements could help improve acne isn’t a total fiction, but it isn’t quite fact yet either. We are cautiously optimistic, which is why we want to explore the possibilities of a few of the most popular supplements for acne and how exactly they might be able to help.

The Potential of Probiotics for Acne

Probiotics for acne have become popular as more and more research emerges defining the extraordinary relationship between our gut and the rest of our body. The gut hosts all kinds of bacteria, both good and bad, and probiotics are meant to increase the good gut bacteria.

As with all the supplements we look at in this post, there is conflicting evidence on whether or not taking probiotics can actually reduce acne. Actually, there’s still some argument on how exactly probiotics work in general. Essentially, probiotics are live cultures of bacteria and yeast that help, rather than hurt, your body. Probiotics are sold in pill-form, but they are also found naturally in some foods, like yogurt.

So how are good gut bacteria related to acne? Well, inflammation is one of the many side effects that appear when there’s an imbalance between good and bad gut bacteria. Without enough good bacteria, many different systems in the body can become inflamed, including the skin. This can cause an increase in blackheads, whiteheads, and pimples because acne is primarily an inflammatory condition. When the skin is inflamed, the pores constrict and trap oil, dead skin cells, and p. acnes bacteria inside, where they form various kinds of acne. If probiotics can cause a decrease in inflammation throughout the whole body, including the skin, it would be an excellent addition to any skin routine.

The Exposed Skin Care Probiotic Complex is designed to decrease inflammation in order to decrease acne.

At Exposed, we’ve created our own Probiotic Complex to help decrease inflammation on a systemic level in order to reduce acne on a skin level. We’ve added several important vitamins like vitamin A and vitamin E along with some essential nutrients like zinc and copper. When combined, they create a complex that takes advantage of all the acne-fighting potential of natural supplements.

Using L Lysine for Acne

Nope, that’s not a typo, this supplement is an amino acid, and the L out front means that it is naturally occurring, rather than man-made. To understand why it can help acne, we need a brief science lesson review on amino acids.

Amino acids come together in chains to create proteins throughout the body. There are 20 amino acids that we need, and our body produces 10 of them, but we have to get the other 10 through diet, including l lysine. Like all amino acids, l lysine helps build proteins like hormones and antibodies, so they can have a profound effect on the whole body. The reason l lysine for acne might be a useful treatment is because it can help reduce hormones that increase acne, like cortisol.

Cortisol is a stress hormone that is released by the adrenal glands to help the body get through physically stressful situations. Cortisol can reduce inflammation, which should be good for acne, but it also stimulates the creation of more oil, making clogged pores much more likely. Unfortunately, our bodies don’t differentiate very well between emotional and physical stressors, so we often produce cortisol when we don’t need it, like when we have a big presentation the next day and we’re nervous.

As with vitamins (which we’ll get into in a moment), amino acid supplements don’t make much of a difference if you already produce enough of them. The body typically won’t absorb them, because it doesn’t need them, meaning they leave your body as waste. If you notice signs of l lysine deficiency, like kidney stones, dizziness, and anemia, you should contact your doctor to find out if an l lysine supplement could help both your body and your acne, but if you already get enough l lysine, it’s unlikely that it will make any noticeable difference in your skin.

Are There Any Vitamins That Help With Acne?

Like we already discussed with amino acids, the only kind of vitamins that help with acne are ones you aren’t getting enough of. Studies show that vitamins are essential for our wellbeing, but vitamin supplements usually aren’t. In the Western world, many people have access to the kind of fruit, veggies, and meats that contain all the right vitamins, but that doesn’t mean we all get what we need. Below, we’ve outlined a few vitamins that might be able to help reduce acne. Remember, if you don’t have a deficiency, vitamin supplements are very unlikely to have any effect on your acne.

The Many Faces of Vitamin A For Acne

Vitamin A plays crucial roles in the immune system, vision, and the life cycle of cells, and vitamin A for acne is one of the most popular vitamins for skin care.

The biggest reason vitamin A can help with acne is due to its anti-inflammatory properties. Vitamin A, like many other vitamins, contains antioxidants, which are compounds that help fight free radicals. Free radicals are oxygen molecules that are missing an electron and cause rampant cell destruction in their search for another electron. Antioxidants lend these free radicals an electron and reduce the destruction. Vitamin A also boosts the immune system, making it better at fighting off p. acnes bacteria, and it helps regulate the life cycle of skin cells.

Vitamin A for acne is one of the few vitamins that have been well-studied in the realm of skin care, and there are many vitamin A treatment options, from retinoid creams to isotretinoin to regular vitamin A supplements.

Unlike most vitamins, concentrated derivatives of vitamin A have become popular and highly effective acne treatments, the most popular of which is isotretinoin. Isotretinoin, also commonly called Accutane, is an oral medication made up of a derivative of vitamin A. It is a powerful medication that is prescribed for four to five months. After that period, the medication is discontinued and most people see significantly clearer skin for years, if not for the rest of their life.

However, regular vitamin A supplements will not have this same effect. Although isotretinoin is derived from vitamin A, they are not exactly the same, and neither are their effects on the skin. Regular vitamin A only produces effects when the person has a deficiency, which often has symptoms including dry skin and eyes, night blindness, and poor wound healing. Although they are different in many ways, vitamin A and isotretinoin both have the danger of building up in the fat cells and causing toxicity. Vitamin A toxicity can cause joint pain, nausea, and headaches, and it significantly increases the likelihood of birth defects.

The Complicated Biotin Acne Relationship

Biotin has come to be known as the “hair, skin, and nails” vitamin, which leads many of us to believe in a biotin acne supplement. But as always, the reality isn’t that simple. Many studies show limited relationship between biotin and any improvement in hair, skin, or nails unless the person already has a deficiency in biotin.

Biotin is one of the many B vitamins and is often referred to as vitamin B7. Its main function is breaking down food into energy, but it also distributes fatty acids throughout the body. Some say that it’s this function that improves hair, skin, and nail health, since fatty acids are an essential part of keratin, a protein found in your hair, skin, and nails. However, fatty acids are an essential part of all kinds of proteins and other compounds throughout the body, so this doesn’t confirm a strong relationship.

The biggest correlation between biotin and acne may actually be a negative one. This is because of how it’s absorbed. Many vitamins and minerals are absorbed together, meaning if there’s too much of one, there’s not room for enough of the other. Think of it like there’s one jar for two different vitamins. If you’re taking extra biotin, there’s not enough room for the other vitamin that gets absorbed with it: vitamin B5, pantothenic acid. Unlike biotin, pantothenic acid has some substantial research suggesting that it could help reduce acne, but more on that in a moment. Overall, biotin for acne is probably not the best supplement option out there.

Pantothenic Acid Acne Treatment

More research is needed, but at the moment, it seems like a pantothenic acid acne treatment could be very effective. Generally, pantothenic acid is used to turn food into energy and make and break down fats, but it also plays an important role in protecting the skin.

Even though too much oil can be a very bad thing for acne, no oil at all can be even worse. Our skin needs a very fine layer of oil covering it at all times in order to protect it from irritants. Lots of things can irritate the skin, from allergens to our own hands, picking or scratching, and when the skin is irritated, it triggers inflammation and a burst of oil production which can easily come together to form acne. To prevent every little thing from irritating our skin, we always need a certain amount of oil in our skin. Pantothenic acid contributes to this protective oil and helps form what’s called the epidermal barrier.

Oil-absorbing masks can be fun, but vitamins like pantothenic acid help us retain enough oil to keep our skin protected.

The epidermis is the topmost layer of our skin, and the epidermal barrier resides at the very top, preventing too much water from escaping the skin and causing dehydration and preventing irritating or infectious invaders from getting into the skin. Some studies have found that a topical cream containing pantothenic acid can help reduce acne, but studies have also found it helpful in supplement form. Generally, pantothenic acid is one of the most well-supported vitamin supplements for acne.

Should You Try Niacinamide for Acne?

Niacinamide is yet another B vitamin, vitamin B3, though it often goes by nicotinamide as well. Many studies have found it to be helpful in treating acne in some capacity due to its anti-inflammatory properties and its ability to improve the epidermal barrier and regulate skin cells.

Like the other B vitamins, niacinamide is used to transform food into energy, but it also has acne-fighting properties. Like pantothenic acid, niacinamide helps bolster the epidermal barrier and retain moisture, plus it keeps an eye on the life cycle of the skin cells to prevent clogging. When you also consider its anti-inflammatory properties, it makes sense that research has yielded good results when it comes to niacinamide for acne. One study found that a niacinamide cream was just as effective as an antibiotic cream, while others found that niacinamide in oral supplement form could be suitable replacement for oral steroids and antibiotics—but only for treating acne. Niacinamide doesn’t have steroid effects and it doesn’t kill bacteria, but it can reduce inflammation and protect the skin well enough that it has similar effects to steroids and antibiotics when it comes to reducing acne.

Unlike most vitamins, these studies have found improvements in most patients, regardless of a vitamin B3 deficiency. Vitamin B3 deficiency is very rare in the Western world, but when it does happen, it typically results in a dangerous condition called pellagra which comes with a bad rash, digestive issues, psychological symptoms, and if left untreated, eventually death. Since participants in studies are normally required to be generally healthy in order to participate, it’s relatively safe to say that none of the people whose acne improved with the use of niacinamide had pellagra or a niacinamide deficiency.

Spicing it Up: Turmeric for Acne

We’ve discussed the vitamins most popularly recommended for acne, so now we want to transition to a unique supplement: turmeric for acne. Turmeric is a spice commonly used in Indian and Caribbean cuisine, but some sources claim it can also help reduce acne. Fact, or fiction?

As is usually the case, the usefulness of turmeric for acne falls somewhere between fact and fiction. There has been a lot of research done on turmeric and one of its specific components, curcumin, but large clinical studies are still missing, so it would be hasty to say anything for sure. So far, researchers believe turmeric shows promise in treating acne, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and even cancer. But there’s still a long way to go before scientists can create a turmeric-based solution to any of these problems.

Many turmeric-based acne treatments are applied directly to the skin because turmeric has antibacterial qualities and can kill p. acnes specifically, but there are several drawbacks that have drawn people to turmeric supplements as well. Turmeric is famous for its powerful staining properties, and is even used in dyes. When applied to the skin, it can leave behind a orange or yellow stain, and will almost definitely stain whatever towel you use to help remove it. Turmeric is also known for causing skin irritation, which could actually lead to more acne. A turmeric supplement isn’t able to kill p. acnes bacteria because p. acnes don’t reside in the gut, only on the skin, but it can fight one of the other main causes of acne: inflammation. Turmeric is a powerful anti-inflammatory, meaning it can help prevent clogged pores and the blackheads and pimples that ensue.

There’s not enough evidence to say any of this for sure yet, but taking turmeric for acne is unlikely to hurt anything, so if you’re willing to give it a try, just make sure you discuss it with your doctor first.

Cod Liver Oil Acne Solutions

It might sound gross, but cod liver oil acne solutions are becoming more and more popular due to the increasing awareness of omega-3 fatty acids. These are healthy fats that reduce inflammation and are found in large amounts in cod liver oil and other fish oils.

Cod liver oil contains several components that may help reduce acne, but there’s a lack of research to prove that it really works.

Cod liver oil has gained notoriety recently, but it’s actually been prescribed for over a hundred years. Specifically, cod liver oil was studied and prescribed to treat rickets, a disease causing fragile bones, especially in children. The main reason many doctors now believe cod liver oil worked was because it contains a large amount of vitamin D, which plays an important role in bone health. Vitamin D isn’t hugely beneficial for acne, but it is an antioxidant which means it can assist the omega-3 fatty acids in decreasing inflammation. Omega-3 fatty acids don’t prevent inflammation through antioxidants; instead, they suppress various proteins involved in the inflammation process.

Finally, cod liver oil also contains vitamin A, which we know can significantly reduce acne. This combination of vitamin A, omega-3 fatty acids, and the antioxidants in vitamin D makes it likely that cod liver oil can reduce acne, but so far there’s little direct evidence to support that theory. Despite a lack of concrete evidence, it’s generally very safe to take cod liver oil for acne. The only thing to look out for is vitamin toxicity. If you take cod liver oil, make sure you aren’t also taking vitamin A or vitamin D supplements because the vitamins could collect in the fat cells and cause toxicity problems.

DIM for Acne is Promising, But Needs More Research

Diindolylmethane or DIM for acne is a compound produced through the breakdown of veggies like broccoli. It’s a unique natural option that hasn’t been studied vigorously enough for us to feel comfortable promoting it, but it’s definitely worth exploring.

One of the biggest influences on acne that we haven’t discussed yet is hormones. Everyone experiences hormonal fluctuations, and these fluctuations can have a big impact on your acne. Testosterone and estrogen are commonly tied to hormonal acne and having too much of either one can cause a problem. Some sources claim that DIM comes in handy when someone is producing too much estrogen because theoretically, DIM can help block estrogen (one brand name for DIM is EstroBlock). Regardless of sex, everyone produces both testosterone and estrogen, so DIM could be used for anyone, but it’s important to note that any medication or product that reduces estrogen is likely to produce masculinizing features such as a deeper voice or increased hair growth.

There are several other medications out there right now that adjust hormone levels to reduce acne, but DIM is one of the only natural options, and one of the only options that reduces estrogen rather than testosterone. Increases in testosterone can also be linked in increased acne, but if you think too much testosterone is causing your acne, DIM definitely isn’t for you. How can you tell whether you’re producing too much estrogen or too much testosterone? Producing too much testosterone typically results in light periods, extra hair growth, and very oily skin, while producing too much estrogen often results in extra heavy periods, hair loss, and mood swings. It’s important to remember though, there is not enough information to say for sure that DIM is capable of adjusting these hormones in a way that reduces acne.

The Pros and Cons of Vitex for Acne

There’s some research that suggests vitex for acne could be helpful in a similar way to DIM for acne, but like DIM, there are several drawbacks you should be aware of before trying it.

Vitex for supplements for acne
Vitex is an herb commonly used to treat premenstrual syndrome and infertility, but it may not be the best option for acne.

Vitex is an herb grown largely in the Mediterranean and Central Asia, and it’s been used in folk medicine for a long time, to treat maladies ranging from acne to infertility. While there have been quite a few studies investigating its use in treating infertility (it can actually help!), there are almost no studies on vitex for acne. Supposedly, they way it manipulates hormones can help reduce acne. Vitex stimulates the release of luteinizing hormone, which causes an increase in progesterone. This is part of how it can help with infertility, and some sources argue that it can also help with acne. Unfortunately, dermatologists don’t yet have a clear understanding of progesterone’s role in acne, so it’s hard to know if increasing progesterone would make hormonal acne better or worse.

Unlike some other supplements for acne in this post, vitex is not one you want to take lightly. Like DIM, it disrupts hormone levels meaning it could interfere with hormonal contraception methods or worsen primarily hormonal conditions, like endometriosis or uterine fibroids, but vitex comes with some of its own complications as well. Some studies have shown that vitex can have an effect on dopamine levels, so you definitely need to see your doctor before taking vitex if you have any dopamine-related conditions like Parkinson’s, ADHD, schizophrenia, or others. Overall, vitex for acne is not a well-researched treatment option and we wouldn’t recommend it until its effects on the skin are better understood.