The Fish Oil Acne Effect: Does Fish Oil Improve Acne?
What is this “fish oil acne effect,” anyway?
Here it is, in a nutshell: fish oil – or rather, omega-3 fatty acids – can help clear up your skin faster. They work primarily because they reduce the inflammatory impact of omega-6 fatty acids. There’s an important warning, though, which I’ll explain below.
There’s a lot of misinformation floating around out there about fish oil being some kind of “miracle cure” – and I must admit, I’ve been part of the problem. I didn’t dig deeply enough into the scientific literature, and so my old recommendations were much, much too high for long-term fish oil intake. This is a recent update to this blog post, containing updated recommendations and going deeper into why fish oil is not a miracle supplement for acne. I’ll also explain another way to achieve many of the same benefits of supplementing with fish oil – reducing the amount of omega-6 in your diet.
Fish oil contains a large amount of omega-3 fatty acids, which interact with omega-6 fatty acids to govern your body’s levels of inflammation. When you have a really skewed omega-3:6 ratio in your diet – as in, way too much omega-6 and not enough omega-3 – your inflammation levels skyrocket.
And for some years now, people have been using large doses of fish oil to treat inflammation.
How does inflammation relate to acne? Well, It’s responsible for the redness and swelling that makes acne so embarrassing. Reduce inflammation, and your acne won’t swell up so much (or get so cherry-red).
Also, omega-3 fatty acids regulate hormone production and reduce stress – two other key factors that will help you get clear skin faster.
Important: Dosing up on large quantities of fish oil (or other sources of omega-3s) does not appear to be ideal for health. I’ll dive deeper into this issue in this article, so read on.
First, here’s a roundup of the key clear-skin benefits of improving your omega-3 to omega-6 ratio:
Improving this fatty acid ratio can help…
- Reduce redness and puffiness of acne lesions.
- Moisturize your skin naturally, making your skin softer.
- Reduces stress, preventing excess acne-causing sebum production.
- Slow down skin cell over-production, keeping your pores open and free.
- Balance hormone production, making your skin less oily.
In addition to helping clear your skin, a healthier omega-3 to -6 ratio can also provide the following benefits:
- Reduced joint pain.
- Improved mood.  
- Improved brain performance. 
- Stronger hair.
- More energy.
- Improved cholesterol levels.
- Enhanced male fertility. 
- Fat loss.  
That’s a key theme in this blog – by targeting the root causes of acne, you’ll also become healthier, fitter, and more radiant. You’ll be giving your body clean, high-octane food that’s loaded with essential nutrients that perform millions of complex, tiny functions in the body and lead to an awesome, healthy, clear you.
Okay… so what is fish oil, exactly?
It’s basically oil that’s extracted from fish bodies, as opposed to cod liver oil (which is taken from the livers of codfish). Pretty simple.
And it’s a powerful source of omega-3s.
For a long time, I took large doses of fish oil for my skin (two teaspoons a day), which at least one study says is a healthy dose. But some recent research has suggested that this may not a good idea for long-term use.
(Note: if you haven’t cut out dairy yet, please go read this article about dairy and acne and do so – it’s very likely going to get you faster results. If you’ve already cut out dairy, then keep reading.)
What’s the big deal with inflammation?
You see, these days, most of the common Western diet is highly inflammatory.
What does that mean, exactly?
Well, it means that most people are eating way too many foods loaded with omega-6, which is highly pro-inflammatory. These inflammatory foods drive your immune system to do insane things, like causing swelling where you least want it – arthritis, for example, and of course, acne. When your immune system is on constant red alert, and it stumbles across a clogged pore on that lovely face of yours, it dives in for the attack! The clogged pore becomes inflamed, red, and swollen, leading to nasty-looking zit-monsters.
You see, if your immune system were healthy and normal, a clogged pore wouldn’t cause a big fuss. Your body would heal the ruptured pore pretty quickly and then go on functioning normally. No big deal! But when your body is in a constant state of hyper-immune-activation and inflammation, any little thing sets off your immune system – and that leads to disastrous consequences for your face.
How do omega-3s lower inflammation?
Simple: omega-3s basically compete with omega-6 fatty acids, making them less bio-available to the body . The net result? Not as much bio-available omega-6 to trigger systemic inflammation – and that means less redness and swelling. Woohoo! (Note: omega-3s are not directly anti-inflammatory – they are neutral. They become effectively anti-inflammatory by inhibiting omega-6.)
As you can see, omega-3 fats have an incredibly powerful role in keeping your body’s inflammatory response in check. The key here is your ratio of these omega-3s to pro-inflammatory omega-6 fats. The rub is that omega-6 fats are very inflammatory, and if they’re not balanced by sufficient omega-3s, your immune system goes vigilante on you (boom! faceful of acne).
Now, if you were eating like a hunter-gatherer of yesteryear – e.g. wild game, tubers, nuts, vegetables, the odd beehive – you’d have an omega-3 to omega-6 ratio of around 1:1 (ideal, by some estimates). But in this day and age, omega-6 fats are in everything – canola oil, safflower oil, vegetable oil, corn, soy, wheat – basically most of the J.F.B.B.’s (Junk Food Building Blocks) in today’s fast-food world. Most cookies, crackers, snacks, breakfast cereals, and granola bars are made primarily with these J.F.B.B.’s, which, again, are highly inflammatory. That’s bad news for acne!
In short, you’ve got to optimize your omega-3 to -6 ratio if you want clear skin.
This will help quiet your immune system down, taking it from red alert down to orange alert, yellow, maybe even just “Ready for action, we’re here when you need us!” And that’s where you want it. You want a perfectly functioning immune system that shoots into action when there’s a real problem in your body, not when you get a stinkin’ little clogged pore. And you want an immune system that quiets the heck down when the problem is solved, rather than sticking around for days, partying in your pores and creating red, swollen, painful acne. You’ve had enough of that, right?
So what about fish oil? Should I take it or not?
The common wisdom goes like this: fish oil gives you a huge blast of omega-3s, which is good because it balances out your omega-6 intake, reducing inflammation.
That seems like a good idea on the surface.
However, I haven’t gotten to the nasty part yet: all omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are highly reactive in the body.
Why? Well, they’re polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs). In chem-speak, they contain two or more double bonds, which makes them billions of times more reactive than, say, saturated fat (grass-fed animal fat, coconut oil, red palm oil, etc.). And millions of times more reactive than monounsaturated fat (olive oil, avocados, etc).
Why is this potentially dangerous?
Health researcher Chris Masterjohn came up with a really apt metaphor for PUFAs – he calls them “delicate glass.”
Now, glass is insanely useful in our modern world:
- Glass keeps heat inside (or outside) your house while allowing you to see through it
- Glass allows people with bad eyes to see the world in vivid detail again
- Glass protects food for long-term storage
- Glass allows us to take stunning close-up photographs with cameras, and see galaxies invisible to the naked eye
But glass is extremely delicate – it shatters easily, fragmenting into a million pieces that spread far and wide across the floor, can cause all kinds of bodily harm, and can take a long time to clean up.
PUFAs are very similar. Like glass, they’re very useful for the body for many critical bodily functions, but they’re extremely delicate. When they “shatter” – i.e., when they get oxidized by a free radical – they set off chain reactions that oxidize other PUFAs, which oxidize still more PUFAs, which oxidize yet more PUFAs – it’s a gigantic, damaging ripple effect.
Worst part? These oxidized PUFAs (known as lipid peroxides) eventually break down into dangerous compounds like malondialdehyde (MDA), which can directly damage DNA and proteins throughout the body.
Oxidative stress like this can damage just about every biological tissue in the body, and – yep, you guessed it – can worsen acne as well.
Wolfing down a bunch of fish oil might reduce inflammation/redness/swelling in the short term , but can create a potentially worse long-term problem of oxidative stress.
Okay, so what should I do instead?
- Focus on getting your omega-6 intake as low as possible.
- Slightly increase your omega-3 intake using fermented cod liver oil.
Let’s go over these separately.
How to reduce your omega-6 intake
The main sources of omega-6 are:
- Canola oil
- Sunflower oil
- Safflower oil
- Peanut/groundnut oil
- Cottonseed oil
- Soybean oil
- Corn oil
- Grapeseed oil
- Deep fried foods (which contain large amounts of the above oils)
- Processed foods (which contain large amounts of the above oils)
- Walnut oil
- Flax oil
Here’s a more in-depth list of the omega-6 content of foods from 180 Degree Health: Omega-6 content in common foods.
Why you should take fermented cod liver oil (FCLO)
There’s an exception to the “no fish oil” guideline – fermented cod liver oil. Why? Because it’s an incredible source of fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, K2, and E, which are pretty difficult to get unless you’re regularly eating organ meats (e.g. liver), fermented foods, and hard cheeses (and eating cheese is not a good idea for acne).
These fat-soluble vitamins – especially Vitamin A – are incredibly important to achieving clear skin. Did you know Retin-A and Accutane are actually forms of Vitamin A? That’s one reason why they can be so effective at clearing acne. Now, they’re extremely dangerous with lots of side effects, so I’d never recommend doing these treatments. But the Vitamin A you get from whole foods (like fermented cod liver oil, grass-fed liver, etc.) is quite safe in the context of adequate Vitamin D (I’ll get to that in a minute).
(Note: Vitamin A from animal sources, e.g. from cod liver oil, is much more readily absorbed by the body than Vitamin A from vegetables. Vitamin A from carrots, for example, is a lot more difficult for your body to work with, so even if you eat lots of carrots, you could still be deficient in retinol-based Vitamin A.)
FCLO is cod liver oil that’s gone through an extra fermentation process, which – according to supplement company Green Pasture – helps to preserve these precious fat-soluble vitamins better.
The only company I know of that makes FCLO, currently, is Green Pasture. I’m not affiliated with them in any way – I just love their products.
I’m currently taking their “fermented cod liver oil + butter oil blend,” which includes high-vitamin butter oil for an extra-big dose of the super-rare Vitamin K2, in a very biologically available form.
I’m taking the cinnamon tingle gel at 1/2 teaspoon per day. I’ve heard the chocolate gel is disgusting, but if anyone out there has actually tried it, let us know how you liked the taste.
Here’s a link (no affiliation):
(Word to the wary: the jury’s still out on whether butter oil contains any natural cow hormones that might trigger acne – suffice it to say, I’ve been using it for a while with no problems.)
Important note if you take fermented cod liver oil
It’s important that you take Vitamin D as well, since it protects against Vitamin A toxicity. Cod liver oil has large amounts of Vitamin A, which are perfectly safe if you’re getting adequate Vitamin D, but can lead to Vitamin A toxicity if you’re deficient in Vitamin D.
See my Vitamin D article for dose recommendations.
Take the Next Step
While cod liver oil can give you a great boost in skin-healthy fat-soluble vitamins, there’s even more you can do to kickstart your journey to clear skin.
If you’d like to be walked through the whole process of tweaking your diet for clear skin, I’ve written an ebook that does just that. It’s called “Clear Skin Forever” (surprise, surprise!).
For this complete guide to taking an all-natural, diet-based approach to getting rid of acne and having clear skin for life (no kidding!), go here.
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