Lactoferrin. Sounds like an engine problem, doesn’t it?
“Well, sonny, your problem is you’ve got lactoferrin buildup in your jimbedy-flange.”
But it turns out lactoferrin couldn’t be more natural: it’s a protein, your body makes it, and it’s pretty darn important. So important that it’s one of the first things mothers pass to their newborn infants via the colostrum (think pre-breast milk). Evolutionarily-speaking, that means it’s high priority—the baby needs it ASAP or its chances of survival are slim.
Now, since we’re talking acne, we’re not exactly dealing with life and death immunity issues here. But we are interested in exploring every angle on health we can, especially if our systemic health problems might be contributing to our skin problems.
And what really has us intrigued? Researchers are becoming more and more interested in the link between lactoferrin, iron metabolism, and skin health.
Good enough reason for us to have a closer look. Let’s dive in!
We already said lactoferrin is a naturally occurring protein. We may have neglected to mention where it’s found, perhaps so as not to send you running. The thing is, it’s mostly in our… umm, secretions.
It’s in our breast milk, mucus, tears, bile, bronchial mucus, white blood cells, saliva, vaginal mucus, semen, and nasal secretions.
Now, before you run off to make a truly disgusting cocktail (shudder) let’s find out a little more about how lactoferrin benefits us, and what relation it has to our skin health. Then we’ll get into ways you can boost your lactoferrin that aren’t disgusting!
There’s a reason lactoferrin is found in our secretions: those are places routinely exposed to pathogens. In each of these places, the lactoferrin is in there punching it’s weight, helping the immune system fight off and eliminate the bad guys.
And lactoferrin is a champ when it comes to fighting nasties: it’s been shown to have antiviral, anti-parasitic, anti-cancer, anti-allergenic, anti-fungal, and antibacterial properties.  That’s quite the resume. No wonder human newborns need this stuff pronto!
But how it fights off the baddies is the most intriguing part.
Pathogens love iron. They thrive in it, and reproduce their little hearts out, to the detriment of the host (you).   Lactoferrin is an iron-chelating protein, meaning it’s real good at latching on to iron molecules and transporting them where they need to go. Too much iron hanging around? Lactoferrin is on it: it grabs that iron and shows it the door. Bereft of all the iron, the pathogens have nothing left to fuel their little reproductive party and they die off.
Think of lactoferrin like your immune system’s bouncer. The party’s great until the trouble-making frat boys show up, right? Except, instead of just throwing out the troublesome newcomers directly, lactoferrin smartly takes matters one step further: it throws out their kegs, too. Suddenly, what do you know? No more annoying frat boys!
Sure, we need iron. We can’t live without it. If you don’t have enough iron your body can’t produce enough hemoglobin, which is the protein responsible for carrying oxygen in your red blood cells. Without sufficient hemoglobin, your red blood cells are too few and too weak, a.k.a., anemic. Iron-deficiency anemia is one of the most common types of anemia out there, and it’s a huge problem, especially in developing countries.
In developed nations, however, the only real risk groups for iron-deficiency anemia are vegans/vegetarians, people taking medications that interfere with iron absorption (some antibiotics, aspirin, statins, and ulcer medications are notorious offenders), or those with other mineral deficiencies that are interfering with their iron absorption (eg., if you have a copper deficiency you’re impairing your iron absorption as well).
It used to be believed that menstruating women were at risk for iron-deficiency anemia, but this has been shown to be false. It’s true that women do accumulate iron at a slightly slower rate due to iron loss from menstruation, but this does not mean that women automatically suffer an iron deficiency; they just tend to be spared the iron overload symptoms for a few years longer than men. (More on iron overload here in a second.)
So unless you fall under one of these groups, there’s a good chance you don’t suffer from too little iron.
But how about the opposite problem?
A 2001 study on one thousand elderly Americans found that only 3% were iron deficient, but that 13% had iron stores that were too high. . Some believe that there may be as many as 1.7 million undiagnosed cases of iron overload in the American public.
It would seem that, in the developed world at least, getting too much iron is a way more of an issue than getting too little.
What’s the big deal? So we get a little too much iron. At least our blood is nice and oxygenated and we are strong like Popeye, right?
Iron is one of those minerals that the body does a very poor job at eliminating, so it accumulates. For millennia, the problem facing most humans has been under-consuming iron, so the body has adapted to storing it. Only in our abundant modern times have we had the problem of too much iron, and the human body simply doesn’t have the adaptation to deal with it. If iron accumulates over enough time, iron overload (aka. hemochromatosis) causes some seriously important things to break down.
Excess iron, for example:
- gets deposited in the liver where it can cause cirrhosis and liver cancer  .
- accumulates in the heart, where it can cause cardiac arrhythmia, heart disease, and eventually heart failure. 
- accumulates in the pancreas, where it can lead to endocrine problems and type 2 diabetes.  
- has been associated with neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, and Lou Gehrig’s disease.  . (This might be owing to iron competing with zinc – a hugely important mineral for the brain , not to mention skin health!)
- accumulates in the testicles, causing sexual disfunction 
- accumulates in the gut, leading to pathogen growth and leaky gut symptoms 
- leads to a copper deficiency (since copper and iron work synergistically), which has its own host of problems such as inflammation, arthritis, osteoporosis, fatigue, etc. 
- causes chronic inflammation/oxidative-stress/free radical damage
So, yeah, iron overload is no big deal… other than destroying a few minor things like your liver, pancreas, sex organs, gut, nervous system, brain, and heart.
Getting the picture? Iron overload is no laughing matter. Researchers are slowly coming around to the idea that it might just be the pathogenesis behind much of the developed world’s most deadly diseases. If that doesn’t make you think twice about those iron supplements you’ve been popping, nothing will!
(Plus, let’s not forget the 90+ years of iron-fortification of our food supply. Some are now seriously questioning this policy, and many developed nations have already ended this practice owing to public health concerns.)
Now, if you’re a regular at CSF, the list of health problems in the preceding section already set off a bunch of “aha!” alarms. Chronic inflammation, pathogenic bacteria growth/leaky gut, endocrine problems, mineral deficiencies… it all sounds kinda familiar, doesn’t it? These are all things we’ve talked about before, and we’ve shown you ample research connecting each of them to acne.
The good news is that iron overload is preventable, by you, through modifying your iron intake.
The real key, as with so many minerals, is neither under-consuming iron nor (and perhaps even more importantly) over-consuming it. Get your iron dosage right and a whole host of health problems go away.
So, getting back to lactoferrin…
While researchers previously thought that lactoferrin was a molecule designed to help us absorb iron more efficiently (there is actually little evidence for this, and no known mechanism), it is becoming increasingly clear that lactoferrin is actually an iron scavenger: it renders unwanted iron harmless and helps to remove it via our secretion systems (eg., our lymph and biliary systems).
In other words, lactoferrin seems uniquely qualified to scan for existing iron levels, determine if there is unwanted iron hanging about, and get it the heck out of your system before it can cause free radical damage, organ damage, or feed unwanted microbes.
Let’s look at a few other things lactoferrin can do for our skin:
Lactoferrin, as we’ve already mentioned, starves pathogenic bacteria of iron. All pathogenic bacteria need iron to reproduce and thrive, including p. acnes. Starve the iron and the bacteria has nothing left to fuel it’s party!
Lactoferrin is an antioxidant, which means it fights off free radicals. Free radicals, if left unchecked, lead to chronic oxidative stress, which some researchers believe to be one of the main drivers of acne.
Lactoferrin helps wound-healing. Part of healing acne lesions, as you might imagine, is regenerating healthy skin, and lactoferrin seems to help with that by stimulating fibroblasts (connective tissue) and keratinocytes (epidermal cells), and by helping the synthesis of complex proteins your skin needs, like collagen. Oh, and that pesky iron, wouldn’t you know, has been shown to inhibit wound healing. It’s all starting to paint a picture, isn’t it?
Lactoferrin promotes the growth of healthy bacteria in the gut, and starves out the bad guys, like E.coli and salmonella, by direct antibacterial effect, but also by depriving them of iron. It also enhances the mucosal barrier in the gut, preventing the bad guys from entering the bloodstream and the rest of the body (a.k.a. leaky gut). It also stimulates cell proliferation in the intestine and intestinal absorptive capacity. And a 2013 study on 32 Japanese women also demonstrated an up-regulation of growth on their bifidobacteria (the good guys). All-in-all, the gut seems to love lactoferrin. As we’ve referenced many times, a healthy gut = healthy skin!
Lactoferrin has numerous other nifty health benefits: tumor shrinkage, bone regrowth (after a break, for example), and preventing bone loss (osteoporosis) , to name a few.
It’s quite the list, isn’t it? When you look down its resume, lactoferrin seems like another one of those miracle substances that you wonder how you ever got this far in life without knowing about. It should be taught in How to Human 101: Day 1: How to Develop an Immune System That Makes Your Neighbor Jealous!
Okay, that’s all swell, you might be saying, but has lactoferrin been used in any clinical studies on acne?
Glad you asked!
In a 2010 placebo-controlled, double-blind study, young adult patients (18 to 30 years of age) drank fermented milk with 200mg of lactoferrin daily (the placebo group drank the milk without the lactoferrin). After only twelve weeks, the lactoferrin group showed a 38.6% decrease in inflammatory lesions, a 23.1% decrease in total lesion count, and 31.1% sebum reduction compared to the placebo group. The researchers conclude that lactoferrin seems to reduce skin surface lipids, thereby reducing sebum-clogged pores where p.acnes bacteria likes to make it’s home. Whatever the mechanism, excellent results!
Another study in 2011 showed similar results, this time using a chewable lactoferrin tablet twice daily. After only eight weeks, the subjects showed a 20.2% reduction in inflammatory lesion count, and a 22.5% reduction in total lesion count. 
That much of an improvement after only eight to twelve weeks? Where do we sign up?!
OK, How do we boost our lactoferrin levels?
So, how do we get more lactoferrin? Should we drink more fermented milk like the people in the study? Or go for the chewable tablets? Is there some other way to get lactoferrin?
Well, first let’s talk about milk. If you’ve read other articles on this site, you may have an understandable reluctance to go for the dairy option. Dairy is filled with all kinds of hormones that cause complications for people dealing with acne. It’s true that not all dairy is made equal. While conventional factory milk might be (and almost certainly is) a disaster cocktail of unhealthy stuff for your skin, you might do fine with raw milk (especially fermented).
Having said that, there just isn’t very much lactoferrin in cow’s milk, period—even in the raw variety. (Though raw milk certainly has more than pasteurized milk—pasteurization destroys basically everything good about the milk, in the hopes of destroying all the pathogens, too.) Given the potential downsides for acne sufferers, and so little lactoferrin on the upside, milk, even the raw kind, is probably not worth it.
Same goes for whey. It just has so little lactoferrin in it, you probably aren’t getting much upside, and are risking quite a bit on the downside (like the insulin-like growth factor, and other stuff that causes acne).
So, unless you happen to have a handy source of human breast milk on hand (which might be weird… just saying), supplements seem to be the way to go.
Right off the bat, as soon as you start looking at lactoferrin supplements, you’re going to notice the ingredients list: milk, soy, and whey.
There are also some with GMO rice with human lactoferrin “grown”(??) in it. Hmm, that just sounds scary. Cue the crashing lightning and maniacal laughter.
Basically, we think you have to look at context here and weigh the pros and cons. As far as soy and the franken-rice go… those are probably best avoided. However, the dairy-derived lactoferrin might be worth it. Look at it like this: what’s going to cause the bigger change in your acne, the immunity-boosting and iron-chelating from the lactoferrin, or the presence of a few molecules of dairy?
Honestly, you may have to experiment with lactoferrin to find out. In general, you always want to start with a low dosage and see what happens for a few days, then up it if things seem to be working, and discontinue if they don’t.
But if you think about, concentration is really the issue here. There is about 7g of lactoferrin per liter of colostrum, about 1g of lactoferrin in a liter of regular breast milk, and about 0.1 g per liter of cow milk. So, if you drink a pint of cow milk, let’s say, you are only getting about 50 milligrams of lactoferrin, but you’re also getting about 12 grams of casein, and 4 grams of whey and all the associated problems for acne.
However in a supplement capsule, for example this one, you’re getting 250 milligrams of lactoferrin, but only a paltry amount (not even a full gram) of whey.
A much better ratio.
So, unless you have a serious allergy to whey, the dairy-based lactoferrin supplements are probably going to give you a lot more benefit than trouble.
As always, any time we’re discussing supplements, be on guard against two things:
- the tendency to think that popping a pill will fix everything, and…
- forcing your body into a supplement regimen that it doesn’t want or need.
One, popping a supplement in your mouth is never a cure-all. It is meant to supplement (it’s in the name!) all your efforts on other fronts: e.g., adopting a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, reducing stress, and avoiding exposure to toxins.
Two, never force-feed your body something it doesn’t want or need! As with so many dietary supplements we discuss on CSF, we just don’t have any long-term safety studies on lactoferrin supplements. So that means it’s on you to pay attention to the signals your body is giving you. If it’s helping with your acne, great. That means you probably were suffering from some of the immunity and/or inflammation issues we discussed earlier, and a little lactoferrin boost is just what body needed.
However, that doesn’t mean take it forever. In general, supplements are best used to make up for a deficiency or to overcome a short-term health challenge, and long-term you maintain the progress with healthy lifestyle. With lactoferrin in particular, pay attention for the following OD symptoms:
- skin rash (see how OD’ing can have exactly the opposite effect you want?)
- loss of appetite
All of these are signals sent by your body, saying “Thanks, but enough with the lactoferrin, already!”
Finally, one other note about supplemental lactoferrin: it seems to work best when taken in conjunction with probiotics. This actually makes a lot of sense. Your gut bacteria are a huge part of your immune system—some researchers say up to 70%! Taken together, lactoferrin and probiotics seem to have a synergistic effect.
For example, lactoferrin, taken together with l. acidophilus and b. longum have been shown to:
- prevent chronic inflammation
- alert white blood cells when harmful microbes invade your body
- interfere with virus’s ability to attach to target cells
- prevent the formation of blood vessels necessary for tumor growth
- limit the availability of iron, preventing microbes from thriving and reproducing
- weed out pathogenic bacteria in the intestinal tract
- stabilize colonies of friendly bacteria 
Pretty amazing, huh?
- Avoid iron supplements or multivitamins containing iron. Unless you are vegan or are currently taking some kind of iron-depleting medication, you probably don’t need any more iron than you’re already getting from food.
- Avoid breakfast cereals and wheat products that are heavily fortified with iron
- Also avoid OD’ing on large doses of vitamin C supplements. Vitamin C increases both the amount of iron absorbed from your food, as well as the amount of iron stored in your body. . This is another reason why iron overload is a uniquely modern phenomenon: we’re just not adapted to having such abundant access to vitamin C all the time, all year round! 2018 update: please read our article on iron and acne, which explains more about why vitamin C supplements may actually be helpful in cases of iron overload, by allowing proper use of iron in the body, preventing it from storing up in the liver.
- Avoid anything with High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS). This raises your liver and intestinal iron.
- Reduce your alcohol intake. Alcohol also increases iron absorption and accelerates the damage iron causes to your liver (hence the association of alcoholism with liver cirrhosis!)
- Drink tea with a meal. The polyphenols in tea apparently inhibit iron absorption.
- In general, make sure you’re eating a diet that’s full of all the other minerals and vitamins you need (and not overloading iron!)
As for everything else you should be doing to help your acne, you know where to look, right? That’s right: the Clear Skin Forever e-book!
And let’s remember our primary aim here at CSF: to learn from each other. Do you have any experience with taking lactoferrin for acne? Has it helped? Let us know in the comments below!
- Lactoferrin has a host of spiffy immune-strengthening properties. It has been shown to be antiviral, anti-parasitic, anti-cancer, anti-allergenic, anti-fungal, and antibacterial.
- However, the best thing about lactoferrin may be that it’s an iron chelator. Researchers are discovering more and more that too much iron leads to all sorts of catastrophic organ damage and inflammation. That means get the iron under control and the skin gets better!
- Lactoferrin seems to counter acne in three ways: 1. by direct antimicrobial effect, 2. by strengthening the microflora and the immune system, and 3. by counter-acting all the nasty damage caused by too much iron, such as inflammation, leaky gut, and oxidative stress.
- Clinical trials on acne seem to bear this out: lactoferrin helps clear up acne!
- Whey-based lactoferrin supplements seem to be the way to go, and taking them with probiotics makes them even stronger.
- Also make sure you’re avoiding other iron overload sources, such as iron supplements, fortified wheat, and breakfast cereals. Also avoid things that increase your iron absorption, like high fructose corn syrup, and alcohol.
- Remember supplements might help with acne, but they’re not a total fix. Pursuing a healthy diet and lifestyle are always your number one priority! Get the Clear Skin Forever master guide to clearing acne here. It’s the bees’ knees, Devin and Sonia think, or they wouldn’t have poured their hearts and souls into it! 🙂
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