If you’ve ever found your skin glowing after a day of eating fresh sardines, salmon, mackerel, anchovies, or oysters, there’s plenty of good reasons why. On the flip side, if you’ve ever overindulged in fried shrimp (who hasn’t) or eaten too much tilapia, you might find yourself with an acne breakout.
It begs the question…
Is seafood an acne-fighting superfood or a pimple-causing nightmare?
The short answer is that most wild-caught seafood is great for acne.
The long answer is that it depends on the fish, the source, and how frequently you’re eating it. Most fish are excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids, nutrients, and antioxidants that fight acne. Others are inflammatory and filled with toxins that can cause flare-ups.
In this article, we’ll take a look at why fish is usually great for acne-prone skin, and then dive into the best and worst fish to eat for clear skin.
Feel free to jump ahead if you’re looking for info on a specific fish/seafood:
- The best seafood and fish for acne-prone skin
- Other good seafood fish for acne-prone skin
- The worst seafood and fish for acne-prone skin
- Special Cases
Why most seafood is great for acne
Most fish and shellfish are great for acne because they’re high in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, acne-fighting nutrients and antioxidants (like vitamin A, vitamin D, and zinc), and low in carbs (see why carbs cause acne here).
Your balance of omega fatty acids is a key factor in inflammatory acne.
There are two main types of omega fatty acids that influence inflammation:
- Omega-3: anti-inflammatory, great for preventing acne
- Omega-6: pro-inflammatory, too much is bad for acne
A diet high in omega-6 fatty acids and low in omega-3 fatty acids can lead to chronic inflammation1https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29610056, which takes a harmless little acne infection on the skin and turns it into a red, swollen, protruding pimple. If you have red, painful pimples, inflammatory acne may be the reason why.
Fatty seafood is among the highest sources of healthy omega-3 fatty acids out there. Best of all, they’re rich in the two types of omega-3s that your body can use most efficiently, DHA and EPA.
It’s worth noting that while both wild-caught and farmed fish are generally high in omega-3s, farmed fish is also usually very high in inflammatory (acne-causing) omega-6 too.
Most wild-caught fish is loaded with antioxidants that help prevent acne.
The most powerful antioxidant in seafood for fighting acne is astaxanthin:
- It’s anti-inflammatory, which helps prevent pimples
- Improves the overall health of your body’s mitochondria
- Helps protect the skin from oxidation – a process where excess oil on the skin (caused by eating too many carbs, dairy, or other hormones) goes rancid and clogs pores
In fact, several studies have found astaxanthin to be more potent and effective than vitamin C, vitamin E, and even the antioxidants found in green tea.
The best fish sources of astaxanthin include wild-caught salmon, salmon roe, red trout, red seabream, lobster, shrimp, and crabs.
In addition to having healthy fats and satiating protein, seafood is loaded with healthy micronutrients, like vitamin D, selenium, vitamin B6, biotin, zinc, and even potassium, that help improve skin health and fight acne.
Downsides of seafood for acne
Overall, there aren’t any massive downsides of seafood that make it worth avoiding as a whole food group. Instead, focus on avoiding the small amounts of low-quality seafood that can cause acne.
Mercury typically isn’t a problem in extremely low doses, but if you eat fish too much, particularly farmed fish, you can quickly overdo it.
What’s so bad about mercury for acne?
- Mercury can damage the digestive system. A healthy gut is crucial for clear skin.
- It can have a direct toxic effect on the skin by generating free radicals.
- Mercury can cause inflammation. More inflammation means more acne.
- It can even increase insulin resistance, which makes you more likely to break out from carbs or sugar.
Source: World Health Organization
The good news is that not all fish is high in mercury. While fish higher up on the food chain, like salmon or tuna are generally higher in mercury, wild-caught salmon and tuna are generally pretty low in mercury. Smaller fish, like sardines or mackerel, are almost always low in mercury and safe to consume frequently.
Farmed salmon and tuna? Probably not your best bet.
Antibiotics and other toxins
Have you ever seen a fish farm? They’re massive operations where tons of fish or shrimp are contained in a very small area. They’re fed an extremely unnatural diet of corn, soy, oils, and other fish.
Because of this diet, the fish often develop health issues and are required to take antibiotics in order to live. Unlike most meat nowadays, in many places, it’s still legal to use antibiotics in the practice of farmed seafood, and the negative health effects of these antibiotics don’t stop with the fish, they can affect your gut too.
If you know me, you’ll know that I never recommend taking antibiotics for ance, as they can do permanent, irreversible damage to your gut microbiome. While it’s not proven, there is suspicion that antibiotics found in food can damage the gut microbiome too. In my personal opinion, it’s better safe than sorry.
Killing off good bacteria can lead to nutritional deficiencies, inflammation, and autoimmune conditions – all major triggers for acne.
The verdict: eat wild-caught fish whenever you can.
Safest seafood for acne-prone skin
These are your best bets for not just safe seafood for acne-prone skin, but seafood that actually helps clear up existing acne.
Wild-caught salmon is an amazing source of nutrients.
It’s practically the ultimate acne-fighting superfood:
- Rich in omega-3 fatty acids that help fight inflammatory acne
- Low in inflammation-causing omega-6 fatty acids
- One of the best sources of the astaxanthin, an extremely potent antioxidant that protects the skin
- Rich in vitamin D, selenium, vitamin B6, iodine, and biotin – all nutrients for clear skin
Wild-caught salmon is a nutritional powerhouse with very few drawbacks. On the flip side, farmed salmon is an entirely different story:
- It has upwards of 6 times more inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids than wild-caught salmon
- Most farmed salmon is riddled with antibiotics that can damage the digestive system
- Farmed salmon contains considerably more toxins and mercury than wild-caught salmon
- It contains only a fraction of the antioxidants of wild-caught salmon
Sure, you still get the omega-3s with farmed salmon, but at what cost?
Overall, stick with wild-caught salmon whenever you can.
What type should you buy? Sockeye salmon contains more astaxanthin, vitamin D, and comparable levels of omega-3 to other forms of salmon, plus it’s on the more affordable end of the spectrum.
The verdict: Wild-caught salmon is a real acne-fighting superfood. Farmed salmon? Not so much.
As a college student on a budget, I get it – wild-caught salmon is expensive.
Luckily, there are plenty of cheaper options that are just as healthy, like sardines.
If you can stomach the taste, sardines are great for a few reasons:
- They have tons of omega-3 fatty acids
- Sardines are very low in inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids
- Excellent source of vitamin D and selenium
- Because they’re a smaller fish, they’re extremely low in toxins and mercury
- They’re almost always wild-caught – I’ve never seen “farmed” sardines
Sure, you’re not going to get all the nutrients and antioxidants that wild-caught salmon has, but you’re going to save a lot of money and still get all those anti-inflammatory omega-3s.
When I’m in the US, I buy canned, wild-caught sardines in bulk online. In Italy, I just buy them at them fresh at the local fish market. Beware though, some sardines are canned with tomato sauce or vegetable oils – you’ll want to avoid these and go with sardines canned in water or olive oil.
They’re not the tastiest fish, but they can be great on salads.
The verdict: Sardines are an affordable way to get healthy omega-3s without the risk of toxins
Just like sardines, mackerel is another affordable choice when it comes to wild-caught seafood loaded with omega-3s.
The smaller variety, which is lower in mercury and abundant with omega-3s, usually come in cans.
Mackerel is great for a few reasons:
- It contains more omega-3 per servings than any other type of fish (excluding cod liver)
- Low in omega-6 fatty acids
- Micronutrient powerhouse – high in vitamin A, vitamin D, selenium, magnesium, and zinc
- Wild-caught and typically small, so it’s very low levels of mercury and toxins
Just like sardines, you can find wild-caught mackerel online, or at your local fish market. If you can find em’ with the skin on, that’s a better choice, as fish skin contains a lot of omega-3s, but any type of mackerel is better than no mackerel at all. Like sardines, go with mackerel canned in olive oil or water, not vegetable oils.
I think they taste a bit better than sardines, but then again, most people aren’t huge on the taste of mackerel or sardines (one of the perks of living in Italy, home of the freshest sardines and anchovies out there).
The verdict: Mackerel is a pretty bulletproof fish, there aren’t really any major drawbacks to eating it when it comes to acne.
Sure, they’re not as amazing for your skin as mackerel, sardines, or wild-caught salmon, but anchovies are nothing to scoff at either.
In terms of their benefits for clear skin, anchovies are:
- An excellent source of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids
- Great source of selenium, a nutrient necessary for antioxidant functioning
- Low in mercury and toxins and usually wild-caught
There aren’t really any downsides to anchovies, including on the ecological side of things. Anchovies are one of the most environmentally-friendly fish out there, and at the bottom of the food chain, they have very few toxins.
Canned anchovies are higher in sodium, but in reality, the risks of sodium are pretty widely overstated and don’t apply to most people eating a healthy diet.
The verdict: Anchovies aren’t exactly a nutritional powerhouse, but they’re an extremely safe and reliable source of omega-3 fatty acids
Oysters kick ass. Seriously, they are one of the single best acne-fighting foods you could eat.
- They’re the single best source of zinc on the planet (zinc is absolutely crucial for clear skin)
- Oysters have a little bit of omega-3 and very, very little omega-6
- They have solid levels of vitamin A, vitamin E, and selenium
The only downside to oysters is their crazy high vitamin B12 content, which can exacerbate acne (the same reason your multivitamin might be giving you pimples).
Best of all, farmed oysters are fine. 95% of oysters are farmed, and it’s not nearly as dangerous as fish farming for the environment (it’s actually better for the environment) and fine for your health.
The verdict: Oysters are an amazing source of skin-clearing nutrients, including tons of zinc.
Yup, this is a weird one, but unlike its fried counterpart calamari, squid is actually really safe for acne-prone skin.
- It has a solid amount of omega-3s per serving (0.5g)
- It has practically no inflammatory omega-6s
- Squid’s a good source of potassium, zinc, and selenium
- It’s low in carbs, so it won’t spike insulin
There aren’t many downsides to squid when it comes to acne unless you’re eating calamari. Calimari is basically junk food – it’s fried, high in carbs, and full of antinutrients that can damage your gut.
The verdict: If you can even find it, squid is a solid choice for acne. Calamari is not!
Good seafood for acne
Just because these fellas didn’t make the list above doesn’t mean they aren’t great for your skin – I’d take any of these seafood choices over fast food, protein shakes, or even some factory farmed meat any day of the week.
Unlike fattier cuts of fish, like salmon and mackerel, cod is pretty lean, which means it doesn’t have many omega-3 or omega-6 fatty acids.
In terms of micronutrients, it isn’t exactly a superstar either – it has a lot of selenium, but that’s about it.
Cod is another fish that you can get wild or farmed, and just like the other, larger fish, you’ll want to get cod wild-caught whenever you can.
Does this less-than-stellar nutritional profile mean that you should avoid cod? No, not at all – in fact, there’s very little risk in eating cod when it comes to acne, it’s a generally safe food. Just don’t expect it to provide the other anti-inflammatory and nutritional benefits of fattier fish.
Cod liver, on the hand, is a totally different story (article coming soon).
The verdict: Cod is a lean fish that is low in healthy omega-3s and inflammatory omega-6s. It’s a safe fish to eat for acne-prone skin and a solid source of protein.
Tuna, just like salmon, has a wide array of benefits but also potential drawbacks.
On the plus side, tuna:
- Is an okay, but not a great source of omega-3 fatty acids
- Has very few inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids
- One of the single best sources of selenium, which helps with antioxidant functioning
- Rich in skin-clearing nutrients vitamin B6, vitamin D, iodine, and potassium
The main downside of tuna for acne comes from mercury. Tuna is one of the fish highest in mercury, especially when the tuna is farmed. To avoid toxicity and mercury associated with tuna, keep your consumption to moderate amounts and go for wild-caught whenever you can.
The verdict: Tuna isn’t the best choice for acne-prone skin, but it certainly isn’t the worst either.
Trout is a fairly large, decently-fatty fish.
While it’s not a superfood, trout it does have its fair share of benefits when it comes to acne:
- Decent amounts of omega-3 fatty acids
- Great source of vitamin D, selenium, and vitamin B6
The downsides of trout aren’t dealbreakers either:
- Higher mercury levels than other fish, like sardines or anchovies
- Moderate levels of inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids
Again, farmed trout has about twice the amount of omega-6 as wild-caught trout and higher levels of mercury, but at the same time, lake trout has its fair share of contaminants too due to pollution.
For this reason, trout is one of the only fish you actually might want to consider eating from a farm. Rainbow trout is a decent option.
The verdict: Trout is an okay source of omega-3 and nutrients, and both farmed and wild-caught varieties are generally safe for acne-prone skin
Another lean fish, walleye doesn’t really skew one way or the other when it comes to clear skin.
In terms of benefits, walleye is:
- Low in inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids
- Has a small amount of anti-inflammatory omega-3s
- Decent source of manganese and selenium
There aren’t really any major drawbacks to walleye, other than high mercury content.
It’s not the most common fish in the world, so getting it wild-caught is going to be the most likely scenario. Make sure it comes from a source that isn’t contaminated or heavily polluted, and you should be fine.
The verdict: Walleye is a fairly safe choice for acne-prone skin. It’s low in omega fatty acids and toxins.
Just like the lean fish that come before mahi-mahi, there aren’t really any major benefits to mahi-mahi, but there also aren’t any huge drawbacks.
On the plus side, mahi-mahi is:
- Extremely low in omega-6 fatty acids
- A safe fish to cook at high temperatures (fatty fish can sometimes oxidize at higher temps)
- High in selenium and B vitamins
Unfortunately, mahi-mahi is also relatively high in mercury.
Still, overall, it’s not a bad choice at all for acne and is one of my personal favorite fish when it comes to its unique taste and texture.
The verdict: One of the least inflammatory fish out there, making it safe for acne-prone skin
There’s not too much to say about clams and mussels when it comes to acne.
They’re good sources of a handful of vitamins and minerals necessary for clear skin, including manganese, magnesium, selenium, and vitamin A. They’re also pretty good sources of omega-3 fatty acids too (with very little omega-6).
All and all, not too much to harp on when it comes to benefits, and there aren’t many drawbacks either.
You’re not getting as much zinc as you would with oysters, but at the end of the day, clams aren’t nutritional lightweights either.
The verdict: A safe source of healthy fats, protein, and micronutrients, but not as nutritional as oysters
Another strange, more exotic seafood, these shellfish are also safe for acne-prone skin.
Both lobster and crab have a few benefits:
- Very high in zinc, a crucial nutrient for clear skin
- Good sources of selenium and copper
- Very low in inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids
- Small amounts of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids
The only major downside is that they’re extremely high in vitamin B12. Too much vitamin B12 can make acne worse2https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6049814/, which is part of the reason why your multivitamin might be giving you acne.
The verdict: Don’t overdo it, but lobster and crab are both great sources of protein and nutrients that help fight acne
Worst seafood for acne
Tilapia is not only one of the worst fish you could eat for acne, but one of the worst foods for your health overall.
Unlike other seafood, there are really only a handful of benefits to eating tilapia:
- Rich in selenium and potassium
- Low in omega-6s
On the flip side, it’s extremely low in anti-inflammatory omega-3s (one of the biggest benefits of fish) and skin clearing vitamins and minerals.
Worst of all, tilapia is commonly fed animal feces. Yup, you heard that right, animal poop.
For some plants (and even animals), grass-fed animal manure is necessary for survival. For tilapia, it is not, and it leads to toxicity and sickness. The vast majority of tilapia imported from China was fed animal feces3http://www.fao.org/in-action/globefish/market-reports/resource-detail/en/c/989532/, which can lead to dangerous bacterial consequences.
On top of animal feces being in your tilapia, harmful, banned chemicals usually make their way into Chinese tilapia4https://www.seafoodwatch.org/-/m/sfw/pdf/reports/t/mba_seafoodwatch_tilapiachinareport.pdf sold around the world.
The verdict: Tilapia from a high-quality source is okay for acne at best. At worst, you’re putting your skin and your health at risk by eating tilapia.
2. (Most) Shrimp
Delicious and nutritious? Well, maybe.
On the plus side, shrimp are:
- An amazing source of the antioxidant astaxanthin (which is also anti-inflammatory)
- A great source of selenium, another antioxidant-like nutrient
- A good source of zinc, vitamin E, and even vitamin A – all great nutrients for acne-prone skin
- Extremely low in inflammatory omega-6s
On the surface, domestic, non-farmed shrimp looks like a great choice for acne.
Unfortunately, 90% of shrimp is farmed, and presents a wide array of negative effects for acne-prone skin:
- Additives in shrimp used to prevent discoloration can create estrogenic-like effects5https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/tx800048m. In other words, it can create hormonal acne.
- It’s loaded with pesticides that are banned in the United States
- The water farmed shrimp are raised to contain strong anti-fungals – this could damage the gut microbiome
Plus, guess what? It’s thought that modern-day slave labor is used to farm shrimp6https://draxe.com/fish-you-should-never-eat/.
Yikes, that’s really, really not good, both for your skin and the planet.
The verdict: If you can find wild-caught shrimp, they can be an extremely nutritious, acne-fighting food. Farmed shrimp can be a nightmare for hormonal acne.
Calimari is junk food, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
It has two huge drawbacks for acne:
- Because it’s fried in vegetable oils, it’s extremely high in omega-6 fatty acids and is very inflammatory
- Because it’s breaded, it almost always contains gluten, an antinutrient that can damage the gut, trigger inflammation, and disrupt the gut microbiome
Despite having a decent amount of omega-3s and nutrients, calamari isn’t a good choice because it’s breaded and fried.
The verdict: Stick to raw squid if you want to avoid breaking out
At first glance, swordfish is a pretty decent choice for anyone with acne:
- Really high in anti-inflammatory omega-3s
- Super low in inflammatory omega-6s
- A really good source of micronutrients
- Almost always wild-caught
While this is all true, there is one decent drawback to swordfish: extremely high levels of mercury.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t eat swordfish (although the Environmental Defense Fund recommends only eating swordfish once a month), or that’ll it’ll make you break out, but you should probably limit your consumption of it to avoid mercury poisoning.
The verdict: Great for acne-prone skin, but really high in mercury. Consume it sparingly.
Summing it up
In this article, we took a look at the safest and worst fish and seafood for acne-prone skin.
- Salmon, sardines, mackerel, anchovies, oysters, and squid are all amazing choices for clear skin. They contain omega-3 fatty acids that fight inflammatory acne and skin-clearing nutrients and antioxidants
- Cod, tuna, walleye, trout, clams, lobster, crabs, and mahi-mahi are also great choices too, with a few drawbacks
- Farmed shrimp, calamari, and tilapia are all seafood that are high in toxins and additives that can cause inflammatory and hormonal acne
We also went over how important it is to get your seafood wild-caught whenever possible. Wild-caught seafood is higher in acne-fighting nutrients, anti-inflammatory omega-3s, and lower in toxins like mercury that can cause acne.
If you’re looking for a handy one-page summary of everything you need to eat for clear skin, check out the GoodGlow Diet Blueprint.
Have you found yourself clearing up after incorporating more seafood? How does your skin react to different fish? Have a question about a fish I didn’t cover in the article? Leave it in the comments below!