Can supplements really help you get rid of acne? Can you get all the nutrients you need for clear skin from food alone?
I can already hear people saying…
“Our Paleolithic ancestors didn’t have acne and they didn’t take vsupplements… Why should I?”
On one hand, we get less “good” stuff than we used to – with antibiotics, cleaning, and modern farming practices, we’re not getting nearly as much healthy bacteria as we used to. Farmed fishing and conventional agricultural practices lead to us eating more unhealthy fats than we used to. The rise of fast food and supermarkets means we’re eating a lot less organ meats – when’s the last time you ate beef liver?
On the other hand, we’ve made some seriously cool advancements in food and supplement technology that we’d be foolish not to take advantage of. High-quality supplements aren’t just unregulated sugar pills anymore, they’re reliable, sustainably-sourced superfoods that we have affordable access to.
For these reasons, supplementation and clear skin really go hand-in-hand. Unfortunately, not all supplements are created equal, and there’s a lot of confusion around what supplements are really necessary for clear skin.
In this article, we’re going to take a look at the best supplements for clear skin, ranked in order of importance. I’ll also discuss how you can get each nutrient in food form.
Here’s the full list we’ll cover, in order of importance:
Supplements to avoid:
Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin stored in the liver. It’s necessary for proper skin, eye, bone, and immune health. It helps alleviate acne by touching just about every possible root cause:
- Reduces the size of sebaceous gland (produces oil that clogs pores)
- Improves wound healing (can help heal acne scars faster)
- Acts as an antioxidant that protects the skin against free radicals
- Helps regulate the skin shedding process and ensures dead skin cells don’t clog pores
- Reduces inflammation
Overall there isn’t a single vitamin that’s more important for not just covering up the symptoms of acne, but truly preventing it.
Unfortunately, most of us aren’t getting enough usable vitamin A to prevent acne.
There are two types of vitamin A:
- Provitamin A (Carotenoids) – Found in vegetables and most supplements. Must be converted into retinol before it can be used by the body.
- Preformed Vitamin A (Retinol) – Found in meat, seafood, and some dairy. Can be used by the body immediately.
There’s nothing wrong with provitamin A, in fact, most of us consume plenty of it from vegetables alone, but it’s an extremely inefficient form of vitamin A that later needs to be converted to retinol. Unfortunately, as little as 3% of all previtamin A you consume actually ends up being converted to usable vitamin A. You can up those numbers by consuming healthy fats, like olive oil or coconut oil with your vegetables, but it’s still not as beneficial as consuming provitamin A.
What this means is that even if you’re eating tons of kale or spinach, you might still be deficient in vitamin A.
For this reason, I recommend supplementing with grass-fed beef liver, which comes in pill form (or you can just eat the food straight up). I take between 2 and 4 pills per day, which gives me about 2,500 IU or 50% of the daily recommended vitamin A in retinol form.
Recommended dose: 6 pills daily (equivalent of 1 ounce of beef liver)
- Vitamin A helps prevent overly oily skin, clogged pores, and inflammation
- Most of us don’t get enough usable (preformed) vitamin A per day
- Grass-fed and grass-finished beef. 5,000 IU of Preformed Vitamin A per 6 pills
Bear in mind that too much vitamin A isn’t a good thing either. Overconsumption can lead to hypervitaminosis A, which can trigger inflammation, pain, birth defects, and even death. For this reason, you may want to take around 850 IU per day (1 pill) if you’re already consuming large amounts of vitamin A in your diet.
It’s hard to think of an area of our health that vitamin D doesn’t impact – from our mood to our immune system, it’s a pretty important nutrient. Vitamin D is responsible for the expression of more than 1,000 genes. Sadly, upwards of 70% of people don’t get enough of it.
Our ancestors would naturally get tons of vitamin D from being outside, however, in modern times we’re spending much more time indoors, covered up, or slathered in sunblock.
Deficiency in vitamin D is a real problem for acne – this study found that 95% of people with acne were deficient in vitamin D. It’s hard to understate the importance of vitamin D when it comes to acne:
- Can help prevent chronic inflammation and regulate the immune system
- Influences genes that ensure skin cells die, shed, and don’t clog pores
- Increases the absorption & utilization of magnesium, phosphate, vitamin K2, and other nutrients
- Plays a role in insulin secretion (too much insulin can be a nightmare for acne).
Ideally, you’ll be getting your vitamin D from the sun – very few foods contain high levels of vitamin D. It doesn’t take much, just 15 minutes a day can be enough. Also, make sure that you’re not wearing sunscreen – not only is sunscreen problematic for acne, but it’ll prevent vitamin D from being absorbed.
Overdoing it isn’t good for your skin either though – your acne might look better after a day of sunbathing, but sunburns can dry out the healthy oil on the skin.
If you aren’t getting outside for at least 15 minutes a day near peak sunshine hours (11am-2pm), live in a northern climate, or have darker skin, supplementing with vitamin D is likely a good strategy. Most people should probably supplement with vitamin D, especially if you have acne.
Taking between 500 and 1,000 IU of a high-quality vitamin D3 per 25 pounds of body-weight a day is a good starting place.
Recommended dose: 500 – 1,000 IU per 25lb of bodyweight
- Anti-inflammatory, prevents clogged pores, affects 1,000+ different genes
- Upwards of 50% of the population is deficient in vitamin D
- Vitamin D3 is the body’s preferred form of vitamin D. Infused with coconut oil for better absorption
There are a few things to note when it comes to vitamin D supplements:
- Vitamin D3 is the body’s preferred form of vitamin D and is much more effective taken as a supplement than vitamin D2.
- Taking vitamin D3 with a fat can increase absorption by up to 32%. The supplement above is infused with coconut oil, so it’ll do the job just fine.
Unlike many of the other supplements here, we have scientific evidence that supplementing with zinc improves skin quality:
- 600mg of zinc a day led to 33% less acne after 6 weeks
- 30mg a day led to nearly 50% less acne after 3 months
- After 12 weeks of treatment with zinc, the mean acne score of this study fell from 100% to 15%
Zinc is crucial for hundreds of biological processes that create the proper conditions for clear skin, including:
- Assists in the absorption and transportation of vitamin A
- Acts an an antioxidant to protect against acne infections and UV radiation
- Zinc deficiency is linked to an increased risk for bacterial infection
- Regulates apoptosis, the process of skin dying and shedding
- Protects the gut & improves intestinal healing
- Helps prevent insulin resistance
- Improves sleep quality and decreases stress
Despite all these benefits, most of us don’t get nearly enough through our diet alone. It’s estimated that upwards of 2 billion people are zinc deficient. One study found that 54% of participants with acne were deficient in zinc compared to only 10% of the non-acne group.
Unless you’re eating oysters and lobster on a regular basis, I recommend taking between 15 and 30mg of zinc picolinate per day.
Recommended dose: 15 – 30mg per day
- One study found 30g of zinc per day to lead to 50% less acne after 3 months
- Necessary for immune function and reducing inflammation
- Zinc picolinate is easily-absorbed by the body
While supplementing with zinc, there are a few things to be aware of:
- Whole grains, iron, legumes, and dairy will impair your ability to absorb zinc, so take it outside of meals containing these food groups
- Zinc functions best when paired with abundant levels of copper – if you’re not getting enough copper in your diet you may want to take a zinc supplement that comes with copper. If you’re already taking the Beef Liver Vitamin A supplement I recommend in this article, you should be fine on copper.
- There are tons of different kinds of zinc – studies show zinc picolinate to be the most effective
- Some people experience when they take zinc on an empty stomach
If you want the full story on why omega-3’s are so important for acne, read my article on chronic inflammation here.
Here’s the simplified version – there are 2 types of fatty acids that influence how your body responds to threats using inflammation: omega-6’s and omega-3’s.
- Omega-3 Fats are anti-inflammatory. More Omega-3’s = Less Inflammation = Less Acne
- Omega-6 Fats are pro-inflammatory. More Omega-6’s = More Inflammation = More acne
Too many omega-6’s without enough omega-3’s will lead to an overactive immune system that sends out inflammatory responses to harmless, naturally-occurring events. Eating certain foods, stress, or acne could all trigger a response. Chronic inflammation takes a simple little acne infection and turns it into a protruding, red, angry pimple.
In a perfect world, we consume about equal amounts of omega-3’s and omega-6’s. Unfortunately, our modern diet is way off target. The average American consumes 20 times more omega-6s than omega-3’s.
Why? Because many of the processed, artificial, and low-fat foods we eat today are loaded with omega-6’s due to the use of vegetable oils like sunflower, corn, and soybean oil.
This means it’s crucial we’re consuming enough omega-3 fatty acids to counteract the omega-6s.
Our body can easily use two types of omega-3’s: DHA and EPA. The third type, ALA, which is often found in seeds, plants, and nuts, is extremely inefficient for the body to use. Only a tiny fraction of ALA’s are converted into usable omega-3’s.
So where can you get DHA & EPA omega-3’s?
- Fatty fish, including sardines, salmon, and mackerel
- Fish oil supplements
Personally, I don’t take a standard fish oil supplement for a few reasons…
- You won’t absorb as much omega-3’s Numerous studies have shown that the consumption of fish is a much more effective way to increase DHA & EPA (the good omega-3’s) levels versus fish oil supplements
- Fish oil goes rancid very easily and can make acne worse One study found that over 50% of all fish oil brands exceeded the standard for oxidized fat, meaning they were full of rancid, inflammatory fats that do more harm than good. Omega-3’s are extremely sensitive to light, heat, and air exposure
- You won’t get the other health benefits of eating fish Fatty fish is an excellent source of vitamin A, vitamin b12, selenium and vitamin D
Instead of taking a fish oil supplement, I opt to eat some form of seafood at least once every other day and take krill oil. As I talk about in this article, you don’t have to break the bank to do this. I opt for sardines and canned cod liver (not the supplement, but real cod liver) most of the time, which equates to less than a dollar a day to get large amounts of omega-3.
There is one exception to the rule: krill oil.
Recommended dose: 250 – 1,000mg of DHA/EPA per day
- Krill oil prevents against pimple-causing chronic inflammation
- Contains the antioxidant astaxanthin to help prevent oxidation and rancid oil
- Highly bio-available omega-3: DHA & EPA
If you’re insistent on taking an omega-3 supplement, I would highly recommend krill oil over fish oil. Krill oil contains the antioxidant astaxanthin, which prevents it from going rancid unlike regular fish oil, cod liver oil, or other fish oil supplements. Plus, it has DHA and EPA that’s easily absorbed and used by the body.
Vitamin C hits on a few key points when it comes to acne:
- It’s used to produce the antioxidant glutathione, which prevents free radicals and oxidation from occurring
- It lowers stress hormones
- It helps with inflammation and tissue formation
It’s estimated that over 30% of the population is deficient in vitamin C1https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1448351/, and while there are plenty of foods that contain large amounts of vitamin C, it’s a fragile vitamin that can become easily damaged through cooking. This study found that every method of cooking broccoli except steaming resulted in significantly lower levels of vitamin C.
I’d recommend trying to get your vitamin C through foods, however, there are no real negative side effects to also supplementing with high doses of vitamin C.
Foods high in vitamin C include:
- Broccoli (135% of daily value per serving)
- Brussels Sprouts (129% daily value per serving)
- Strawberries (113% daily value per serving)
- Pineapple (105% daily value per serving)
- Orange (93% daily value per serving)
- Cauliflower (73% daily value per serving)
If you’re not eating these foods on a consistent basis, I’d recommend supplementing with camu camu powder.
Recommended dose: 1tsp every 1-2 days (~682mg of Vitamin C)
- Vitamin C helps ensure that oil on the skin doesn’t clog pores
- Most potent known source of vitamin C in the world
- Filled with other antioxidants and phytonutrients
Camu camu powder is derived from South American berries and contains massive amounts of vitamin C as well as other antioxidants. Supplement with a teaspoon every day or two and you should be good to go.
Magnesium is a lot like vitamin D3 – it affects hundreds of different biological processes throughout the body and very few of us get enough of it. Its primary job is to help with the process known as ATP.
It’s no surprise that magnesium touches several of the root causes of acne:
- Magnesium supplements decrease insulin resistance
- It’s been shown to lower inflammation
- Can help with anxiety, sleep, and chronic fatigue
Even if you’re eating tons of leafy vegetables, you’re probably deficient in magnesium. Modern farming practices and depleted soil make it nearly impossible to get enough magnesium through diet alone, which is why the majority of Americans are deficient in magnesium.
For this very reason, most people should supplement with magnesium on a daily basis.
There’s a lot of different types of magnesium out there – I prefer magnesium chloride, which comes in a spray and is easily absorbed by the body.
Recommended dose: 200 – 400mg per day (10 – 20 sprays)
- Decreases insulin resistance, lowers inflammation, improves sleep
- 80% of Americans don’t get enough magnesium
- Magnesium in spray form is easily absorbed by the body
Each spray has approximately 20mg of magnesium in it (not all of it will be absorbed), so I like to put on anywhere between 10 and 20 sprays per night.
All and all, magnesium is a cheap, affordable, and beneficial supplement that most of us can’t get through food alone.
When the oil on the skin becomes oxidized (damaged), it turns into a pore-blocking powerhouse. When these pores become blocked, they can easily become infected and inflamed, leading to acne and pimples.
Vitamin E is an antioxidant. It helps prevent this process from happening in the first place. Plenty of vitamin E prevents oxidative damage from occurring at all, stopping acne dead in its tracks.
This study found that individuals with acne were considerably more likely to have low levels of vitamin E (and also vitamin A).
There are 8 different types of vitamin E, each with varying properties and effects.
Unfortunately, the vitamin E found in most supplements (gamma-tocopherol or alpha-tocopherol) is not nearly as effective as the forms of vitamin E found in foods. For this reason, I’d recommend avoiding vitamin E supplements obtaining vitamin E through your diet. Foods rich in vitamin E include:
If you are going to take a vitamin E supplement, it’s essential that you choose one that’s food-based and not synthetic.
You might have seen topical vitamin E’s out there as well, usually combined with jojoba or argan oil. While it might seem like mega-dosing vitamin E directly on the surface of the skin is a good idea, it’s actually pretty unlikely you’re doing your skin a whole lot of good. Vitamin E is extremely sensitive to air and light, and that the antioxidant properties of plant oils don’t last long once you take them out of the bottle (R). They won’t do you any harm and can be great moisturizers, but they don’t replace vitamin E from food.
Bacteria play an essential role in our health, both inside the body and out.
The gut microbiome, or gut flora, is a massive colony of bacteria that influence a wide array of bodily functions, from digestion to stress control. Keeping this colony swimming with good, beneficial bacteria (probiotics) is crucial for clear skin:
- The gut flora protects the intestinal wall from leaky gut syndrome
- Probiotics break down many carbs and help with vitamin synthesis and absorption
- A healthy gut microbiome helps lower IGF-1, systematic inflammation, and oxidative stress that cause acne
The problem with both oral probiotics is that we still don’t know what the ideal microbiome looks like. We have rough ideas, but with antibiotics, modern diets, and altered farming practices, it’s impossible to know for sure.
The first step in creating a healthy gut microbiome should always be a healthy diet. If you’re not giving probiotics the environment they need to thrive, you’re going to be wasting your time and money. That’s why before you start any probiotics, I recommend:
- Cutting out all grains and gluten
- Eating plenty of fresh vegetables, clean meats, and healthy fats
- Working on stress management wherever you can
Only after you’ve set up the right environment for probiotics to thrive would I recommend taking them. I personally use Garden of Life – RAW Probiotics Ultimate Care, which contains the entire array of recommended bacteria strains for acne.
Recommended dose: 1 pill per day (~100 billion CFU)
- Shipped cold to ensure probiotics are live upon arrival
- Contains 34 naturally diverse whole food strains
- Specifically designed to help replenish a damaged gut flora
With probiotics it’s important that you use trial and error to determine what works for you – some probiotics might contain strains that actually make your skin worse, while others might significantly improve your complexion.
Proper levels of selenium are required for antioxidants to function the way they need to.
All those antioxidants you’re consuming from fruits, vegetables, and other supplements go to waste without selenium to support them. Without proper levels of antioxidants, your skin is vulnerable to infection and clogged pores.
The good news is that you don’t worry about supplementing with selenium – just consume a few selenium-rich foods per day. Eat a few (seriously, only 1 or 2) brazil nuts, eggs, sardines or turkey and you should be good to go.
Supplements to avoid
While many supplements act as useful tools to fill in the gaps in our diet, some actually do more harm than good. These are a few supplements that generally make acne worse.
A lot of people recommend taking a B-complex vitamin to fight acne, and there’s some merit to this.
B vitamins are necessary for healthy skin – they moisturize, nourish, and protect the layer of cells that make up the outside of your skin.
Unfortunately, too much B vitamins are actually more likely to cause acne than cure it:
- One study found vitamin B12 supplements made acne infections more likely to occur on the skin
- Another found that B6 and B12 contributed to acne rosacea
- One final study found that rosacea flared due to B6 & B12 supplements, but would quickly diminish after quitting the supplements
The bottom line is that some B vitamins are great for acne, but too much is harmful.
For this reason, I recommend not taking any supplements with excessive levels of B vitamins.
Supplements that have B vitamins often contain them in extremely high amounts – upwards of 400-500 times the recommended daily value. This is really dangerous for acne. Instead, opt to get them through your diet:
- Eating spinach, chicken, sweet potatoes, salmon, beef, or turkey on a semi-regular basis will provide more than enough vitamin B6.
- Supplementing with beef liver capsules or occasionally eating sardines, salmon, beef, and eggs will easily keep your B12’s covered.
Be careful, many multivitamins, workout supplements, and even energy drinks contain large amounts of vitamin B12 for “increased energy”. You want to try and avoid these as well.
Can multivitamins cause acne?
There’s been a lot of debate lately about multivitamins. Some health experts claim that they’re absolutely crucial for our overall health, while others say they’re not just useless, but also dangerous. With so much conflicting information, it’s hard to find the truth behind all the noise.
In reality, multivitamins aren’t going to kill you or make you sick, but they might hold you back from clear skin.
Most multivitamins, and especially the ones you can just buy at a drugstore, are low quality and contain artificial forms of vitamins that make them difficult (if not impossible) for the body to absorb. If you’re taking these low-quality supplements, you’re honestly probably not getting much benefit from them.
That being said, there are food-based and high-quality multivitamins that boast impressive stats. The problem with these multivitamins is that they usually contain extremely high levels of vitamins and nutrients that can make acne worse, including vitamin B6 and B12.
For instance, this highly recommended, high-quality multivitamin contains 200% of the recommended daily intake of Vitamin B6 and a shocking 8,333% of vitamin B12. Studies show that both vitamin B12 and B6 are directly linked to acne.
For this reason, I would caution against taking a multivitamin and instead focusing on taking targeted, precise, high-quality supplements in the areas that you truly need them.
Wrapping it up
I want to make something clear – you can’t just use supplements alone to clear up your acne.
The likelihood that your acne is caused by a single nutritional deficiency and not larger health issues is slim to none.
Most of your nutrients should be coming from a healthy diet of (preferably organic & grass-fed) meats, wild-caught seafood, vegetables, fruits, healthy fats, and nuts.
Supplements should act as a powerful tool to help fill the gaps in a healthy diet. No matter how many supplements you take, if you’re still eating grains, loading up on sugar, and dumping unhealthy fats in your body, supplements won’t do you any good.
If you don’t know where to get started when it comes to a healthy diet, I recommend you check out the GoodGlow Diet Blueprint.
It lays out an acne-friendly diet on a single page, with more than 80 included foods. Best of all, it’s 100% free to download.
Have a question about acne? Have an idea for an article you’d like to see? Leave it in the comments below.