Acne has a wide variety of causes. That is why it’s often so difficult to treat.
What works for one person may not work for another.
Furthermore, it is quite rare that 100% of your acne is caused by one single thing (although not impossible). It is for this reason that I advocate for a holistic approach to treating acne.
When you approach things from a holistic perspective, you simultaneously address multiple underlying causes of acne. This is the quickest path to getting and maintaining clear, radiant skin – for life.
One aspect of the holistic approach is to ensure any nutrient deficiencies are addressed. Studies have consistently shown that people with acne have lower levels of key vitamins and nutrients in their system than their non-acne counterparts.
Most nutrient deficiencies can be addressed by eating a nutrient-dense diet and avoiding substances that suck nutrients out of your body (like sugar and alcohol).
But there is one vitamin in particular that everyone should be concerned with (even if you are eating a nutrient-dense diet): Vitamin D.
What Is Vitamin D?
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that doubles as a hormone. It is important for many biological processes in the body (1):
- Promotes calcium absorption in the gut
- Bone growth and strength
- Prevents rickets
- Modulation of cell growth
- Reduces inflammation
- Modulates immune function
Clearly Vitamin D is a power-house player in our bodies. There are even studies that show it is effective at preventing the flu (2).
Compare this to the flu vaccine.
When Vitamin D enters your body either through food or from making it yourself (more on this below) it goes to the liver where it is converted into another form called 25(OH)D (also known as cholecalciferol). 25(OH)D is the form of Vitamin D that gets stored and measured in your body when you get your levels checked.
Once the cells in your body have a need for Vitamin D, 25(OH)D is sent to the cells where it is converted yet again to a different form: 1,25(OH)₂D.
You can think of 1,25(OH)₂D as the “activated” form of Vitamin D. This is when it gets to work doing all of the wonderful things Vitamin D does.
But I don’t want this post to turn into a biology lesson. You’re here for the acne busting benefits of Vitamin D. Let’s get to it.
Vitamin D Fights Inflammation
I mentioned above that Vitamin D reduces inflammation. This is great news for acne sufferers because acne is an inflammatory condition.
But is it strong enough to fight acne? A study conducted in Korea in 2016 seems to indicate so (3).
The goal of this study was to evaluate vitamin D levels in patients with acne to determine the effect of vitamin D supplementation. Korean researchers began by comparing two groups of people: 80 patients with acne and 80 healthy controls.
They found that vitamin D deficiency was significantly higher in patients with acne (48%) compared to healthy controls (22.5%):
Interestingly, the researchers found an inverse relationship between Vitamin D levels and acne severity. In other words, patients with lower levels of Vitamin D had more severe acne:
Next, researchers took the group of acne patients deficient in vitamin D (which was 39 people) and randomly assigned them to one of two groups. The first group received 1000 IU/day of vitamin D supplementation while the other group received a placebo:
After 8 weeks the results were compared between the two groups.
The researchers found a statistically significant increase in vitamin D levels in the group receiving supplementation. Increased vitamin D levels led to a clinical improvement in patients with acne:
Although this study has its own limitations (as do all studies) it should at the very least cause you to question whether Vitamin D deficiency may be a player in your acne.
The mechanism by which vitamin D helps with acne comes back to its anti-inflammatory effects in the body. Vitamin D reduces inflammatory markers such as interleukin (IL)-6, IL-8, IL-17 (which is associated with P. acnes), and matrix metalloproteinase 9.
How To Increase Your Vitamin D Levels And Bust Acne For Good
Anytime you are deficient in a key nutrient you should always try to get it from a natural source first. Typically this is food.
In the case of Vitamin D natural sources include (4):
- Fatty fish
- Fish liver oil
- Egg yolk
- Foods fortified with vitamin D (such as milk)
All in all, there aren’t a ton of foods that are rich in Vitamin D.
But what’s interesting about vitamin D and what makes it unique is that we can make it ourselves. By exposing your skin to sunlight (specifically ultraviolet B or UVB radiation) your body converts cholesterol to vitamin D.
Pretty cool, huh? In a way we have our own photosynthesis capabilities similar to plants.
The amount of vitamin D you make from exposing your skin to sunlight depends on several factors (4):
- Season of the year
- Skin pigmentation
- Where you are located relative to the equator (your latitude)
- Use of sunscreen
- Amount of skin exposed
One study at UK latitudes found that assuming midday UVB levels in the summertime, sufficient (but suboptimal) vitamin D levels were obtained by exposing 35% of the study participant’s skin surface area to 13 minutes of sunlight (5).
There are too many variables to give a recommendation for everyone, but a good rule of thumb is to expose ⅓ – ½ of your skin’s surface area to the sun a few times a week for 10-30 minutes before putting on sunscreen.
This post goes into more detail on this topic.
If you live in a cloudy climate like I do (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), seeing the sun is as rare as hen’s teeth. Or if you work in an office all day and never get outside, you may want to consider supplementation.
How do you know if you are deficient in Vitamin D? The only true way to know is to get a blood test done. Once you get a blood test done you’ll know which category you fall under (1):
- < 12 ng/mL: Associated with Vitamin D deficiency, leading to rickets in infants and children and osteomalacia in adults
- 12 to <20 ng/mL: Generally considered inadequate for bone and overall health in healthy individuals
- ≥ 20 ng/mL: Generally considered adequate for bone and overall health in healthy individuals
- > 50 ng/mL: Emerging evidence links potential adverse effects to such high levels, particularly > 60 ng/mL
Although some studies argue that you should shoot for closer to 30 ng/ml, 97%+ of the population should meet their vitamin D needs with a level of >20 ng/ml (1).
On the other side of the spectrum you should try to avoid going above 50-60 ng/mL as studies show potential adverse effects at these high levels.
Looking back at our vitamin D study, the patients who supplemented with 1000 IU of Vitamin D per day did improve their levels, but it wasn’t enough to hit the 20 ng/mL recommended minimum. For this reason I recommend supplementing at a slightly higher level (2000-5000 IU / day).
Currently the National Institute of Health (NIH) recommends 600 IU / day. But given the current data, research suggests this likely is not enough.
Something else to keep in mind as you are shopping around is the type of Vitamin D. All of the studies mentioned above look at vitamin D3 (also known as cholecalciferol or 25(OH)D as we discussed above).
Make sure you are getting this type.
The latter option offers 1000 IU and 2000 IU options if you don’t feel comfortable immediately jumping to 5,000 IU.
One last thought… vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin. This means you have to consume it with fat in order for it to be properly absorbed into your body.
A great option is to simply take it with a meal (which should contain some healthy fat in it if you are eating a clear skin diet).
Vitamin D is an extremely important vitamin both for overall health and fighting acne. Studies show that acne sufferers are typically deficient in this vitamin.
It’s difficult to get all of the Vitamin D you need from food. Because of this, our bodies have evolved to make it from sunlight.
The problem is that in the western world people usually do not get enough sunlight and hence do not make enough Vitamin D.
The only true way to know if you have a Vitamin D deficiency is to get a blood test done. This can be done by your doctor or with a home test kit.
If you find that you are deficient in Vitamin D, you can safely raise your levels naturally through eating more foods that contain Vitamin D and getting more sunlight.
If these two options are difficult for you, consider supplementing with a high quality Vitamin D3 supplement (such as the ones mentioned above).
If you found value in this post, leave a comment below and share your biggest take-away. I will read and respond to every comment.