Iron and Acne: Does Excess Iron Trigger Acne?

Does excess iron, from red meat, fortified wheat flour, etc., trigger acne?

I’m going to go out on a limb here…

Is excess iron the hidden acne trigger we’ve all been missing?

Wait a sec. Iron? Isn’t iron good for us? Aren’t many people anemic, or deficient in iron?

Well, true, iron is good for us. In small amounts. But it’s kind of like radioactive fuel in a nuclear reactor. It’s extremely useful to the body – absolutely necessary for life, in fact – but it’s extremely chemically reactive, so your body locks it up tight.

When iron gets out of whack, as it increasingly is in modern times (we’ll explain why in a minute), it may lead to acne.

It’s also true that some people are anemic, but contrary to what most doctors think, it’s usually not due to iron deficiency (I’ll explain more in a bit).

Why is iron necessary for life?

Without iron, you would quickly die, since you wouldn’t be able to move oxygen from your lungs to any of your tissues! That’s because iron is a key component of hemoglobin, the chief oxygen-carrying protein in the human body.

In fact, iron is essential for just about all living organisms, from animals to bacteria to viruses to fungi. It’s used not just for oxygen carrying, but also for DNA synthesis, electron transport, and bodily growth.

Life without iron wouldn’t be life at all!

That said, iron in excess can become quite dangerous indeed. This is true for just about every nutrient – even all the acne-clearing nutrients like zinc, vitamin A, and iodine – but with iron, it’s especially easy to build up a toxic overload, for a number of reasons we’ll get into shortly. Also, iron is extremely reactive, so an overload of it can become a serious problem for the body.

Why is iron dangerous?

What makes iron so useful to our bodies – its extreme reactivity – is also what makes it so dangerous. Iron, unlike other minerals, easily forms free radicals, which can cause widespread damage to all tissues in the body.

(Antioxidants benefit your health primarily by blocking free radical damage, including from excess iron.)

Because iron is so dangerous and reactive, the body locks it up tightly in hemoglobin and ferritin (a protective “cage” protein for storing iron). That’s not a guarantee of safety, though.

When you have excess iron in your body, it’s a lot easier to get pathogenic diseases and infections, such as Candida, rhinoviruses and colds, other viral infections, malaria, other bacterial infections, fungal infections – you name it.[1] [2] [3]

All of these pathogens crave iron, and have evolved clever tools for stealing iron from your body (some can even rip iron directly out of ferritin!).[4]

And cancerous growths, too, also depend on a ready supply of iron; some of the most effective natural cancer treatments (IP-6, for instance) work by chelating and removing excess iron from the body.[5] [6] [7] [8] [9] You’re much less likely to develop cancer if you have low-normal body stores of iron, and much more likely to get cancer if you have excess iron.[10] [11] [12] [13]

Why can’t our bodies just dump excess iron?

Unfortunately, the human body doesn’t have very good mechanisms for dumping excess iron – at least, not at the extreme rate that we load our bodies with iron in our modern diet and lifestyle (more on that in a bit).

It’s true that pre-menopausal women have menstruation, which dumps excess iron monthly, preventing many women from developing iron overload until after menopause. But even so, certain environmental and dietary toxins, iron supplements, iron fortifications in food, stress, and birth control all combine to boost iron intake and absorption by the body, and even overwhelm the rate of iron dumping by menstruation in many women, or stop menstruation altogether – not a good thing for keeping iron levels low!

Women absorb three times as much iron as men do, because their estrogen levels are higher, and estrogen boosts iron absorption from food.[14] [15] So if you stop menstruation via stress overload, birth control, or toxin overload, you’re up a creek without a paddle in a barbed wire canoe. That is to say, you start accumulating iron possibly even faster than men do. (And that may be a recipe for acne, as we’ll soon see!)

Since men don’t menstruate (ha, punny!), they start accumulating iron around age 18, after puberty-fueled growth stops and there’s no more growth to push all that iron into. Except horizontal growth, that is – and yes, excess iron is intimately tied to obesity! (Beer bellies, actually, may be due to the fact that alcohol boosts iron absorption from food, making your body accumulate excess iron, leading to metabolic dysregulation, blood sugar problems, insulin resistance, and eventually some good ol’ barrel gut.)

Over time, your body deposits excess iron in various bodily tissues, causing widespread degenerative disease, like type I and II diabetes, cancer, heart disease, obesity, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Down’s syndrome, and more.[16] [17] [18] [18] [19] [20] [21] [22] [23] That’s because, as we’ve already seen, iron creates free radicals, which cause oxidative damage to tissues all throughout the body, such as the pancreas, liver, muscles, adipose tissue, eyes, and the brain. (It’s worth noting that too little bioavailable iron also can cause serious health problems, such as fatal heart failure, since iron is so critical for circulating oxygen through the body, among other things.[24] [25] My growing sense, though, is that most of such people probably only have a functional or bioavailable iron deficiency, though, rather than a total lack of iron; they have enough iron in the body, but they just aren’t able to load iron into transferrin, due to a copper deficiency, vitamin A deficiency, or ceruloplasmin deficiency.)

Is aging of the skin and body due to gradual iron overload?

Some researchers even hold the opinion that progressive iron overload is the chief mechanism of aging in the body.[25] (As if to illustrate that point, age spots, funnily enough, are made of lipofuscin, a fatty brown mass composed of iron and oxidized PUFA. People with lots of age spots have lots of excess iron. The body doesn’t know what else to do with this toxic iron, having already overloaded its iron storage and removal mechanisms, so it dumps the excess iron into the skin as a last resort!)

How might iron cause acne?

It took me a long time to figure out that iron might be a player in acne. One of the key clues was that lactoferrin helps acne, and lactoferrin binds excess iron. Aha! We’ve got a link!

I haven’t seen any research on iron and acne directly, only one study that found elevated ferritin levels in people with acne[26] . So I’m having to connect some dots here.

Here’s how I think iron might trigger acne:

  1. Lipid peroxidation. This is where iron, being highly reactive, oxidizes delicate polyunsaturated fats (PUFA) in the body, forming lipid peroxides, which break down into toxic compounds like malondialdehyde (MDA), which can cause widespread damage to all tissues in the body. Think of these toxic compounds like small shards of glass, damaging cells, mitochondria, DNA, membranes, all kinds of things.

  2. Gut inflammation. Excess iron in the diet (or via iron supplements) feeds pathogenic gut bacteria, such as E. coli, C. diff., Salmonella, and Shigella, which leads to gut inflammation.[27] [28] [29] [30] These bacteria create a toxin called lipopolysaccharide (LPS), which is bound up in their cell walls, and gets released into your gut lining as these bacteria complete their life cycle and die. That LPS triggers strong gut inflammation, which cascades into inflammation elsewhere in the body. (These pathogenic bacteria have adapted to thrive in the presence of rather toxic excess iron in the gut, crowding out the more beneficial, more delicate bacteria you’d find in a lower-iron, healthy human gut.[31] )

  3. Insulin and blood sugar problems. It’s been well established that higher iron levels in the body are strongly correlated with insulin resistance, poor insulin production by the pancreas, and resultant type I and type II diabetes. Excess iron appears to damage and destroy ß-cells in the pancreas (which produce insulin),[32] leading to a smaller pancreas that’s not capable of producing enough insulin to handle blood sugar spikes.[33] Excess iron also makes cells throughout your body resistant to insulin, further compounding the problem. As we’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, insulin resistance and chronically high blood sugar can lead to elevated sebum production, which tends to create more acne. (Conversely, if you have lower body iron stores, you’ll have a larger pancreas, meaning more insulin production when you need it, and better insulin sensitivity, meaning you will handle carbohydrates better, and won’t get the same blood sugar swings, carb crashes, excess sebum production, and acne.)

  4. Liver damage. When you have excess iron in your body, your liver attempts to store this iron, to protect your heart and pancreas from iron-induced damage. But over time, your liver runs out of storage space for iron; on top of that, all those iron deposits hurt your liver, by creating free radicals and causing oxidative damage. This impairs your liver’s ability to filter out toxins, pesticides, heavy metals, etc. from your blood, leading to a massively increased toxin load throughout the body (which you can bet would trigger acne).

  5. Feeding Candida overgrowth. Excess iron stores in the liver and elsewhere in the body feed Candida fungi.[34] [35] [36] One study in Candida-overloaded mice found that removing excess iron from the body with iron-chelating drugs cured the systemic Candida infection.[37] Essentially, excess iron feeds Candida fungi, and makes it very difficult for your innate immune system to function properly. Removing this excess iron reverses the situation, making your body inhospitable to Candida overgrowth.[38]

There are probably other ways in which excess iron leads to acne, since it’s a potent source of reactive oxygen species (ROS), and can cause oxidative damage throughout the body when it gets out of control, and also leads to all types of pathogenic overgrowths – bacteria, viruses, fungi, and cancerous growths.[39]

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Why have I never heard about this before?

This still baffles me, and is a testament to the power of story in blinding us to the truth. The story here? “Iron is good.” The medical establishment still takes as gospel the dominant story that anemia is a major problem, and is a result of iron deficiency (wrong – we’ll debunk this below), and that people, in general, need more iron. Iron is widely considered a “good,” “safe” and “beneficial” mineral. Which it is, in very small amounts, but it’s almost impossible to be truly deficient in iron if you eat enough calories, since iron is almost universally present in sufficient amounts in nearly all foods. The risk of iron overload is extremely high given our modern diet world (and supplements), is extremely dangerous, is very likely to cause acne (as well as early death!), and is rarely talked about.

How is PCOS related to iron?

Women with PCOS tend to have iron overload issues. Some researchers think that’s because of elevated insulin levels in PCOS, due to insulin resistance (forcing your pancreas to pump out more insulin).[40] Insulin boosts iron absorption from food. It may also be due to the fact that hepcidin levels drop in PCOS[41] [42] – hepcidin is a hormone that blunts iron absorption from food, so when hepcidin levels drop, you start abasorbing more iron.

However, these researchers may have causality backward here. It’s also possible that iron overload causes PCOS. To really prove this, you would have to design a study that gave half the women iron supplements for a number of years, and half the women a placebo, and then measure how many women developed PCOS. I haven’t seen any studies like that yet, so we have to guess.

Either way, PCOS is strongly associated with iron overload. So it makes sense to reduce your iron levels if you have PCOS, as that may fix the problem, and get your hormones back to functioning normally. (And improve your skin, too!)

How are antibiotics related to iron?

This was a big surprise for me to discover. It turns out that tetracycline-family antibiotics (minocycline, doxycycline, etc.) strongly chelate iron, meaning they bind it up and remove it from the body. This may be the main reason why antibiotics tend to help acne (at least for a while). Over time, they may damage your gut flora so much that you start getting acne again – I’m very much speculating here.

How does birth control lead to iron overload?

Hormonal birth control reduces or stops your period flow by preventing buildup and shedding of the uterine lining, which makes you stop dumping as much iron, and start accumulating excess iron.[43] [44] [45] [46] That’s not good! Women already absorb three times as much iron from food as men do, due to higher estrogen levels, so taking birth control

Aha! I think I just figured out why going off birth control suddenly gives you bad breakouts! Here’s how it goes: Birth control makes you accumulate excess iron, by reducing your period flow. But birth control also prevents acne while you’re taking it, due to the high progesterone dose, which is strongly skin-clearing. However, when you stop taking the pill, or get your IUD taken out, you suddenly lose that protective effect of progesterone, and the excess iron you’ve accumulated rears its ugly head and gives you bad breakouts! Whoa. This has been a mystery for me for a long time, and now we finally have a plausible explanation for this big bummer of a problem.

How to fix that? If you go off birth control, take steps to reduce your iron levels, and to blunt the toxic effects of excess iron (see below!).

How do people get iron overload?

There are a bunch of weird quirks of our modern diet, lifestyle, and environment that lead to widespread iron overload. Here are a few of them:

    Excess red meat consumption leads to iron overload. Guaranteed.

  • Excess red meat consumption. Red meat has lots of bioavailable heme iron, which is quite easy to absorb. Worse, there’s no shut-off mechanism for absorbing heme iron like there is with plant iron – your body always absorbs as much heme iron as it can, even if you already have an iron overload problem (possibly due to evolutionary adaptation to meat being quite rare in the diet, historically). Even worse, when you eat meat, you get a lot of the amino acid methionine, which increases your absorption of iron from other foods, even plant iron. And us modern humans eat a lot of meat! The more “modern” a society becomes, generally, the more red meat people eat, and the sicker they get. Bizarrely, at least in America, we like to eat mostly muscle meat – ground beef and steak! Woot! Fail. Traditional cultures around the world, by contrast, eat “nose-to-tail”, including lots of bone-in cuts, bone marrow, broths, etc., which contain less heme iron, and also contain calcium – and calcium inhibits iron absorption. When you only eat muscle meat, though, you get a big iron dose with nothing to counteract it. How much meat to eat, then? Keep reading, I’ll get to that soon!

  • Red wine helps block iron absorption.

  • Not enough iron antagonists in the diet. Iron antagonists include things like red wine, raw dairy, turmeric, cocoa, bitter herbs, green tea, black tea, white tea, cranberries, dark purple veggies, calcium-rich foods like bone marrow and bone broth, etc. Modern American cuisine, at least (I don’t have the authority to speak for others!) doesn’t feature these very much. French cuisine does, though! Is that why the French don’t have the rates of modern disease that Americans do?

  • Iron-fortified wheat flour may be a potent acne trigger.

  • Iron-fortified refined wheat flour. This is a huge problem. Many countries around the world, including the US, UK, and Australia, require iron fortification of refined wheat flour. Breakfast cereals, bread, cookies, crackers, cakes, white flour for baking, pasta, you name it – it’s probably got “reduced iron” in it. This form of iron is very absorbable, unlike the iron naturally found in whole foods. So if you eat bread made from fortified white flour, you will absorb much more iron than from non-fortified whole wheat flour. Some countries fortify rice with iron, too, and perhaps other foods. (I ate 4+ bowls of iron-fortified cereal daily when I was a kid. Did this contribute to my acne back then?)

  • Pasteurized dairy instead of raw dairy. The calcium in pasteurized dairy isn’t as bioavailable as the calcium in raw dairy, because during the heating process, the calcium gets complexed with Maillard compounds. Traditional non-germophobic societies eat raw dairy, which has more bioavailable calcium, and hence more iron-blocking ability. I haven’t seen direct research on the iron-inhibiting capacity of raw milk vs. pasteurized milk, so I’m connecting a few dots here. (I drank only pasteurized milk as a kid, which may have worsened my acne by not inhibiting the absorption of fortified iron from my 4+ bowls of breakfast cereal per day.)

  • Xenoestrogens. Xenoestrogens, or foreign estrogens, include a variety of estrogen-mimicking synthetic chemicals like bisphenol-A and other plasticizers. These estrogen-mimicking chemicals interfere with hemoglobin production in the bone marrow.[47] So you can run into a situation where you have both a) low hemoglobin levels, or anemia, and b) excess iron floating around the body.[48] [49] [50]

  • Fluoride. Fluoride, found in fluoridated drinking water across the world, non-stick Teflon pans, fluoridated toothpaste, fluoride dental treatments, fluoride pesticides and fumigants sprayed on crops worldwide, and several other sources, destroys vitamin A in the body. That’s a problem for iron overload, because vitamin A is required to make ceruloplasmin (copper-binding protein), which in turn is required in the liver to load free iron into transferrin. So without enough vitamin A, you get a ceruloplasmin deficiency, and even though your body keeps taking up iron, you can’t load it into transferrin properly, so it sticks around in your liver. (Did this contribute to my acne as a teenager? I drank loads of fluoridated tap water back then, got many dental fluoride treatments, used fluoridated toothpaste, and ate lots of fluoride-pesticide-ridden foods like non-organic raisins. Ouch.)

  • Dietary deficiency of vitamin A. Retinol-form vitamin A, found in abundance in animal foods like liver, egg yolks, and grass-fed dairy (and in precursor carotene form in orange and dark green veggies), works to prevent acne in the skin, and also is needed to create ceruloplasmin, as noted in the above bullet.

  • Lack of zinc and copper in the diet. Zinc and copper are sorely lacking in modern soils due to over-farming and strip-mining the topsoil, without replenishing trace minerals. That’s bad because zinc and copper compete with iron for absorption. So when you have lots of iron in your food (there’s plenty of iron in the soil still), combined with insufficient zinc/copper to inhibit iron, you get worse iron overload. (Copper is also required to load iron into transferrin, and so to make hemoglobin, so copper deficiency can make you anemic.)

  • Molybdenum deficiency. Molybdenum is a trace mineral that prevents toxic iron buildup in your liver, instead mobilizing iron so it can be put into hemoglobin.[51] [52] [53] If you don’t have enough molybdenum, you can’t use iron properly, and it builds up to toxic levels in your liver. Best source of molybdenum? Beans and lentils (see more below). (Quick self-check for deficiency: if you have sulfite intolerance, e.g. red wine headaches, that may mean you have a molybdenum deficiency, since molybdenum is required for the enzyme that breaks down sulfites.)

How can I get tested for iron overload?

The most accurate way is to get a liver biopsy or liver MRI, since your body starts accumulating iron in the liver before it can damage other tissues in the body. However, these procedures are quite invasive and expensive. There’s got to be a good and cheap method, right?

You got it! Here are a few markers of iron overload:

  • Ferritin levels above 60 for men and non-menstruating women, or above 30-40 for menstruating women.[54] (I got mine tested recently, and it was 267. Yikes! You better believe I’m taking steps to reduce my iron levels after seeing that.)
  • Transferrin % saturation above 35%.[55]
  • GGT levels higher than 25 U/L for men, or 18 U/L for women (ideally, they should be below 16 for men, and below 9 for women). GGT is a liver enzyme that, when elevated, is correlated with iron overload. (Makes sense, right? Since iron overload damages your liver.)
  • A hair iron level greater than 2.0 mg%, or less than 1.2 mg%, on a hair mineral analysis from Trace Elements, Inc. or Analytical Research Labs.[56]

How can I remove excess iron?

  • Bloodletting. Leeches to the rescue! Or, the modern alternative: blood donation. Seriously, based on the studies showing how effective blood donation is at reducing the risk of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes,[56] [57] [58] leeches were probably quite effective at improving health by reducing excess iron stores in the body. However, I can’t wholeheartedly recommend leech therapy or frequent blood donation if you’re dealing with acne, since you’ll be dumping lots of beneficial minerals as well (like zinc, copper, etc). Such minerals are paramount to clearing up your skin, and you don’t want to dump them, as you’re possibly deficient already.

  • Chelation. Iron chelators (kee-lators) bind up iron and help remove it from the body. Perhaps the most effective, natural iron chelator is IP-6, or inositol hexaphosphate, which is really just phytic acid isolated from rice bran. IP-6 has been shown to kill cancer cells very effectively,[58] [59] [59] likely due to its ability to bind up iron (which is required for cancer cells to multiply). The problem with IP-6 is that it also can bind to zinc, magnesium, copper, and other critical minerals, so you must take IP-6 away from meals. One approach is to take it first thing in the morning, then wait 30-60 minutes to eat breakfast. This way it won’t chelate beneficial minerals from your food! Another good iron chelator is lactoferrin, which is readily available in supplement form, and can also be found in raw milk or colostrum. (We recommend only drinking raw, grass-fed A2 milk, so you avoid the insoluble calcium from pasteurized milk, the nutrient loss from grain-fed milk, and the allergenic and gut-inflaming A1 beta-casein protein from most modern-bred cows.)

  • Turmeric and other bitter-tasting herbs and spices reduce iron absorption and toxicity.

  • Eat iron inhibitors. Whenever you eat meat, or other iron-rich foods like iron-fortified wheat, make a point to eat or drink some iron inhibitors at the same time, such as white, green, or black tea; coffee; eggs; red wine (ideally organic, to avoid fluoride from pesticides); turmeric; and many other bitter herbs and spices. You’ll notice that many ethnic cuisines around the world include many such foods along with meat-rich meals – red wine with red meat; turmeric-rich curry with lamb; rosemary and tarragon with oxtail stew. It’s probably a good idea for you to follow their lead!

  • Avoid iron-fortified foods. Avoid all sources of iron-fortified white flour. In iron-fortified countries, this includes anything made from white flour, unless organic. You really just have to always check the ingredients for “reduced iron” or “ferrous sulfate” or similar, and avoid like the plague!

  • Reduce your meat intake to reduce iron overload acne.

  • Reduce meat intake. Eating less meat is a very effective, direct route to reducing your iron intake. To prove that, one study found that vegetarians had lower body iron levels, and consequently much better insulin sensitivity, than meat-eaters.[60] Does this mean you should go vegetarian? Not necessarily. There are lots of beneficial skin-clearing minerals in meat and seafood, such as zinc and copper, which are harder to find in plant foods. However, due to the iron problem, I think it’s a wise idea to eat or drink iron chelators whenever you eat meat, such as red wine, coffee, green/white/black tea, turmeric, bitter herbs, bee pollen, bee propolis, and raw grass-fed dairy (the calcium in raw dairy is more bioavailable than in pasteurized dairy, and thus more effective at blocking iron absorption).

  • Beans are the richest food source of molybdenum, which prevents toxic iron buildup in the liver.

  • Eat a cup of cooked beans daily. – Beans are the world’s best food source of molybdenum, a trace mineral that prevents iron from accumulating in your liver, instead mobilizing it so it can be put into hemoglobin. That’s an excellent thing for us, and should reduce the acne-triggering effects of iron overload (and can help anemia, too!). (To avoid farts from eating beans, simply soak dry beans for 24-48 hours, rinse well, and cook with a piece of kombu seaweed for alkalinity.)

  • Limit added sugar. Sugar boosts iron absorption from food (by downregulating hepcidin), so avoid added sugar as much as possible to reduce your iron absorption. A really bad combination? Baked goods made with refined, iron-fortified wheat flour, with lots of added sugar. That’s a recipe for major iron overload. Combine that with seed oil PUFA – like in doughnuts or most packaged foods – and you’ve got an iron + lipid peroxidation acne bomb.

  • Take vitamin C. As mentioned above, vitamin C helps transferrin take up iron properly. Without enough vitamin C, you can become anemic, and can’t use the iron you absorb from food, leaving it to get deposited in your liver (not good). Now, most doctors will tell you to avoid vitamin C supplementation if you have iron overload, since vitamin C boosts iron absorption. However, the effect is only strong in studies that look at single meals, and gets much weaker when you look at the overall diet over time.[61] [62] [63] Here’s what I think: Vitamin C is required for proper iron utilization in the body, and protects against the toxicity of iron. Getting enough vitamin C is critical. Without enough vitamin C, you can get the double whammy of anemia and iron overload. Getting lots of vitamin C will not, by itself, give you iron overload, and shouldn’t worsen an existing iron overload problem. If anything, it will improve things, since it helps you mobilize iron from your liver, so your body can do useful things with it like make hemoglobin (and eventually get rid of it). How much is enough? Possibly several grams a day. Some sources say start at 2,000 mg per day, and increase by 500mg per day until you start getting diarrhea, then back off by 500mg. (Or increase until you start feeling the benefits of it, and stay at that dose.) It’s important to spread out vitamin C intake over the day, over 2-3 doses, since it only lasts in your body for a few hours.

  • Near-infrared sauna therapy. Dr. Lawrence Wilson, a hair-mineral-analysis-based holistic healer and champion of infrared sauna therapy, describes in his book Sauna Therapy how, despite years of holistic healing methods on himself, he still had iron overload problems. When he started near-infrared sauna therapy, his iron levels dropped dramatically, as he began to dump iron in his hair and sweat.[64] This iron dumping really appears to require infrared sauna therapy as a trigger; it doesn’t happen to very large degrees naturally. Dr. Joseph Mercola reports the same experience – he was able to lower his ferritin levels significantly with infrared sauna therapy, much lower than he was able to achieve with phlebotomy.[64]

What is anemia, if it’s not actually due to iron deficiency?

Anemia is a lack of oxygen-carrying capacity in the blood, usually due to low hemoglobin. Not low iron. Plain and simple.b

A lot of doctors confuse these, and recommend iron supplements for anemia. While this sometimes helps, it often causes more problems over time than it solves, since it can lead easily to iron overload issues (and toxic iron storage in the liver, kidneys, eyes, brain, and elsewhere in the body).

It’s been known since at least 1931 that supplementing copper is actually more effective in treating anemia than iron (and much safer).[65] More on that in a minute.

Anemia is rarely due to a lack of iron in the body. Rather, it’s due to a lack of hemoglobin, which can be due to many factors:

  • Ceruloplasmin deficiency (ceruloplasmin is a copper-binding protein produced in the liver, which is responsible for loading iron into transferrin, which must happen first before you can make hemoglobin with that iron)
  • Copper deficiency (since copper is required to make ceruloplasmin)
  • Adrenal burnout (your adrenals are what signal your liver to produce ceruloplasmin, so adrenal burnout can hurt your ceruloplasmin levels, making it difficult to make enough hemoglobin)
  • Retinol-form vitamin A deficiency (because vitamin A is required to make ceruloplasmin)
  • Fluoride toxicity (fluoride inhibits vitamin A in the body, which can damage your ability to make enough ceruloplasmin)
  • Vitamin C deficiency[66] [67] (vitamin C signals transferrin to take up iron[68] , so without enough vitamin C, you can’t use iron properly, and it gets stored in your liver – BAD.)

If you have anemia, it’s likely due to a deficiency of copper, vitamin A, or vitamin C; adrenal burnout; and/or perhaps fluoride toxicity. These are much more effective and safer avenues to address than taking iron supplements (and much safer for your skin, too, as all these problems are intimately involved in acne as well).

Why are iron supplements bad, especially for pregnant women?

Taking iron supplements is almost always a bad idea – especially for pregnant women, who are almost always prescribed iron supplements.

You may find this hard to believe, but the research is out there already. Iron overload in pregnant women, due to iron supplementation, may contribute to gestational diabetes[69] [70] [71] [72] [72] [73] and SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome).[74] [75]

One study, for example, measured the amount of iron stored in the liver of babies who had died of SIDS, and found it to be three times as high, on average, than in babies who lived.[76] Read that again.

Are we killing little ones by giving iron supplements to pregnant mothers, causing babies to be born with extreme liver iron overload, thereby causing liver failure and sudden death? Egads…

I’ve been sharing this information recently with a midwife friend of mine, and she confirms that this is absolutely not widely known in the birthing world, even the “natural” home birth world. Pregnant women are still widely prescribed iron supplements. What are we doing, messing around with this highly toxic metal?

The Blue Zones: how to reduce iron levels and live to 100+?

As a testament to the longevity-boosting power of keeping your iron levels low, the Blue Zones – the little pockets around the world with the longest-lived people – have diets that limit iron accumulation in the body.

How do they do this?

  • They only eat 4-6 ounces of meat per week. That’s not much heme iron intake. (In my high-meat Paleo days, I ate 8-16 ounces of red meat per day – 14 times as much as the Blue Zones folks eat – and gave myself a serious iron overload problem that I’m just now figuring out how to fix.)
  • They have high levels of calcium in their drinking water. This blocks iron absorption.
  • They eat lots of iron chelating foods like red wine, chocolate, tea, coffee, bitter herbs, etc. (see above for more).
  • They eat a cup of cooked beans daily. As explained above, beans contain loads of molybdenum, which helps mobilize iron from your liver, so you can make hemoglobin with it (and helping to prevent toxic liver buildup of iron).

Key Take-Aways

  • Almost everyone in modern society probably has an iron overload problem (even if they’re anemic).
  • Iron overload leads to acne, as well as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, MS, and other diseases.
  • Iron triggers acne by oxidizing PUFAs in the body, creating toxic lipid peroxides and inflammation in the skin.
  • Iron destroys your gut bacteria balance, favoring overgrowth of pathogenic bacteria, Candida, and other infections that can worsen acne.
  • You get iron overload by eating iron-fortified wheat, added sugar, lots of meat, multivitamins with iron, iron supplements, vitamin A deficiency, vitamin C deficiency, and a number of other methods.
  • Anemia is not usually due to a lack of iron in the body, but rather to a deficiency of copper, vitamin A, or vitamin C.
  • You can reduce your iron levels by limiting meat intake to a couple times per week, taking iron-chelating supplements like IP-6 and lactoferrin, eating iron-chelating foods daily (see above for a list), eating a cup of cooked beans daily, and ensuring adequate retinol-form vitamin A and vitamin C intake.
  • Optimizing iron alone won’t necessarily fix your acne – you also may need to reduce PUFA, remove fluoride, optimize iodine, boost vitamin A intake, and many other tweaks in order to get clear (and that’s what our book is all about!).

If you’d like to be walked through the whole process of tweaking your diet for clear skin, we’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.

About Devin Mooers

Devin MooersHey! Over the past 10 years, I've developed a powerful system for clearing acne with a little-known diet- and lifestyle-based method, and I want to spread the love. That's why I started Clear Skin Forever back in 2011. I studied engineering and product design at Stanford University, and graduated in the top 5% of my class, but afterward, I decided to focus on writing about health, since I found it so fulfilling to help people clear their acne for good. Thanks for reading, and sign up for email updates to stay in the loop with clear skin tips! Also, be sure to check out our book if you haven't yet, all about how to fix acne permanently with diet and lifestyle changes. We've helped thousands of people get clear skin this way!

Sources (click to expand)

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{ 36 Comments }

  1. Idara says

    Awesome post! I love adding coconut oil to my steamed vegetables and my smoothies. I tried it on my face and found out the hard way that it breaks me out. But I haven’t had that issue with hemp and grapeseed oil.

  2. Idara Hampton says

    Thank you for explaining epigenetics so clearly. It’s very easy to follow. Congrats on clearing your skin. Your story is inspiring.

  3. Idara says

    This is such a well researched and well written article. B5 is great for the skin. I also love B6 and B12 for boosting energy, promoting a healthy luteal phase, and stopping PMS.

  4. Idara says

    Great post! Understanding hormonal imbalances isn’t always easy, so thank you for writing an informative and easy to follow article with helpful tips.

  5. wendy says

    There is no official link between iron and acne in science research but antidotally I believe there is. My daughter used prescription acne creams for a couple of years with only modest improvements to her skin. She recently was prescribed an iron supplement, her iron levels were on the low side of normal, because of her low energy state and, voila, Not only does she feel more energetic, her face is very noticeably improved and much smoother in, just days. She is a big meat eater. Who knew iron can be hard to absorb?

  6. Srey says

    I love this post! I recommend this book “inheritance” by Sharon D Moalem. It talks a lot about genetics, and could be helpful to understand more about epi genetics, and our human genome.

  7. Mike says

    Why do you say that coffee negatively affects muscle since there is like a bunch of evidence that shows the caffeine from the coffee actually helps build muscle and burn fat. Of course this is when you take black coffee without any sweeteners. I have read so many articles that talk about consuming coffee in a fasted state leading to positive muscle gains you can find them easily too

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Mike! Interesting point here. I found this study:

      https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2257922/

      …Which says that you habituate to the caffeine in a few days’ time, meaning your morning coffee no longer stimulates over-production of cortisol once you adapt to drinking coffee daily. However, the study still found that a 1:00 PM cup of coffee boosted cortisol levels higher than normal (though the study only ran for 5 days of caffeine habituation). My personal experience is that coffee just makes me more stressed out in response to stressful events, which includes cortisol release. But I haven’t read the articles you have about fasted-state coffee drinking leading to muscle gains – I wonder if this is just due to metabolic rate increase from the caffeine? In any case, if coffee floats your boat and treats you well, go for it!

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Julie! I’m not totally sure on this. That still sounds like a good range. I was going based on a Dr. Mercola article, which I can no longer find (the link is broken). I am far from an expert on what ideal ferritin levels should be!

    • Rhonda says

      I will interject with a personal anecdote about Ferritin levels. I have a genetic disorder called Hemachromatosis. It causes iron from the food I eat to get into my organs and my body can only release it through phlebotomy (donating blood). My Dr noticed a high ferritin level and high liver enzymes on a blood panel and on a hunch she ordered a DNA test for this. If you are suspicious that your ferritin levels are out of whack, ask for this test. This condition is very common especially if you are of Irish or Scottish descent. It’s a lifelong condition but the remedy is easy because you just have to have your levels checked regularly and donate a pint of blood to balance your levels. I am so grateful my doc was smart enough to call for this test. Having this disorder and not taking care of it can lead to liver damage and heart attack. It’s hereditary and if you do have it, all of your nearest relatives should test for it too. Hoping it’s not the case for you, and wishing you all the best!

      • Devin Mooers says

        Kudos to your doc for finding this!! I’m so glad you know now. I had a genetic test done a few years ago, and ruled out hemachromatosis (at least current knowledge of it). So I guess it was just from my diet. And I do have a fair amount of Irish + Scottish in me. Go figure! Great thing to check for, though, as you just found out!

  8. Katy says

    I’m 25 and I have very irregular periods (which have never been regular) and acne since puberty. I got literally all my hormones checked and everything came out normal. Does anyone have an explanation for this?

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Katy! I don’t put much stock in hormonal tests, blood tests, saliva tests, or related “snapshot” health tests. I don’t think they’re a very accurate reflection of long-term reality, and don’t often give very useful information for clearing acne (in my experience). The fact that you have irregular periods right away shows that something’s up with your hormone levels, and/or some basic nutrient levels like vitamin A, utilizable iron (don’t go taking iron pills though!), and/or maybe some toxin overload issues. There are lots of things that feed into having a normal cycle, and a hormone test isn’t going to tell you what needs to be fixed.

      Are you drinking fluoridated water, do you know?

      Also, do you want to give an overview of what your current diet is – the more detail the better! – and any pills/supplements you’re taking? I can see if anything jumps out!

  9. Johnny Cox says

    Hi. Im going to say that Im afraid to eat coconut because of acne. Chocolate of any kind gives me acne too. Even fish oil. All these oils do it to me. I used to suspect leaky gut causing me breakouts. All these oils ruin my skin. Whey concentrate and isolate too! Someone said “keep eating the Extra Virgin Coconut oil, It’s just die-off!! It will stop soon” But it does not stop. I get brutal acne from it. Tempted to try again after reading this, but it scares me. My acne is so painful..

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Johnny! Really sorry to hear about your experience with so many oils/fats giving you acne. Huge bummer! Frustrating not to know whether it’s from die-off or detox, or just an adverse reaction. (I will say that whey isolate/concentrate both give me acne as well!)

      Couple questions… are you using organic coconut oil, or non-organic?

      Also, do you want to post a mini diet overview right here? I can see if any major red flags come up.

      Finally, are you drinking fluoridated tap water? (And/or using fluoride toothpaste?) Wondering if these fats/oils might be causing a detoxification of fluoride, causing transient acne.

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Ashley! I think it’s okay in really small amounts as a garnish or flavoring, but it’s very high in PUFA so I wouldn’t make it a main cooking or salad oil. Toasted sesame seed oil is even a bit more risky because of the toasting process damaging more of the PUFA (and the protective vitamin E found in raw sesame oil).

      What are you wanting to use sesame oil for? Maybe I can suggest a skin-friendly alternative!

  10. Kris says

    Hi Devin,
    Great research, thank you for linking the sources. I’ve suffered with back acne for years. I eat a mostly plant based diet, so I’d call myself a flexitarian (95% plants, 5% grass fed-organic animal). Before that I did mostly Paleo, therefore lots of fresh plants, but still a lot of organic meat/poultry.
    From recent testing, I have low iron stores (ferritin), normal iron (since I suppliment), and low iodine (I now supplement—-boyfriend has shellfish allergy…). I take vitamine A and Magnesium as well.
    I’m game to try anything thats humane and organic even if its not a plant based suppliment, but I would be interested in the Frankin-rice you mentioned since I try to avoid dairy due to an intolerance (causes me inflammation and IgG testing shows markers). If the colostrum is derived from cows or colostrum is from humans, wouldn’t in theory the human one be closer to what we need? Albeit odd to consider!!
    I’ve also looked for a non-bovine ferritin supplement, but it seems I may need to take the bovine one as the plant ones are just more iron (leading to excess). I just want to be humane in my choices, with no added hormones from the cows, etc. With all that said—I’m open to anything—as my skin and other health issues are the number one priority! Any product tips would be greatly appreciated. I use Pure Encapsulations too. 😊 Thank you!

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Kris! Sorry for the epic delay on this, I haven’t checked blog comments in a long time. My fault!

      How low is your ferritin? Did you get liver enzymes checked? It’s quite possible to have low ferritin, but also have an overload of unusable iron stored up in your liver. Taking additional iron supplements on top of that, if that’s the case, isn’t a very good idea. Liver enzymes (and/or GGT) can help point to iron overload in the liver. (See my iron article for more info on tests.)

      What kind of iron are you supplementing with?

      Doubt you’ll find human-sourced colostrum, though it’s an interesting idea! 🙂

      Are you interested in lactoferrin for reducing your iron levels, or for boosting your ferritin? There are definitely other, more effective ways of modulating ferritin, I think (see the iron article linked above for way more info on all the iron stuff, including why I think many people may have an iron overload problem even if ferritin levels don’t show it). I’d target the iron-utilization-boosting nutrients listed in the iron article, personally.

      Also, how much iodine are you taking? What form?

      Finally, have you thought about A2 milk as a skin-safe dairy option, that would give you some lactoferrin in a whole food form?

  11. Donna says

    I actually test low for iron. My Tibc, Total Iron, Iron Saturation, and Ferritin are all low.
    It was recommended for me to take Lactoferrin with an iron supplement to properly increase my iron.
    I’m confused about your article because it makes me second guess my situation. You don’t believe ANYONE is actually low in iron?

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Donna! How low are we talking on these numbers?

      I definitely think there are a small number of people who are actually low in iron, but I think it’s probably a lot fewer people than most doctors think. Often, if you have iron dysregulation, excess iron gets stored up in your liver, which doesn’t show up one these blood tests. If you’re lacking in one of the co-factors necessary to use iron properly (vitamin A, molybdenum, vitamin C, copper, ceruloplasmin, vitamin B12, etc.), you can get excess iron deposits in the liver combined with low circulating iron. When you add a plain iron supplement on top of that, without addressing the deficient co-factors, you can worsen the problem. Did you happen to get your liver enzymes and/or GGT tested? That can sometimes indicate excess iron storage in the liver. But keep in mind I have zero clinical experience in all this and just going based on the all the research I’ve read (and my own iron overload problem).

  12. jay,s says

    hi, suffering from acne for 20 years and a rediculolus amount of money spent on “solutions”i tried a newer supplement that’s called acne block that contains lactoferrin,found it on amazon.. it actually was/is one of the only supplements I have tried that actually helped..

    • Devin Mooers says

      Great to hear you got good results from lactoferrin! The science is sound behind why it works, helping to reduce iron overload. Good stuff.

  13. Sara says

    Would eating liver or taking a dessicated liver supplement cause iron overload? I would like to get more vitamin A, but am concerned about the extra iron I would be getting.

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Sara! Wise to be cautious about this. Do you have reason to suspect you have existing iron overload? Curious about that, I’ve suspected that in myself for a while now, and have been avoiding liver for that reason. I’m taking Pure Encapsulations vitamin A instead.

    • Sarah says

      Suggesting vegans/Vegetarians have a greater risk of iron deficiency is incorrect. There are at least as many meat-eaters as vege people deficient in Iron. Meat is not an efficient source of iron for human beings. Cutting out animal products goes along way in clearing up acne.

      • Devin Mooers says

        Hey Sarah! I actually agree with your first point now, but differ in the second. I think many people, vegeterians and meat-eaters, have an iron overload problem. This is pretty new to me, but the research seems sound. Turns out you can have anemia AND iron overload, due to iron getting deposited in your liver, but a lack of nutrients that are required to put iron into hemoglobin, like vitamin C, vitamin A, molybdenum, and copper. I also think the research strongly points to heme iron from meat being an excellent source of iron – much more absorbable than plant iron – but I now think eating too much meat leads to iron overload, because your body can’t shut off absorption from heme iron like it can from plant iron. If you’re curious to learn more, I just posted a huge article on iron and acne two days ago:

        Iron and Acne

        I think this is really an unusual perspective, and the opposite of what most people will tell you! Curious to hear your thoughts! 🙂 (I’m actually eating mostly vegetarian these days, due to trying to reverse my iron overload problem, and, yes, the environmental impact.)

  14. Taylor says

    So if I maintain a Paleo/Whole 30 diet that includes high quality meats and seafoods and I do not eat any of the iron-fortified foods or foods that inhibit lactoferrin – my body should be creating lactoferrin on it’s own in a healthy manner and I likely do not need to supplement it, correct?

    • Devin Mooers says

      Yep, exactly! Historical iron overload can be an issue, less so for menstruating women due to the continual iron dumping outlet. Bloodletting was effective back in the day for many diseases due to iron removal! Men don’t have such a built-in iron removal system (perhaps explaining why men tend to live shorter lives than women – iron buildup!). I’m not 100% sure how effective lactoferrin supplementation is for addressing built-up iron overload. Morley Robbins (gotmag.org) is the guy to read about on all the iron issues.

  15. Christina says

    I’m confused. I was just about to purchase some FCLO for my teen daughter to help her with her acne and now I stumbled across your reply where you state you no longer recommend FCLO! Why the change?

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Christina! Sorry about the confusion here – I wish we could keep the same recommendations forever, but our knowledge (and the science, and reader experience, etc.) forces us to change our recommendations now and then, and it’s hard to change everywhere all at once! We changed this recommendation because FCLO is basically pure PUFA (polyunsaturated fat), which is more susceptible to lipid peroxidation than other fats, and this is a major contributor to acne, we now believe (lipid peroxidation). The vitamin A in FCLO tends to be very beneficial, but you can get that vitamin A from eating liver, taking desiccated liver capsules, or taking a vitamin A supplement such as this one by Pure Encapsulations. We now think it’s best to reduce the total body load of PUFA as much as possible, rather than trying to boost omega-3s, for instance. Does this make sense?

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Sam! That’s actually a really good idea. We currently do not recommend taking FCLO or cod liver oil – we’ve updated our book but haven’t found the time yet to update our cod liver oil blog post – we’ll do that soon! We recommend taking desiccated liver capsules or eating grass-fed liver regularly, or taking a vitamin A supplement like this one:

      Pure Encapsulations Vitamin A 10,000 IU

      Taking vitamin E is a great PUFA defense strategy when you’re eating out at restaurants or for some reason consume a large amount of PUFA. We’re working on a “PUFA Shield” supplement that incorporates full-spectrum E along with some other lipid peroxidation blockers to make it easier for travelers, folks who eat out a lot, etc. to avoid the worst PUFA effects on acne.

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