No matter your age, having persistent acne can feel disheartening. You may have tried countless treatment options, ranging from dietary changes to medical treatment, but nothing has worked.

Some people claim that polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids could improve acne, thanks to their speculated anti-inflammatory effects on your body.

Three types of omega-3s are:

  • eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
  • docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
  • alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)

EPA and DHA are found primarily in fish and fish oil, and ALA is found in certain nuts and seeds. They’re essential, meaning that you need to get them from your diet or supplements.

This article reviews the connection between omega-3s and acne.

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Acne is generally considered an inflammatory skin condition and is marked by tender bumps and pimples.

These are usually red or pink in color and may be accompanied by dark spots, depending on your skin tone. They’re also pus-filled and tend to be located on your face, neck, back, and chest.

Typically, the buildup of bacteria and excess oil is what clogs pores and hair follicles in your skin, causing swollen, tender pimples as part of your body’s inflammatory response (1, 2, 3).

These acne lesions can increase the activity of pro-inflammatory mediators on your skin, such as interleukin-1, which then trigger a series of inflammatory events (2, 4).

It was once thought that only some types of acne were associated with inflammation, but more recent research suggests that inflammation plays a role in nearly all types of acne (2).

Yet, inflammation is not the only contributing factor. Other things that can affect acne development are (1):

  • hormones
  • medications
  • stress
  • age
  • pollution
  • humidity
  • certain foods
Summary

Acne is an inflammatory condition marked by pimples and lesions that develop in response to clogged pores and the buildup of bacteria and oil.

Because of the underlying causes of acne, some people believe that omega-3s may prevent or improve it.

Omega-3s and inflammation

Omega-3 fatty acids, particularly EPA and DHA, have anti-inflammatory effects. So, it’s speculated that they may indirectly fight acne by targeting inflammation (5).

In one small study, participants with acne had lower blood levels of EPA and higher blood levels of certain inflammatory markers than participants without acne (6).

Yet, it’s not clear if supplementing with EPA or other omega-3s can prevent or treat acne.

A randomized, controlled trial in 45 people with mild to moderate acne found that taking 2,000 mg of EPA and DHA supplements daily for 10 weeks significantly decreased both inflammatory and noninflammatory acne lesions (7).

On the other hand, a study in 13 people with inflammatory acne observed no significant changes in acne severity or the number of inflammatory lesions after the participants took a daily fish oil supplement with 930 mg EPA for 12 weeks (5).

In fact, while some participants saw improvements in their acne, other participants’ symptoms worsened. These mixed results suggest that the effectiveness of omega-3 supplements on acne may depend on (5):

  • the person
  • the type of omega-3
  • the type of acne
  • other unknown factors

Overall, the research on the connection between omega-3s and inflammation-related acne is limited. More extensive studies are needed (8).

Supplements vs. dietary sources

Most studies on the use of omega-3s in acne treatment have focused on supplements, particularly EPA and DHA. ALA supplements have not been researched for their effect on acne.

There are also no studies on the effect of increased dietary intake of omega-3s in acne treatment.

However, some observational studies suggest that people who eat sources of omega-3 are less likely to have acne than those who don’t eat these foods (9).

For example, a study in over 500 patients in dermatology clinics found that the ones who ate fish at least once per week were 32% less likely to have moderate to severe acne (9).

Even though these results suggest that eating more fish — the best source of dietary omega-3 — may protect against acne, they don’t tell us how other food sources of omega-3s or omega-3s alone may affect the condition.

Summary

Since acne is associated with inflammation, it’s speculated that anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids may prevent or treat it. While some studies suggest that omega-3 supplements reduce acne severity, others offer mixed results. Ultimately, more research is needed.

Taking omega-3 supplements for acne may have unwanted side effects.

For example, in the aforementioned study in 13 people, 4 individuals with mild acne at the trial’s start had worsened symptoms after taking EPA supplements for 12 weeks. On the other hand, those with moderate to severe acne had improved symptoms after the trial (5).

The effect of omega-3s on acne may largely depend on the individual. Since research on this topic is limited, it’s hard to predict whether you may experience improved or worsened acne from taking omega-3s.

Omega-3 supplements may have other side effects, too.

Fish oil is the most common type of omega-3 supplement. Side effects of taking fish oil include (10):

  • bad breath
  • body sweat that smells fishy
  • headache
  • heartburn
  • nausea
  • diarrhea

That being said, fish oil appears to be generally safe for most people. Still, it’s best to first talk with a healthcare professional to see if fish oil or another type of omega-3 supplement is right for you.

Summary

It’s possible that omega-3 supplements may worsen acne in some people, though there’s limited research on this topic. Taking omega-3s in the form of fish oil can also cause mild (though rare) side effects.

Even though some studies have had promising results, research on the connection between acne and fish oil supplements, fish, and other forms of omega-3 is still limited. That’s why there are no standardized recommendations for treating acne with omega-3s.

For example, the American Academy of Dermatology doesn’t recommend taking fish oil or omega-3 supplements to treat acne (11).

If you have acne and want to increase your omega-3 intake, eating more fish is a good place to start. Aim to eat at least 8 ounces (227 grams) of seafood per week. Salmon, mackerel, herring, and sardines are particularly good sources of omega-3s (10).

Children and people who are pregnant should be wary about mercury in fish, as it may harm the brain and nervous system of unborn and young children. Opt for low mercury fish, which include salmon, cod, and shrimp, among others (12).

Plant-based sources of the omega-3 fatty acid ALA include flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts. However, keep in mind that most studies on omega-3s, inflammation, and acne have focused on EPA and DHA.

Summary

There are no standardized recommendations for using omega-3s to treat acne. Eating more fish, flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts will boost your omega-3 intake without you needing to take a supplement.

Acne is an inflammatory condition that causes pimples and lesions on the skin. It can affect people of all ages, though it’s more common in teenagers.

Omega-3s, especially EPA and DHA, have been shown to fight inflammation and have been explored as a treatment for acne.

However, limited available research has mainly focused on supplements and shows mixed results. Ultimately, more studies are needed.

If you’re interested in eating more omega-3s to see if they improve your acne symptoms, try increasing your fish intake or trying a supplement after consulting with a doctor.