Cod Liver Oil for Acne: What Does the Science Tell Us?

Cod Liver Oil for Acne: What Does the Science Tell Us?

Acne is experienced by an estimated 80% of teenagers, so naturally there are lots of people searching for solutions. One of the less common suggestions is to use cod liver oil - but is there any truth to this novel idea? And if so, should you swallow the oil or apply it directly to the skin?

In this article we’ll seek to answer these exact questions by reviewing scientific research into the topic. By the end you’ll have gained an educated understanding of exactly how cod liver oil affects acne based on experimental results rather than rumour.

Acne as an Inflammatory Condition

We need to start our journey with the root causes of acne in the first place. By fully understanding these we can better assess whether cod liver oil may be beneficial.

Oddly, despite the ubiquity of acne, scientists are not yet fully in agreement as to its cause. A number of factors seem to operate in parallel, and how each affects the others is an area of some contention. Broadly we can say that acne typically involves the following three processes:

Excessive Sebum Production

Sebum is an innocuous oily substance produced by the sebaceous glands. These glands are found most commonly on the face and the upper back and chest. This makes logical sense as these are the very areas where acne is most often experienced.

While sebum is a perfectly natural substance, produced even by those without acne, it is when sebum production goes into overdrive that acne becomes increasingly likely.

It is believed that this overproduction is most commonly caused by hormonal changes during puberty. When it occurs, pores in the skin can become blocked, resulting in the typical “blackheads” or “whiteheads”.

Bacterial Activity  

Bacteria are a second element believed to play a role in acne. While there are many bacteria naturally present on and in the skin, scientists most commonly point the finger to one culprit with the name of Propionibacterium acnes. Like sebum, it is perfectly natural and found even on the skin of non-affected individuals.  

So how does Propionibacterium acnes impact acne? Experts believe that as skin pores become blocked by excessive sebum the bacterium becomes trapped within. Here it multiplies, leading the body to over-react to this growing bacterial culture.

The impact of bacteria in the story is further borne out by two important facts. Firstly, antibiotics are an effective and proven treatment for reducing the severity of acne in many people.

Secondly, laboratory studies have shown that Propionibacterium acnes can stimulate an inflammatory response in humans, which we then see as spots.

Inflammatory Responses By the Body

Excessive sebum production, blocked pores and the proliferation of skin bacteria that follows can all contribute to the final element - an allergic reaction by the body. We see this as inflammation, which helps to explain why zits can look red and sore.

The end result of this analysis is one unavoidable fact: inflammation is a central part of acne. If we can find effective ways to reduce inflammation then, in turn, we may positively impact the severity and frequency of acne.

Evidence for the Effect of Cod Liver Oil on Inflammation

Cod liver oil has long been a popular supplement among those with joint conditions. Its popularity is believed to result from its anti-inflammatory properties, reducing swelling and heat. But how much evidence is there really for the anti-inflammatory properties of fish oil and omega 3?

One study examined a group of proteins known as “interleukins”. These are commonly produced by the body in response to stress, and can act as chemical signals for the body to raise an inflammatory response. Students undergoing the high-stress exam period were found to have 14% lower interleukin levels when given omega 3 oils, compared to the control group, suggesting strong anti-inflammatory properties.

Similar findings have been confirmed elsewhere. One set of study results demonstrated  that “a high intake of omega-3 fatty acids can inhibit the production of proinflammatory cytokines”. However, this particular study took the matter further, looking at the impact of cod liver oil on inflammation. They found that a diet high in omega 3 down-regulated the production of a chemical known as “LTB4”. According to the experts, LTB4 “is widely known as a substance that regulates sebum production”.

In other words, the evidence from this research suggests that omega 3 found in cod liver oil may even reduce the rate of sebum production. This in turn has the potential to positively impact acne.  

A meta-analysis, considered to be the “gold standard” of scientific investigation, pooled the results from dozens of previous studies. The collated results demonstrated that the omega 3 fats found in cod liver oil have the potential to benefit all manner of inflammation-related health conditions including rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease. As we’ve already discussed, acne can also be considered an inflammatory condition, so should likely see improvements with the provision of fish oil.

While the above examples are only a handful of notable examples from the many studies, the general message from within the scientific community is that:

●    Cod liver oil is rich in omega 3 fats
●    Omega 3 fats down-regulate inflammation

Specific Acne-Related Results of Cod Liver Oil Supplementation

While the link between omega 3 fats and inflammation seems quite well established, the final part of the puzzle is whether this translates into a direct effect on acne. Here, sadly, there is far less published research. Less, perhaps, but there are still glimpses from the scientific community...

One - sadly small-scale - study provided acne sufferers with three grams of fish oil per day for a period of 12 weeks. The resultant changes observed were far from uniform. On the one hand, the researchers claimed that “the individuals who showed improvement… were classified as having moderate to severe acne at baseline”. In contrast, individuals with only very mild acne had far more varied results, often showing no improvement whatsoever.

A second larger study provided patients with either a combination of omega 3 fat and linolenic acid or a placebo. Here the results were far clearer. After just 10 weeks “acne lesions decreased significantly” on average in those participants receiving the active treatment.

So why the stark differences when compared against the previous study? Firstly, of course, it could have been the inclusion of linolenic acid in the form of starflower oil in the second study.

A second equally plausible answer for this disparity is that the doses used in the second study were far higher. The first study provided just 930mg of the fatty acid EPA, while the second used 2,000mg. In other words, the second study used more than twice the volume of fish oil. Bearing in mind the larger sample size these results are likely to be more accurate than those of the first, so paint a more convincing picture.

Lastly, we can relate the results of a study from North Carolina which compared the dietary intake of fish (and - by extension - omega 3 fats) with the prevalence of acne. The results of 1,000 teenagers demonstrated that “people who consume large amounts of fish… have less symptoms of acne”.

Conclusion: Does Cod Liver Oil Really Help Acne?

While conclusive evidence of a direct link between cod liver oil and acne may elude us at present, there is significant research illustrating each intermediate step. We know that inflammation is a crucial part of acne. We also know that cod liver oil is rich in omega 3, and that this can help to reduce inflammation in the body. Putting the pieces together it does seem that there is a logical and realistic link.

Lastly, while there is a disappointing dearth of research specifically illuminating the direct impact of cod liver oil on acne, some hopeful findings have been published; it seems that a higher dose is likely to be more beneficial. In all cases, the positive impacts have been seen by consuming cod liver oil rather than using it externally as a salve.

Due to the lack of solid research at present it isn’t possible to provide a meaningful beneficial dosage. Furthermore, readers should be aware that most studies observed results over a period of 10-12 weeks. As a result, should you do decide to try cod liver oil for acne you’ll not only need to be patient but you may also need to experiment with the volume used until you find a dose that works for you.

In conclusion, cod liver oil is unlikely to do any harm, and may well offer benefits for acne-sufferers. This seems especially so in more serious cases.