Acne is a disorder of the glands which lubricate the skin, called sebaceous glands. When these glands become blocked, bacteria overgrow and causes skin lesions. It is one of the most prevalent skin conditions, primarily affecting teenagers.
Acne is characterized by pimples, scaly red skin, blackheads, whiteheads, pinheads and large papules. The most nocuous form of acne is called cystic acne, which develops internally beneath the skin; whereas most other forms of acne are more topical.
Traditional treatment of cystic acne requires both a topical and internal approach. This is why many have chosen to go on oral antibiotics, or in more severe cases, Accutane. Both of these treatments come with risks. For instance, antibiotics that are effective in killing bacteria also increase the risk of causing bacterial resistance. Accutane can occasionally have serious side effects, including dry and scaly skin, headaches and an inability to properly digest triglycerides. In addition, Accutane may cause liver damage; therefore, blood work is necessary per month as a precautionary measure. This is where vitamin D may have great value.
Vitamin D and Acne
Acne is often seasonal, with the winter months sometimes seeing the most severe disease and summer (when vitamin D levels are higher), a significant improvement.
Founder and Medical Director of the Vitamin D Council, Dr. John Cannell, wrote,
“When I was a teen, my acne almost disappeared in the summer. I thought it was the salty water I swam in, but not so. It improved in the summer regardless of any salt water exposure.”
Furthermore, there is evidence that vitamin D supplements, if given in physiological doses, has a remarkable treatment effect on acne. The first (and highest quality) study published on this was in 1938 by Dr. Maynard; you can access the entire paper here:
Dr. Maynard wrote:
“There is probably no skin disease of greater importance to the human race than acne. It is undoubtedly our commonest skin disease, and it is rare that any individual reaches maturity without having had it in one of its phases. It is a disease of considerable economic importance, as the disfiguring scars of a severe case are never completely obliterated. It is also a disease of youth. It attains its most noxious form at the time the individual first has to earn his own living. It is undoubtedly responsible for many failures in getting business positions. It is also the basis for inferiority complexes and discouragement in young people.”
Dr. Maynard treated hundreds of patients with 8,000 to 14,000 IU/day. After several months, he reported:
“I believe I may say that at no time in my dermatological experience have I felt such complete satisfaction with a treatment as I have with the cases of this series. I know that vitamin D is an imperfect weapon to slay this disfiguring disease, but it undoubtedly gives one a feeling of being well defended. From the patient’s viewpoint, it has left little to be desired, as they find themselves improving, both in appearance and in general well-being. Many have expressed the sentiment, ‘Never felt better.’”
Moving forward, a randomized controlled trial (RCT) published in 2016 found that low doses of vitamin D (1,000 IU/day; 25 mcg) has a treatment effect on acne.
These researchers evaluated the vitamin D levels in 80 patients with acne and 80 healthy controls. The participants had their vitamin D levels measured at baseline and after treatment. Here is what the researchers found:
- A total of 48.8% of patients with acne were vitamin D deficient; whereas, only 22.5% of healthy controls were deficient (P = 0.019).
- Serum 25(OH)D levels were inversely associated with the severity of acne (P = 0.002).
- Vitamin D status was negatively associated with the presence of inflammatory lesions (P < 0.001).
After the initial observation, the 39 vitamin D deficient patients with acne entered a subsequent blinded controlled trial in which the patients were randomly assigned to receive a low dose of vitamin D3, 1,000 IU (25 mcg) drop per day (n = 20) or a daily placebo drop (n = 19) for a period of two months. The patients were assessed by three independent, blinded dermatologists at baseline, and after weeks two, four and eight. The acne severity was determined according to the global acne grading system (GAGS).
Here is what the researchers discovered:
- Vitamin D supplementation significantly increased 25(OH)D (P < 0.001) and was associated with an improvement in clinical severity compared to the placebo group.
- Those who supplemented with vitamin D experienced a decreased presence of inflammatory lesions compared to the control group (P < 0.05).
- After 8 weeks of treatment, inflammatory lesions in the vitamin D group decreased by 34.6% compared to only 5.8% in the control group.
It is amazing that such a low dose had an effect on acne. Dr. Maynard, 60 years ago, had a much better understanding of how to dose vitamin D (8,000 to 14,000 IU/day). In the Korean study, the low dose of 1,000 IU/day (25 mcg) only increased 25(OH)D from 12 to 16 ng/ml. Also, it appears from this study that otherwise normal Korean teenagers have an average vitamin D level of 12 ng/ml!
If you are a teenager or adult with acne, the Vitamin D Council recommends supplementing with 5,000 IU (125 mcg) to 10,000 IU (250 mcg)/day of vitamin D, depending on your weight (higher weight individuals may require more vitamin D). In 2 months, have your vitamin D levels tested. If your levels are below 60 ng/ml, increase your vitamin D intake by small increments until your vitamin D blood level is around 70 ng/ml. It may take about 2-3 months to begin to experience an improvement. However, maximum improvement may not occur for 5-6 months.
If have supplemented with vitamin D to help manage your acne, we would love to hear your story. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org to share your experience.
John Cannell, MD. Health condition: Acne. The Vitamin D Council Blog & Newsletter, November 13, 2017.
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