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If you suffer from acne or semi-regular breakouts, chances are you’ve tried a lot of different treatments in the name of better skin. From snail slime masks to a dairy-free diet, we’ll give anything a shot if we think it might banish the bumps. The beauty aisles are positively bursting with options to try, with what seems like new wonder products arriving on the scene each day. The latest trend to hit the skin-clearing streets? Acne supplements.
In the last six months, ingestible products made with ingredients like probiotics, zinc, vitamin A, and spearmint have been steadily gaining popularity with people desperate to find something, anything, to help minimize the severity and frequency of their breakouts Oftentimes billed as natural alternatives to the usual derm-recommended oral antibiotics or spironolactone, these products lean in to the idea that diet and nutrition have a big part to play in the health of our skin.
For anyone stuck in the vicious cycle of adult acne, nutritional supplements with acne-fighting ingredients seem like a dream come true. But, do they actually work? The supplement market is famously unregulated and many companies have learned how to fly under the FDA’s radar with their claims and ingredients.
In an effort to uncover if there is any truth to the trend, we spoke to dermatologists and nutrition experts about the link between diet and skin and if adding these ingredients to your diet can have a meaningful impact on your skin. Keep reading for their expert advice and to learn about the most promising products available now.
The Link Between Diet & Breakouts
We know that a healthy diet is key for optimal body functions, and skin experts say that extends to your skin. ““Food is truly medicine and what we eat matters immensely,” explains Dr. Tiffany Lester, a functional medicine doctor and The Nue Co.’s medical advisor. “[Our skin] needs essential micronutrients to be able to be glowy and clear.”
We also need to stay away from certain foods to avoid flare-ups, notes board certified dermatologist and MMSkincare founder Dr. Ellen Marmur. “According to the American Academy of Dermatology, foods that cause your blood sugar to rise quickly, such as white bread and fries, may worsen acne, due to the glucose insulin pathway's effect on other hormones," she explains. "When insulin levels spike after eating food, the body makes androgens like testosterone to reduce the insulin spike, but this worsens acne.”
What Foods Will Clear Up Acne?
If only it were that simple. While we know what foods have the potential to cause breakouts, not as much research has been conducted on what types of foods can have a positive effect on reducing breakouts—or if that’s even possible. Notes Daniel Kaplan, co-founder of ZitSticka, “There’s not a one-size-fits all answer here, given that one person’s internal makeup and nutrient levels isn’t the same as the next. Everyone has a friend with a trash diet whose skin is clear no matter what. But many others will assert that eating excessive amounts of sugar, white carbohydrates and/or dairy can bring about a rise in breakouts—myself included.”
That said, there have been some studies (mostly in Europe) testing ingredients for acne benefits, but nothing conclusive enough for anyone to say they definitively have a positive impact on breakouts.
Where Supplements Come In
At this point, your BS detector might be going off. “If eating healthy and avoiding certain foods can help my skin, what do I need a supplement for?” Fair enough. All our experts agreed that while a healthy diet is a great start, there’s only so much you can actually get in the way of skin benefits via common foods. Explains Dr. Lester, “Even if you are doing the very best you can and eating super clean, it is nearly impossible to receive all the micronutrients you need. Depending on your personalized needs, supplementation is essential for optimal health—including skin health.”
Walter Faulstroh, CEO and Co-Founder of HUM Nutrition, says, “Our motto has always been to start with a healthy diet, but certain nutrients are hard to come by in high amounts—probiotics, digestive enzymes, adaptogens, and healthy fats just to name a few. And that’s where supplementation can really make the difference.”
The Nue Co. founder Jules Miller puts it this way: “We don’t believe that supplements can ever take the place of real food or topical beauty products. Supplements are complimentary, and often heighten the positive effects of a good diet and clean beauty routine.”
Ok, So What Should I Be Taking?
Again, everyone’s nutritional needs are different, meaning there’s no magic bullet ingredient that is going to miraculously transform you into someone with a crystal clear complexion. And that’s not just true for supplements—the majority of prescription acne treatments can be hit or miss. All of which is to say acne treatments—whether they're topical or ingestible, over-the-counter or prescription—are one long game of trial and error.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean you should immediately discount supplements as “expensive pee” just because there isn’t overwhelming evidence. “We have to acknowledge that we don’t know everything," says Dr. Kenneth Howe, a Manhattan dermatologist at Wexler Dermatology and assistant clinical professor at Mount Sinai. "When I question the science behind them, it’s because the science doesn’t exist. It doesn’t mean there is evidence showing it doesn’t work—rather that there isn’t evidence that it does work. That doesn’t mean I’m going to dismiss it.”
If you’ve tried everything else (or you want to avoid the prescription stuff) and as long as your doctor OKs it from a health standpoint, we say: it’s worth a shot, right?
Here are our picks for the four best acne supplements to get rid of breakouts.
Zinc helps with cell production and turnover, so it may prevent cells from being clogged. The hero ingredient in ZitSticka’s funky looking capsule is by no means a new one—zinc can be found in pretty much every multivitamin ever made. That’s because it’s, as Kaplan puts it, “a vital player in your skin’s dietary defense team.” While not a traditional antioxidant, he says, zinc works by fighting damaging free radicals and protecting the skin’s lipids and fibroblasts—the cells that produce the collagen that keeps your skin plump and smooth.
Skin Discipline isn’t your average zinc supplement. “Each serving is a capsule nested within another capsule, with liquid Omega-3 acting as a suspension bridge between the two," explains co-founder Robbie Miller. Omega-3, he notes, is a skin-enhancing ingredient that is usually taken on its own because if combined with other ingredients, it might alter or dilute their actions. “Our nested capsules are able to overcome this limitation, bringing together the most efficacious supplements for cellular-level skin health,” he says.
“Zits happen when a buildup of oil, bacteria, and skin cells come together in an irritating display of solidarity to block your pores, making the skin around the pore turn swollen, sore, and red,” says Kaplan. Because zinc helps with cell production and turnover, he adds, “it can help reduce the amount of oil your skin produces, which prevents pores from becoming clogged in the first place.”
Just be careful not to overdo it, cautions Dr. Howe—ingesting too much zinc for a long period can potentially interfere with the absorption of other vital nutrients, like copper. Dr. Howe recommends trying a zinc supplement for 90 days, then taking a break for 90 days. You can still eat zinc-rich foods—just pause on supplements in an abundance of caution.
The latest launch from holistic wellness brand The Nue Co. isn’t geared for just those with breakouts, although it does claim benefits to both reducing blemishes and helping to fade hyperpigmentation left behind, along with general skin health. “I wanted to create the type of supplement that would make a noticable difference quickly—one that you see daily skin improvements over a short period of time," says Miller.
The answer to that was Skin Filter, which the company bills as working kind of like an “ingestible retinol.” At its core is beta-carotene, an ingredient Miller explains is converted to Vitamin A in our bodies when ingested, and is responsible for stimulating fibroblasts, the cells responsible for developing tissue that keeps our skin firm and healthy at the deepest layer.
The once-a-day capsule claims to address multiple skin concerns, including blemishes, pigmentation, redness, and dull skin, thanks to a proprietary formula containing champagne grapeseed, melon, vitamin C, and zinc. It also has antioxidants amla berry and camu camu to help protect your skin from free radical damage. In terms of breakouts, says Dr. Lester, “Skin Filter is best for breakouts that are due to digestive issues and micronutrient depletion. It also helps with some of the hyperpigmentation that can come from hormonal imbalance.”
You might think humble spearmint is an odd choice for an effective anti-breakout treatment, but according to Dr. Howe, there is some interesting science to back it up. “Spearmint is an anti-androgen—it blocks the production of testosterone," he explains. Higher levels of testosterone production (in men and women) have been linked to acne. So, think of spearmint as a kind of herbal alternative to the prescription anti-androgen, spironolactone.
Barbara Close, founder of herb-centric beauty and wellness brand Naturopathica, took that knowledge and used it to create a tea to be used in conjunction with the company’s new clearing range of topical products. “Spearmint, burdock, and dandelion are clarifying herbs, believed to have antibacterial and purifying benefits for hormonal or cystic acne,” she says. “Rich in vitamins A and C, as well as magnesium, these herbs have been used for centuries for cleansing the body and thus clarifying the skin.” She created the line as an alternative to prescription acne medications, which she says can have harsh and lasting side effects. “Before you take drastic measures, try some of nature’s most trusted allies for healthy skin,” she urges. “That way, you’re working with, not against, the body’s natural processes, so you can find a lasting solution rather than a short-term fix."
With Prebiotics and Probiotics:
For Faulstroh, who went on three courses of Accutane and still experienced severe breakouts, the idea of using nutrition to fight breakouts is the very foundation of his business. “I personally struggled with acne throughout my adult life and only changes in my diet and nutrients from supplements cleared my skin once and for all," he says. With that in mind, Hum recently introduced Skin Squad, a blemish-clearing supplement that looked to the link between gut health and acne. “Certain diets cause inflammation and a poorly functioning digestive system will further aggravate the situation,” he explains.
The answer, according to Sarah Greenfield, RD, and HUM Nutrition's Education Director, was a specialized blend of probiotics. “We included certain strains of probiotics that have been clinically shown to reduce breakouts, non-cystic acne, and extreme dryness,” she says. “For overall immunity, we also added prebiotics and additional probiotic strains that will nurture the entire microbiome.”
Dr. Howe notes that there is some science supporting this—a “theoretical framework” for how probiotics could help with acne: ”What has been shown is that if you take probiotics, you are pumping up your good bacteria in your gut and there is evidence that has an anti-inflammatory effect on the body systemically.” Additionally, some probiotics—including the Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG (LGG) found in Skin Squad—have been shown to directly inhibit the growth of the bacteria that is associated with acne, he says.
One Last Thing
While we’re excited to see the wellness space expand to include potential acne solutions, it is important to remember that the supplement industry is largely unregulated. Do your research on any ingestibles before taking and talk to your doctor to make sure they are safe for you and won’t interact with any current medications.
Finally, remember that there is no magic “cure” for acne. Dr. Howe explains that, outside of Accutane, every type of acne treatment we have (both prescription and OTC) is suppressive, meaning it only works as long as you continue taking it. So have realistic expectations with your products and expectations on what they can do.