7 Things You Need to Know Before Taking Vitamins for Acne

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

Like with any new acne treatment, you want to know if vitamins for acne really work before you try them. An all-natural approach to treating acne is a nice change of pace from the abundance of lab-made products and chemicals in most acne treatment products, but if they don’t work, then it’s not a change of pace, it’s simply standing still. The truth is that some vitamins for acne are more likely to work than others, and different people will respond in different ways. No matter what, we highly recommend consulting with a doctor before starting any kind of vitamin supplement. All of the vitamins discussed in this article (A, B, C, D, E, and Zinc) are essential vitamins, meaning our bodies need them to survive, but that doesn’t mean we can’t get too much of a good thing. Some vitamins can become toxic in large doses, so always talk to a doctor before taking vitamins for acne.

vitamins for acne
Vitamins are an all-natural way to help improve your acne, but some vitamins for acne are more reliable than others.

1. Vitamins are not a replacement for a gentle, consistent skin care routine.

We always encourage readers to try new acne treatments because there is no one-size-fits-all solution. However, when it comes to taking vitamins for acne, we don’t recommend abandoning all other skin care. Many vitamins haven’t yet been proven to be effective in acne treatment, and the ones that have aren’t 100% effective.

When it comes to treating any kind of acne, from mild to hormonal to cystic, the best place to start is with a gentle, consistent skin care routine. It can be tempting to bounce from one treatment to the next every two weeks when your skin doesn’t clear up right away, or you might find yourself skipping days of treatment because it doesn’t seem like it’s really working anyway. But if you aren’t using a treatment consistently, or if you stop using it before it has a chance to work, you’re only harming yourself. There’s a good chance that product could work for you, if you gave it a real shot and stuck with it for a full six weeks. We know, that’s a long time, but the best acne treatment is slow and steady.

That brings us to our next point: acne treatment needs to be gentle. Many skin care products are far too harsh in their attempts to clear acne right away. They work for a week or two, and you have miraculously clear skin—and then the acne comes right back. Harsh products can have a negative impact on two of the three core causes of acne, so it’s best to avoid them whenever possible. Instead, we recommend Exposed Skin Care and our gentle and effective line of acne treatment products.

Exposed Skincare products
Vitamins for acne can help supplement a gentle skin care system, like the Basic Kit from Exposed Skin Care.

2. Correlation does not mean causation

If you’ve ever taken a psychology or statistics class, you’ve already had this drilled into your head, but if you haven’t, allow me to introduce you to a very important concept when it comes to critically reading things you find on the internet: just because two things are correlated, doesn’t mean that one of them causes the other. It’s easy to see that two things are linked and assume there’s causality in their relationship, but that’s not a scientific conclusion, it’s an assumption. It might be correct, but it might not be.

We mention this because many articles online confuse correlation and causation when it comes to vitamins for acne. Many studies have found that those with acne tend to lack certain vitamins that are typically plentiful in people without acne. This indicates a correlation between vitamin levels and acne. However, it does not indicate that low vitamin levels cause acne. It’s possible that certain environmental factors cause acne and a decrease in certain vitamins, which would be an important distinction. In this case, treating the vitamin deficiency may have no effect on acne because the environmental factor causing the acne is still present.

Although some articles may make things seem clear-cut, that is rarely the case when it comes to acne. The truth is, we know less about it than we’d like to, and many non-lab-made treatments are still poorly understood. This doesn’t mean they don’t work, it just means we recommend exercising a healthy dose of skepticism when doing online research.

3. In order for any acne treatment to work, it must address the three core causes of acne: inflammation, bacteria, and oil production.

Instead of relying on shaky correlations to determine if taking vitamins for acne is a good idea, we prefer to look at what effects each vitamin has on the body and seeing how those effects line up with the three core causes of acne: inflammation, bacteria, and oil production. If a vitamin has properties that allow it to decrease any of these three causes, then there’s a strong chance it could help with acne.

Inflammation is the root cause of acne, which is why its so important to use gentle products when treating acne. Harsh products inflame the skin, which simply leads to more acne. When the skin is inflamed, the pores constrict slightly, trapping oil and dead skin cells beneath the surface. This leads to the clogged pores that cause blackheads and whiteheads, and if acne-causing bacteria get trapped in the pores as well, minor infections can start to form pimples. If we could keep our skin from ever getting inflamed, almost all our acne would disappear.

Bacteria are the second core cause of acne, but it’s not just any bacteria. There is a specific kind of bacteria called p. acnes, which always live on the surface of our skin. On their own they don’t cause much of a problem, but when they get trapped in the pores due to inflammation, they cause the minor infections that lead to pimples or even cysts.

Oil production is another normal part of our skin’s daily functioning that can be completely harmless at normal levels and without inflammation. However, many things can kick oil production into overdrive, from overly harsh products to hormones, and our skin is often inflamed. Both of these things lead to clogged pores and contribute to acne.

4. You may already be using vitamin A for acne.

Out of all the vitamins for acne represented in this article, vitamin A has the most scientific research that proves its effectiveness. This is because vitamin A is more than an all-natural home remedy. If you use a retinoid like Tazorac or Differin or if you take isotretinoin (commonly called Accutane), then you’re already be using vitamin A for acne.

Retinoids and isotretinoin (a very intense retinoid) are essentially concentrated derivatives of vitamin A. In this form, vitamin A can regulate the life cycle of skin cells in a way that helps prevent acne. Sometimes skin cells are produced rapidly, but then they die rapidly too, and all the dead skin cells get clogged in the pores. In other instances, skin cells aren’t being produced fast enough, so old dead skin cells aren’t being pushed out of the way and the pore is clogged. It’s also possible for skin cells to be produced at a normal rate, but live too long and cling to the pore, also causing clogs. Vitamin A in the form of retinoids can regulate this process to keep the pores clear.

Although retinoids have proven to be very effective, especially when treating cystic and severe acne, there are a few warnings you need to know. First, simply taking vitamin A supplements is not always safe. Vitamin A can get stored in your fat cells, meaning your body retains much of the excess vitamin A its receiving from the supplements, and these levels can quickly become toxic. This is the trouble with isotretinoin: although it can be very effective, toxicity is a major problem. Other retinoids that you apply directly to your skin are safer because the vitamin A can’t build up in your system as easily.

5. There is minimal research that suggests vitamins B, D, or E make a significant difference in acne.

Vitamins B, D, and E are the opposite of vitamin A, in that there is almost no research confirming or denying any possible benefits in acne treatment. These vitamins could improve your overall health, but they are not the most efficient vitamins for acne.

Vitamin B comes in many forms, like thiamin, niacin, biotin, and more, but none of these variations have been proven to decrease acne. Many B vitamins are linked to generally better hair and skin health, but this correlation (not causation, remember) is usually present when the person taking extra vitamin B was deficient to begin with. If you have a healthy amount of B vitamins, supplements are unlikely to help.

Some studies have found that people with acne are more likely to have a vitamin D deficiency, but studies have not yet shown that increasing vitamin D decreases acne. Vitamin D could theoretically help with acne because of relatively recent research which suggests it can boost the immune system and prevent inflammation. But it’s important to remember that these studies are early and have not yet been linked to acne specifically.

Finally, vitamin E is a common ingredient in many skin care products because it is an antioxidant, meaning it may be able to prevent some degree of inflammation. However, the same problem with vitamin B can be observed with vitamin E: positive effects are only generated when the person has a deficiency to begin with. In Western diets, vitamin E deficiencies are relatively rare, but if you think you might benefit from some extra vitamin E, you should speak with your doctor.

6. Vitamin C might be able to reduce acne and fade acne scars, but could create dark spots on dark skin.

Vitamin C doesn’t have the same level of research supporting its use in acne treatment as vitamin A does, but it is more likely to help than vitamins B, D, or E. This is due in part to its well-known ability to strengthen the immune system. Orange juice and vitamin C supplements are common home remedies during the cold winter months when illnesses abound, and some research suggests this immune boost could help reduce acne—and acne scars.

Because bacteria play a primary role in acne formation, keeping your immune system strong enough to fight them effectively can help prevent pimples from getting too large, or even prevent them from forming at all. But the real reason vitamin C is a standout on this list is because some studies show that it can reduce acne scarring.

One of the worst parts about acne is the scarring it leaves behind. Even once you have clear skin, you are left with many reminders that can be even trickier to treat. Many acne scars require dermatologist intervention, but you may be able to reduce the visibility of your scars using vitamins for acne. We recommend topical treatments rather than oral supplements because supplements affect the body systemically, so the vitamin C isn’t concentrated enough to reduce scarring. Instead, we recommend buying a vitamin C cream or simply juicing a lemon and mixing it with a moisturizing agent, like jojoba oil, and applying directly to the scar tissue.

Oranges for vitamins for acne
Citrus, like oranges and lemons, are an excellent source of vitamin C.

Although this could reduce acne scarring in fair skin, some studies have shown an increased likelihood of hyperpigmentation, or dark spots, in dark skin. Before using vitamin C for acne scars on dark skin, make sure you speak to a dermatologist.

7. Although zinc could help reduce acne, it has several drawbacks.

Zinc isn’t technically a vitamin, it’s an essential nutrient, but we thought it was only natural to include it in this article about supplements and vitamins for acne. Generally, zinc has been proven to be at least slightly helpful in the treatment of acne. It may sound backwards, but zinc actually reduces acne by suppressing your immune system slightly. Zinc keeps the immune system from triggering the inflammation response for every minor irritant, and reducing inflammation is one of the best ways to reduce acne. However, zinc comes with several potential drawbacks.

The first problem you can run into when taking zinc for acne is copper deficiency. Zinc and copper are absorbed together, so if you start to absorb too much zinc, there isn’t enough space to absorb the copper you need as well, which can lead to toxicity problems. If you decide to take zinc for acne, make sure you discuss this issue with your doctor.

The second issue with zinc is that, like vitamin C, it isn’t always recommended for dark skin. Zinc gluconate is considered safe for all skin types, but certain types of zinc, like zinc oxide or zinc ascorbate (which is zinc with vitamin C), can create white spots, whether the zinc is applied directly to the skin or taken orally, so make sure you’re getting the right zinc for your skin type.