Spirulina for Acne: The Truth Behind the Myths
Spirulina has been associated with all manner of health benefits in recent years, but one of the most intriguing suggestions is that it may help with cases of acne. In this article we're going to investigate the reality behind this claim, asking whether spirulina really does help acne, and if so, how?
What is Spirulina?
Spirulina is a microscopic filamentous alga which is typically blue/green in colour. It has long been recognised for its nutritional properties, and as it contains over 150 different nutrients it has sometimes been referred to as the most “complete” food available.
Spirulina is rich in both protein and healthy fats, contains a number of well-known antioxidants like beta-carotene and vitamin E, and offers a host of beneficial minerals. Little wonder then that spirulina is being referred to as a “superfood” by many authorities.
How Does Spirulina Help With Acne?
Let's start digging into the science behind spirulina to see what rigorous investigations tell us about spirulina's impact on the skin, particularly with regards to acne.
Affects Sebum Production
At the root of acne are glands in your skin known as “sebaceous glands”. These glands produce a substance known as “sebum”; an oily or waxy substance that typically keeps the skin moist and flexible. All of us - even individuals without acne - produce such a substance.
Problems occur, however, when too much sebum is produced. This leads to the classic “oily skin” of many acne sufferers. Worse, excess sebum can also result in blocked pores, leading to what we know of as “spots” or “zits”.
A fascinating study provided a group of women with two almost identical face creams, the only difference being that one had spirulina added. The participants had no idea which skin cream they were using, but were asked to apply it twice a day over a period of 28 days. On recording the results it was found that “only the formulation containing the active ingredient under study reduced significantly the sebum content on the volunteer's skin”.
While this is just one experiment, so the results should be considered with caution, at least under these circumstances it seems that this is a very powerful way in which spirulina may be able to positively influence acne.
What is particularly encouraging about this research is that it demonstrates how spirulina has the potential to treat the root cause of acne rather than merely dealing with one or two lesser symptoms.
Reduces Skin Inflammation
We have already seen that excessive sebum production plays a central role in cases of acne. However, there is an additional element worthy of consideration: inflammation.
When the sebaceous glands become blocked, the bacteria that are present in your pores can start to build up. This, in turn, leads to the body initiating an inflammatory response to try and deal with the microbes. It is this inflammation that contributes to acne looking red and swollen.
Interestingly, it seems that spirulina can also positively impact this element. For example, scientists have noted that taking 2 grams of spirulina per day for a 12 week period down-regulated allergies in test subjects, leading to significantly reduced inflammation.
The research to date therefore seems to suggest that spirulina can benefit two of the most important pathways through which acne arises. This is, however, far from the whole story as we will see…
Offers Exceptional Levels of Protein
Studies have shown that spirulina is between 50% to 70% protein by dry weight. This is an astonishingly high level, and is roughly 3-4 times higher than “classic” protein sources like beef or fish.
Protein plays a huge number of different roles in the body. One of these is that they are used as the building blocks for making muscles, collagen and - you guessed it - your skin. Ensuring you consume enough protein is therefore crucial for keeping your skin healthy and supple.
While there is no evidence that consuming high-protein foods will necessarily benefit acne directly, keeping your skin plump, healthy and youthful certainly won't do you any harm.
Helps to Improve Skin Hydration
Spirulina is rich in essential fatty acids, which make up around 11% of its dry weight. These are “good” fats that have a range of positive influences on health, but many of us aren't getting enough in our diets. Chemical analyses have shown that the most dominant of these fatty acids is gamma linolenic acid - also known as γ-linolenic acid or GLA.
GLA has been extensively studied in rigorous scientific investigations and has demonstrated a number of positive health outcomes, including improvements in skin quality.
In one study, which took place over 10 weeks, 45 volunteers suffering from acne took 400mg of GLA per day. Researchers assessed their acne both before and after the study period, and noted that their skin condition improved markedly when compared with the placebo group. They concluded that GLA “could be used as [a] treatment for acne patients”.
Elsewhere, researchers in Korea noted that patients receiving a GLA-rich supplement for 12 weeks experienced better skin hydration, which was also reflected in less dry skin, irritation and itchiness.
Combined, these are exciting results. It seems that the gamma linolenic acid contained in spirulina helps to support the layer of the skin responsible for retaining moisture known as the stratum corneum. In doing so, the skin stays healthier, better hydrated and demonstrates improved elasticity. Such impacts can be beneficial for acne sufferers, but also for anyone that wants to keep their skin healthy.
Supports Cell Division
The cells that make up your body are in a constant state of flux, with old cells dying and new ones replacing them. This process, of course, relies on cells dividing and multiplying. The cells of your skin can be particularly at risk, as everything from environmental pollutants to everyday scratching and rubbing can hasten this turnover of cells. It is this process that also helps grazes, cuts and other minor wounds to heal in a timely fashion.
One of spirulina's many claims to fame is that it offers exceptionally high levels of vitamin B12, which is known to play a central role in cell replication, therefore helping to keep the skin and hair in optimal condition.
For acne sufferers, a healthy intake of vitamin B12 from spirulina may therefore also help to ensure that your skin heals quickly after any bout of spots you may suffer from.
Offers Potent Antioxidant Protection
Spirulina is truly astonishing in terms of its antioxidant properties. Firstly, the algae obtains it's colouration from a unique pigment known as “Phycocyanin”. This substance, naturally found in no other living organism, has been shown to have strong antioxidant properties.
At the same time, however, this protective effect is further enhanced by the presence of other, equally potent substances. For example, spirulina is rich in vitamin E and has 40 times more beta-carotene than spinach.
These antioxidant properties mean that spirulina has the potential to protect your skin from free radical damage, helping to keep your skin young-looking and healthy. It has also been suggested that this exceptional level of antioxidant protection may also help to explain just how effective spirulina is at fighting inflammation in the body.
Encourages Skin Elasticity
A group of 44 volunteers were presented with two different sunscreens - one standard off-the-shelf formulation and one to which spirulina had been added. None of the participants were aware of which version they had received, but were asked to exclusively use their designated sunscreen during normal summer activity.
The study ran for 84 days, after which each participant had their skin condition assessed. The individuals that had been using the antioxidant-rich spirulina formula experienced less “collagen degradation” and as a result they benefited from improved skin elasticity.
Once again, while skin elasticity isn't directly related to acne it does add further weight to the more general benefits of spirulina for the skin.
The internet is awash with natural remedies for acne. Sadly, many of these are little more than wishful thinking, and have little or no scientific backing at all. The evidence gathered to date, however, suggests that spirulina is an altogether different offering.
From controlling sebum production, to reducing inflammation, to protecting your skin from free radical damage, spirulina seems to offer a plethora of potential activities for improving acne. So, while there are no guarantees that any acne treatment will work for everyone, there is at least a healthy volume of evidence to suggest that spirulina has a very real potential to help with such conditions. Why not give it a try today?