Cod liver oil, a rich source of vitamin A, vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids, is touted by some people as a must-have dietary supplement to tackle skin issues. There's little scientific evidence that dietary cod liver oil benefits your skin, but it likely won't harm it.
If you have specific skin concerns, you can consult a dermatologist about the best course of action to resolve them. There are a number of over-the-counter and prescription remedies for common skin issues like acne, scarring and eczema.
There’s no definitive evidence that cod liver oil benefits the skin. Instead, talk to your dermatologist about a topical treatment for acne, psoriasis, scarring and dry skin.
What Is Cod Liver Oil?
Cod liver oil is exactly what it sounds like — oil taken from the livers of cod fish. This dietary supplement, available in liquid and capsule forms, provides vitamin A, vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids. Cod liver oil is particularly rich in the omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Dosage of these nutrients varies from brand to brand.
One serving of Nordic Naturals Arctic Cod Liver Oil capsules provides 25 calories, 3 grams of fat, 10 milligrams of cholesterol, 30 micrograms of RAE vitamin A, 240 milligrams of EPA, 360 milligrams of DHA and 150 milligrams of other omega-3s.
A serving of Carlson Labs Cod Liver Oil Gems provides 10 calories, 1 gram of fat, 15 milligrams of cholesterol, 600 micrograms of RAE vitamin A, 10 micrograms of vitamin D, 6.7 milligrams of vitamin E and 250 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids, including 100 milligrams of DHA and 80 milligrams of EPA.
One serving of 21st Century Norwegian Cod Liver Oil provides 375 micrograms of vitamin A, 3 micrograms of vitamin D3, 28 milligrams of EPA and 24 milligrams of DHA.
Cod Liver Oil and Skin
Some cod liver oil capsules contain vitamin A and vitamin D. Both of these vitamins have uses for skin health when applied as topical creams or ointments rather than taken as a dietary supplement. You may have read anecdotal accounts that taking cod liver oil benefits your skin, but the evidence for this is limited.
Topical vitamin D can be used to treat psoriasis and dry or itchy skin. Vitamin A and its derived compounds are known as retinoids, and these substances are common topical skin treatments for acne. According to the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University, topical retinoids can also reduce signs of photoaging like wrinkles and fine lines.
Cod liver oil capsules are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, and the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements says that an omega-3 deficiency can cause rough, scaly skin. You can correct a deficiency by eating foods rich in omega-3s, or by taking supplements recommended by a physician.
Cod Liver Oil for Acne
There's little reliable evidence that taking dietary supplements of cod liver oil improves acne. Plus, research on fish oil for skin more generally has been inconclusive. Available studies on the topic are often small and outdated.
One study on the topic was published in the journal Lipids in Health and Disease in July 2012. Researchers gave fish oil supplements to 13 healthy men suffering from inflammatory acne, and the results were mixed: The acne improved for eight people, got worse for four people and stayed the same in one person. The small sample size and mixed results make this an inconclusive study.
The Mayo Clinic acknowledges that taking fish oil is a potential alternative medicine treatment for acne, along with other treatments like topical tea tree oil, brewer's yeast and oral zinc supplements. According to the clinic, further research is necessary to establish whether these alternative treatments are effective and safe in the long term.
Effective Acne Treatments
Acne is caused by inflammation of the hair follicles and oil-producing glands in your skin called sebaceous glands. Harvard Health explains that when sebaceous glands are overstimulated, hair follicles get blocked by oil and skin cells that haven't shed. Bacteria inside the blocked hair follicle then multiplies.
- Whiteheads, which are closed plugged pores
- Blackheads, which are open plugged pores
- Papules, small bumps that may be red or tender to the touch
- Pustules, which are papules that have pus at their tips
Instead of using cod liver oil for acne, try recommended treatments like topical retinoids and antibiotics. Retinoids prevent your hair follicles from clogging, while antibiotics kill excess skin bacteria. Another option is salicylic acid, which may also prevent hair follicles from clogging.
Other Skin Therapies
If medication is not the right option for you, a dermatologist may recommend a skin therapy to treat whatever issue you're dealing with. However, always research a skin therapy provider before having any procedures done.
A chemical peel removes the damaged outer layers of your skin. This can make your skin look softer and brighter and in some cases can improve skin texture. Some cosmetic peels can improve the appearance of scarring, including pitted scars from acne.
Laser therapy can help diminish wrinkles and make your skin appear younger. Laser therapy can also be used to even out pigmentation, diminishing the appearance of dark spots or light spots.
Tips for Healthy Skin
If you're concerned about your skin and are looking for ways to improve your skin health, there are plenty of doctor-recommended steps you can take:
- Avoid sun damage. You can do this by wearing sunscreen every day (even during cloudy days), seeking shade when it's extremely hot outside and wearing protective clothing like a sun hat, sunglasses and a long-sleeved shirt or coverup.
- Stay moisturized. To prevent dry skin, use moisturizer. You can also consider keeping showers or baths short and cool in temperature to prevent the loss of oils from your skin.
- Lipids in Health and Disease: "Effects of Fish Oil Supplementation on Inflammatory Acne"
- Oregon State University: Linus Pauling Institute: "Vitamin A and Skin Health"
- National Institutes of Health: Office of Dietary Supplements: "Omega-3 Fatty Acids"
- Nordic Naturals: "Arctic Cod Liver Oil"
- Carlson Labs: "Cod Liver Oil Gems"
- 21st Century: "Norwegian Cod Liver Oil"
- Harvard Health: "Acne"
- Mayo Clinic: "Acne"
- SmokeFree.gov: "Health Effects"
- American Academy of Dermatology: "When It Comes to Skin Health, Does Diet Make a Difference?"
- Mayo Clinic: "Acne Treatment"