The science of vitamin pills and supplements has faced some serious criticism recently. Especially for vitamin C (there is no evidence that taking it when you have a cold does anything much). Most of a vitamin pill is excreted before it is absorbed, and the details of your diet can change how complex vitamins are absorbed drastically.
Needless to say, the issue is complicated. The science is rapidly changing and there are competing claims wherever you look. There are plenty of sites on the web that are touting vitamins as the neglected cure for acne, or trying to sell you their special vitamins for acne formulations, but how do you know what and who to trust?
Thankfully, for someone who is prepared to read an article like this and is suffering from acne, there are enough facts out there that you can make properly informed decisions regarding whether to use vitamins for acne or not.
Vitamins are essential chemicals the body needs but cannot produce. Other creatures or plants do, thankfully, so we eat them and our bodily processes can continue letting us live. Without them, we will become extremely ill and then die. “Essential oils” are not essential. Vitamins are.
A human body can survive for a long time with vitamin deficiencies before it dies. Years sometimes. If it gets some but not enough it is very good at making them last, but vitamin levels do need regular topping up if we are to get the most from our bodies.
It has probably not escaped your notice that the modern Western diet, is not one designed for living very long or healthily. High fat, salt and sugar diets are literally killing us, but one thing that is not so well discussed is nutrient deficiency. A lot of people who are overweight or obese look like they are eating too much food, so you might expect that they have too many vitamins. This is often not the case, however, as people who eat unhealthy diets often miss green vegetables and whole grains that contain the vitamins they need.
It was thought for a long time that diet had little to do with acne breakouts. However, recent studies have shown that a low-glycemic diet can help reduce acne levels in some people. This is promising, but it is not vitamins.
Using vitamins for acne looks like a good idea but it is very difficult to sift fact from fiction in this area. One study puts it succinctly: “It turns out that there are no meta-analyses, randomized controlled clinical studies, or well-designed scientific trials that follow evidence-based guidelines for providing solid proof in dealing with this issue.”
This should not daunt the reader, however. Stick with this article and we shall take you through all the major vitamins that can help with clearing acne.
If you are familiar with most common treatments for acne, you have probably seen retinoids on the back of the packaging. These are amongst the most successful acne fighting treatments and are relatively cheap.
Another name for retinol is vitamin A. Retinoids are related chemicals that are found either naturally in the body or are produced as a part of the body’s metabolic process. Consuming vitamin A looks like it could help with one of the causes of acne: the production of sebum. This is the oil the skin produces in excess during adolescence and sometimes during a person’s life, especially if they are stressed. Sebum buildup in follicles, causes them to become blocked with dead skin cells, and acne appears. Vitamin A is essential to the health of the skin. Deficiencies can cause blindness in children but also dry skin, hair, and broken fingernails in the early stages. It is stored in the liver and is also found in the sebaceous glands, which have retinoid receptors. The link between retinol, retinoids and carotenoids, and skin health is well known.
According to one meta-analysis of vitamins for acne, “13-cis-retinoic acid (RA) is the only drug that targets all four pathogenic factors of acne and is the most efficient in sebum suppression”. It is thought (though not entirely understood at the current time) that vitamin A metabolism produces RA. It follows that ensuring the body has enough vitamin A will help it cope with acne.
Vitamin A and D are thought to act like skin hormones, reacting with cells, altering their behaviour and becoming inactivated. Their full role in the growth, proliferation and death of cells is still not well understood, but it is fairly appropriate to say that a hormonal imbalance is likely to disrupt this regulation drastically.
Vitamin A is fat soluble. If you have a very low-fat diet, you are unlikely to be absorbing enough vitamin A. Olive oil can be an excellent mediator of retinol, so if you choose to use a retinol supplement, consuming it with a vegetable oil will help it be absorbed properly.
Large quantities of vitamin A are very bad for you. Taking oral vitamin A does not give the same effect as applying a topical vitamin A preparation, which can avoid the toxicity issues. Taking retinoids like tazarotene and adapalene instead of retinol could be the best way of getting the right vitamin A metabolites. Supplemental vitamin A can be dangerous, so talk to your doctor before you try to administer it yourself.
The relationship between vitamin D and the skin is immediately clear. Humans get most of their vitamin D from their skin using sunlight to produce the vitamin. People with dark skin usually need to take vitamin D supplements when they are living in northerly or southerly climes because they need more sunlight to produce enough vitamin D.
It is a relationship that goes deeper than this. Many people notice that their acne improves on holiday. One of the reasons for this is that they are less stressed and probably eating better food. Another reason is that their skin is producing lots of vitamin D, which has an effect on keratinocytes, which are cells known to affect the proliferation of acne.
As many as 41% of the American population is possibly vitamin D deficient. This is due to lifestyles that involve staying indoors for most of the day, and because of poor diets. In one relatively small study published recently, vitamin D deficiency was found in nearly half of patients with acne, but only in about 22% of the control group, who were healthy. This links deficiency in vitamin D with acne. Another study has found that people with nodulocystic acne have lower levels of vitamin D than healthy controls.
It seems relatively straightforward therefore that vitamin D supplements, or, far more preferably, going outside and enjoying the sunshine, can help with acne. Vitamin D is an all-around good thing to take; it has anti-cancer properties, helps mop up free radicals, and helps the immune system remain healthy, helping it fight off acne.
Less well understood than vitamins A and D, vitamin E is nonetheless an essential part of healthy metabolism. It is apparently delivered onto the skin by the sebaceous glands, which we know are related to acne in a significant way. Vitamin E is thought to prevent “lipid peroxidation” of sebum with its antioxidant effect; this prevents inflammation. It is thought to be a good way to treat acne because it normalizes skin. Vitamin E is often administered with retinoids but does not reduce the side effects of large quantities of retinoids.
This might be the vitamin to avoid getting too much of. One recent study has found that vitamin B12 appears to play a role in the way skin bacteria interacted with the host human. This interaction is essential to the healthy functioning of the skin, so by injecting large quantities of B12, you could be disrupting this and contributing to the development of acne
A Word about Vitamin Supplements
The vast majority of vitamin supplements will end up in the toilet. Your body knows exactly how much it needs and only takes enough. It cannot store vitamins very well (or at all in some cases) so it needs constant replenishment. If you take a vitamin supplement that has over 100% of your recommended daily allowance of that vitamin, you are essentially wasting the vitamin. Your body will not absorb it and you will excrete it with the rest of your body’s waste. Conversely, vitamin A is toxic in large doses, so getting the right amount is crucial.
How to get Vitamins in the Right Way
By far the best way of getting vitamins for acne into your body in a way that they will be properly absorbed is by eating vegetables that are rich in these vitamins. For vitamin D, going outside and enjoying some time in the sun (with adequate protection of course) is a very effective way of reducing stress and producing vitamin D. If this is not possible, or your skin does not produce enough vitamin D, supplements are available. Milk products contain calcium, which is essential for vitamin D metabolism. Unfortunately, some studies have found that milk products are sometimes bad for acne, so getting calcium from other sources might be necessary.
Vitamin A is dangerous in large quantities, so ensure your doctor has given you a prescription and discussed everything at length before you take it. Grass-fed beef is usually high in carotenoids, precursors to vitamin A. Vitamin A is found in relatively large quantities in beef, eggs, fish oils and liver. Mostly it is found in green leafy vegetables, orange or yellow vegetables like carrots, tomatoes, some fruits, and vegetable oil.
Vitamin absorption is a complex matter. Supplements are far from ideal as they might not be biologically available (eg. Vitamin A) and be absorbed at a poor rate. The best method for obtaining the right vitamins for acne is to improve your diet. Lots of green vegetables, good fibre, some unprocessed meat, fruit and fewer sugars will make a diet that is healthy in many ways, not just in terms of vitamins for acne.
Talk to Your Doctor
When treating acne, the best person to talk to is your doctor about vitamins for acne. They can advise on treatment to help you get clear skin and help keep you safe.