Is It Possible to Take Too Much Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
Yes, People Who Take Omega-3 Supplements for Acne or Other Purposes Should Not Take More than 2,000 mg per Day
The Essential Information
One recent study showed that omega-3 fatty acids may reduce acne. That's only one study, and we will need to see it replicated before we know for sure, but it makes sense that omega-3 supplements (fish oil pills) might reduce acne because ingesting omega-3 fatty acids can reduce inflammation, and acne is an inflammatory disease.
But as with most things in life, too much of a good thing can lead to problems. Taking too much omega-3 fatty acids can cause side effects including:
- Stomach pain
- A weakened immune system
- Bleeding in those taking anticoagulant drugs
A good recommendation is to limit your intake of the omega-3 fatty acids called EPA and DHA that are present in fish oil to 2000 mg per day. This can usually be obtained from 6 to 7 pills of fish oil supplements per day, or 3 "concentrated" fish oil supplements. If you are vegetarian, try microalgae (often called algae) supplements.
What are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
Omega-3 fatty acids are a group of fat molecules that are abundant in fish and some seeds.
Omega-3 fatty acids reduce the risk of heart disease and other diseases related to aging.1,2 There is evidence that omega-3 fatty acids also reduce inflammation. Since acne is an inflammatory disease, this has caused some people to wonder if omega-3s might help reduce acne. Research to answer this question is ongoing.2,3
There are three specific types of omega-3 fatty acids that are important for health:
- Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
Research has also shown that deficiencies in ALA can be a factor that contributes to acne.4 However, when people refer to omega-3s and their anti-inflammatory benefits, they are normally referring to EPA and DHA, so when it comes to acne, we will concern ourselves mainly with EPA and DHA.
Seeds and nuts are the primary sources of ALA, and fish is the primary source of EPA and DHA. All three types of omega-3 fatty acids are "essential" fatty acids, which means we must obtain them directly from the foods in our diets or through supplements, because our bodies cannot produce them on their own.2,4,5
Omega-3 in Foods
Omega-3s are abundant in various types of foods, and it is unlikely that you will end up ingesting too many omega-3s simply by eating these foods. Some omega-3-rich foods include:
- Fish, such as: Salmon, herring, sardines, mackerel, trout
- Seeds and seed oils, such as: Chia seeds, Flaxseed oil (just ALA, not DHA or EPA)
- Other foods, such as: Canola oil, soybean oil, mayonnaise (just ALA, not DHA or EPA)
Because it is difficult to eat such foods, particularly fish, on a daily basis, many people use omega-3 fatty acid supplements. It was reported in 2012 that almost 8% of adults in the United States took a fish oil supplement within the previous month.6 Fish-derived omega-3 fatty acid supplements are usually from fish oil, krill oil, or cod liver oil. Any of these is fine.
Omega-3 fish oil supplements are widely available over-the-counter and usually contain DHA and EPA, but not ALA. Although supplements typically have 1,000 mg of fish oil per capsule, the amount of DHA is usually about 180 mg, and the amount of EPA is usually about 120 mg.5,6 Therefore, to stay within the safe zone, take no more than 6-7 fish oil pills per day of a typical omega-3 fish oil supplement. Note: Some fish oil supplements are "concentrated" and contain more DHA and EPA per pill. If you are taking a concentrated supplement, you should take less, depending on how much DHA and EPA is listed on the label.
Sometimes manufacturers include added nutrients such as vitamin D or vitamin E to omega-3 supplements as well.
To get DHA and EPA in a vegetarian supplement, microalgae-derived omega-3 supplements are also widely available. It is important to note that other vegetarian omega-3 supplements that come from flaxseed oil, for instance, will only contain ALA, so that's not your best bet. Whichever supplement you choose, be sure to check the label and make sure it contains DHA and EPA.
To Supplement, or Not to Supplement?
The best way to get omega-3 fatty acids is by eating 1-2 servings of fish per week, according to the American Heart Association and the World Health Organization. Each serving of fish amounts to about 200 to 500 mg of EPA and DHA omega-3s.7 However, this is a general health recommendation. People who do not eat a lot of fish, or who wish to take omega-3s for acne or other specific purposes may choose to use supplements.
How Much Omega-3 Is Too Much?
The National Health and Medical Research Council for Australia and New Zealand recommends an omega-3 fatty acid dosage of 610 mg per day for men, and 430 mg/day for women (these values include both DHA and EPA). However, this is a general health recommendation, and those who take omega-3 supplements for acne may want to increase this dose.7
However, don't take too much. Consuming too many omega-3 supplements can be harmful and cause side-effects, including heartburn, nausea, stomach pain, diarrhea, headaches, a weakened immune system, and bleeding in those taking anticoagulant drugs.5 The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends not exceeding 2,000 mg per day of EPA and DHA from supplements. However, the European Food Safety Authority considers up to 5,000 mg/day of EPA and/or DHA to be safe.5
Since a recent omega-3 study showed a reduction of acne with supplementation of 1,000 mg of EPA plus 1,000 mg DHA omega-3s, and this does not exceed the FDA's maximum recommendation of 2,000 mg total EPA and DHA per day, this is a good recommended dose for those who choose to take omega-3 fatty acid supplements for acne. This means most people should take:
Typical fish oil supplements: Most supplements have 1,000 mg of fish oil per pill, and contain the typical 180 mg of DHA and 120 mg of EPA. In this case a person should take 6 to 7 pills per day in order to get 2,000 mg of EPA and DHA.
Concentrated fish oil supplements: For concentrated supplements that contain more than the typical 180 mg of DHA and 120 mg of EPA, a person will need fewer pills, depending on how much DHA and EPA is listed on the label.
Can Omega-3 Fatty Acids Help Acne?
To date, there is only one reliable study that has investigated the question of whether omega-3 fatty acids can have any effect on acne. In this study, researchers reported that people who took 1,000 mg of EPA and 1,000 mg of DHA daily for 10 weeks had significantly less acne than those who did not take omega-3 fatty acid supplements.
This study was published in 2014, in the journal Acta Dermato-Venerologica.3
So far, this is the first and only study to show that omega-3 fatty acids may be effective in treating acne. This study did not include the ALA omega-3 fatty acid, which is usually not included in supplements.
These results are promising, and it makes sense that omega-3s can reduce acne since they reduce inflammation. However, the results need to be supported by follow-up studies before we can be certain that omega-3 fatty acids really do help with acne.
Evidence that omega-3 fatty acids can reduce acne is promising, but not yet established. A good recommendation for those who take omega-3 fatty acid supplements for acne is 2,000 mg of EPA and DHA combined per day. This equates to 6-7 fish oil pills.
- Watanabe, Y. & Tatsuno, I. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids for cardiovascular diseases : present , past and future. Expert Rev. Clin. Pharmacol 0, (2017). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28531360
- Molfino, A., Gioia, G., Fanelli, F. R. & Muscaritoli, M. The role for dietary omega-3 fatty acids supplementation in older adults. Nutrients 6, 4058 - 4072 (2014). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25285409
- Jung, J. Y. et al. Effect of dietary supplementation with omega-3 fatty acid and gamma-linolenic acid on acne vulgaris: A randomised, double-blind, controlled trial. Acta Derm. Venereol 94, 521 - 526 (2014). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24553997
- Coderch, L., López, O., De La Maza, A. & Parra, J. L. Ceramides and skin function. Am. J. Clin. Dermatol. 4, 107 - 129 (2003). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12553851
- National Institutes of Health. Omega-3 Fatty Acids - Health Professional Fact Sheet. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-HealthProfessional/
- Siscovick, D. S. et al. Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acid (Fish Oil) Supplementation and the Prevention of Clinical Cardiovascular Disease: A Science Advisory from the American Heart Association. Circulation 135, e867 - e884 (2017). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28289069
- Grosso, G. et al. Omega-3 fatty acids and depression: Scientific evidence and biological mechanisms. Oxid. Med. Cell. Longev. 2014, (2014). https://www.hindawi.com/journals/omcl/2014/313570/