Spend five minutes searching “how to get better skin” on Google, and you’ll find approximately one-billion creams, potions, yoga poses, and meditative chants, all “guaranteed” to get rid of bumps, zits, and redness, while leaving you looking like Cate Blanchett after a day at the spa.
But one of the most-recommended routes for fixing all of your skin ailments is supplements, regular ol’ supplements that you can buy from the drugstore or on Amazon. “Vitamin D cured my adult acne!” writes one Reddit user; “Spearmint stopped my hormonal acne!!” writes another. And in those comments, you’ll find even more supplement recommendations, each one with dozens of OMG-worthy claims of magic.
But before you start ingesting a ton of unknown ingredients in an effort to literally change the inner workings of your body, I encourage you to hold up a second, and, instead, listen to what a real doctor has to say about the top-rated supplements. And surprise: Some actually do work.
THE SUPPLEMENT: SPEARMINT
DOSAGE: One 400mg capsule a day, or two cups of spearmint tea a day
WHAT IT DOES: Treats hormonal, cystic acne, by reducing testosterone, the hormone that contributes to cystic acne in women
DOES IT WORK: Although there’s tons and tons of anecdotal evidence on Reddit and the internet at large about spearmint’s efficacy, there haven’t been any long-term studies conducted, so, from a medical standpoint, it’s hard to definitively say. “The best study we have is from 2015, where women with excess testosterone demonstrated a reduction in testosterone levels after drinking two cups of spearmint tea a day for 30 days,” says Melissa Kanchanapoomi Levin, MD, NYC-based dermatologist and clinical attending at NYU Langone and Mount Sinai Hospital. “Still, it’s definitely encouraging that spearmint has the potential to be a natural treatment for hormonal acne in women.”
THE SUPPLEMENT: VITAMIN D
DOSAGE: Between 1,000 and 1,500 IU a day
WHAT IT DOES: Reduces inflammatory pimples (AKA non-blackheads and whiteheads)
DOES IT WORK: “Vitamin D has been a controversial and hot topic in dermatology for the past several years, due to its role in the natural immune pathways of the skin,” says Dr. Levin, noting that although we do know that low levels of vitamin D have been linked with hair loss, heart disease, bone loss, and more, it’s not necessarily the cause of—or cure for—your acne.
However, there is some truth to the hype: In 2016, a small Korean study found that patients with acne were more vitamin-D deficient than people without acne, and, when given daily vitamin D supplements (1,000 IU) for two months, saw a 35-percent decrease in acne. Of course, more studies will need to be conducted before doctors readily prescribe vitamin D supplements to non-deficient patients. Plus, if you spend your days outdoors and in the sun, you most likely already produce enough active vitamin D to negate taking supplements.
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THE SUPPLEMENT: EVENING PRIMROSE OIL
DOSAGE: 1,300mg a day
WHAT IT DOES: Treats eczema, psoriasis, and cystic acne
DOES IT WORK: “Evening primrose oil contains gamma-linolenic acid, GLA, which is an important essential fatty acid in the skin, and has been extensively studied with more than 27 studies,” says Dr. Levin. “Unfortunately, none of the studies found that it was able to really improve eczema or rosacea, and more research is needed to see if it helps with acne.”
Still, we do know that omega-6 fatty acids, such as GLA, play a crucial role in hormonal function in the body, and when you consume them through supplements, they have the possibility of helping regulate your hormones, which can reduce cystic acne. If you can’t tell, there’s a lot of vague qualifiers here, because obviously, the science is iffy. But based on anecdotal evidence, people swear by evening primrose oil not only for their skin, but for their PMS too, which is a win win in my book.
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THE SUPPLEMENT: ZINC
DOSAGE: 30-40mg a day
WHAT IT DOES: Treats oily skin and reduces cystic, inflammatory acne
DOES IT WORK: “Zinc supplements have been seen to be effective in more severe forms of acne as an anti-inflammatory, but they’re still less effective than oral antibiotics,” says Dr. Levin, noting that although doctors “don’t fully understand why or how it works, it can still be an alternative treatment from antibiotics to reduce inflammation, if patients are interested.” Still, you need to work with your doctor on these supplements, as there can be some side effects, notes Dr. Levin, like nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and headaches.
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THE SUPPLEMENT: GUGULIPID
DOSAGE: Talk to your doctor (sorry)
WHAT IT DOES: Reduces cystic acne and classic acne
DOES IT WORK: “Gugulipid is an extract from a plant found in India that has been reported to have some improvement on acne since the 1990s, so it’s not a new supplement that has been recently discovered,” says Dr. Levin. Which, you know, is kind of comforting, but, at the same time, means it’s clearly not a magical cure, or it’d be recommended on the daily by every dermatologist in the world.
Plus, says Dr. Levin, gugulipid can have estrogen-like effects on the body, so it’s seriously important not to take this one at home without chatting with your doctor, first. I know, I know—this isn’t helpful if you’re already trying to avoid the doctor’s office, but it can seriously mess with your health (and your birth control pills), if you take it without discussing it, first.
INTERNET FAVORITE: Nope, sorry—go talk to your doctor!
THE BOTTOM LINE
But how quickly will all these supplements work, you ask? Uh, tough to say. “Because there’s a lack of many standardized studies, it’s difficult to determine how long or how much you should be taking before seeing an improvement,” says Dr. Levin. But, based on my totally unscientific studying of literally every single ode to these supplements, three months tends to be the standard length of time when people start really noticing a difference.
Still, please remember that even though you can buy these pills over the counter next to the toothpaste aisle, it doesn’t mean they’re totally harmless. “Supplements or herbal remedies need to be discussed and reviewed with your physician, due to the potential side effects and interactions with other medications you may be taking,” says Dr. Levin. And yes, those interactions could be as small as an upset stomach to as big as rendering your birth control useless, or worse—damaging your organs. So be smart, make a doctor’s appointment, and then buy all of the (approved) supplements your little heart desires.