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Are Omega–3 Essential Fatty Acids bad for skin? Episode 41

Are omega-3 fatty acids good for skin?  Or, do these oils actually damage your skin? This week Randy and I explain what omegas, polyunsaturated oils, and Essential Fatty Acids really do for your skin. Plus – Beauty Science News!    

Show notes

Beauty Science News – Are you science savvy?

I found an interesting article on the top 10 scientific terms that scientists wish you’d stop using incorrectly.Randy and I banter about a few of them including:

  • “Proof”
  • Theory vs hypothesis
  • Nature vs nurture
  • and more!

Question of the week: Are omega fatty acids good for skin?

Ling asks…I read on Beauty Editor that polyunsaturated oils are the cause of skin aging. They also said that Essential Fatty Acids (like Omega 3s) are not really essential. I’m skeptical but can you tell me if this is all really true?

What are PUFAs?

Way back in 1929, George Burr and his wife Mildred discovered that if rats were fed a fat-free diet, their skin would lose the ability to hold moisture. They’d also develop visible skin abnormalities.

Then the Burrs began reintroducing fats into the rats’ diet one at a time until they determined that oils rich in certain polyunsaturated fatty acids (like corn oil and linseed oil) could completely reverse these skin conditions. Oils containing only saturated fatty acids (coconut oil, butter) did not solve the problem. And that’s how the importance of polyunsaturated fatty acids was discovered. It has since been determined that essential fatty acid deficiency (EFAD) in humans also causes symptoms of dermatitis such as scaling and dryness.

So what are these PolyUnsaturated Fatty Acids (PUFAs)? They’re a class of chemical characterized by the following:

1. A long carbon chain (that’s a defining characteristic of fats and oils.)
This chain ends with a carboxylic acid group which is H-C=0 (This is where it gets the name “acid.”)

2. Two or more of the carbon-carbon bonds in this long fatty chain are double bonds. Remember every carbon atom likes to make bonds to 4 other atoms. In the case of oils, the carbons are bonded to hydrogen atoms. (That’s why oils are called “hydrocarbons.” If the carbon can’t bond to a hydrogen then it forms an extra bond to the carbon next to it. This is called a double bond or an unsaturated bond because it’s not saturated with hydrogen. Conversely, saturated fats have no double bonds because all the carbons are saturated, or bonded with, hydrogen atoms.

  • When an oil is saturated it tends to be a solid at room temperature (like butter.)
  • When an oil is unsaturated it tends to be a liquid at room temperature (like olive oil.)

What are Essential Fatty Acids?

PUFAs, like other lipids, play a critical role in skin biology. Some PUFAs can be manufactured by the body but some PUFAs can ONLY be obtained through diet – in other words, since your body can’t produce them you have to eat them. These PUFAs that must be eaten in order to maintain health skin called Essential Fatty Acids. So EFAs are a subclass of PUFAs. All EFAs are PUFAs but not all PUFAs are EFAs.

There are only two TRUE EFAs:

  • linoleic acid
  • alpha-linolenic acid

By the way, some other fatty acids are sometimes classified as “conditionally essential,” meaning that they can become essential under some developmental or disease conditions; examples include docosahexaenoic acid gamma-linolenic acid.

These are the ones that are most important in the context of skin care because from these two parent compounds, the body synthesizes longer chain derivatives that also have important functions in healthy skin. Without them you’ll develop skin problems like dermatitis.

These are NOT the same as Essential Oils which are a type of perfume ingredient. It has nothing to do with being essential to your body, it’s just a perfumery phrase.

What does the “omega” in omega fatty acids mean?

We just said that EFAs consist of long chain of carbon and hydrogen atoms with a carboxylic acid group at the end. When naming carbon chains we start by labeling the carbon next to the carboxylate which is known as the α carbon, the next carbon is the β carbon, and so forth. The carbon in the last position is labelled as the “omega” carbon which is abbreviated with the last letter in the Greek alphabet which looks like a “w.”

This is important because the properties of the molecule are different depending on the location of the double bonds (the unsaturated part of the chain) in relation to the end of molecule.

So, an omega-3 fatty acid has a double bond on the 3rd carbon from the end while an omega-6 fatty acid has a double bond on the 6 carbon from the end. These are loosely called Omega-3s or Omega-6s or sometimes just Omega fatty acids.

What do EFAs do for skin?

When you ingest these fats they’re absorbed across the intestines and are then processed by the liver for delivery to skin. It’s assumed that they accumulate in the sebaceous glands which then deliver them to the skin’s surface. To some extent you can “bypass” the digestive system by applying EFAs directly to skin. That’s because they provide some benefits when applied directly to the stratum corneum but it’s also because they are absorbed through the skin into the blood stream where they can be redistributed.

Once they reach the epidermis they become part of the extracellular lipid matrix that provides the barrier function of skin. How do they do this? Well, you’ve heard of ceramides, right? EFAs, specifically Linoleic acid (LA),is combined with other molecules to create these ceramides that help control the permeability barrier function of the skin. So they are critical to skin health.

PUFA’s gone bad – the free radical hypothesis

So back to Ling’s question, do PUFAs cause skin aging. As we said a minute ago, PUFAs are some what of a controversy in nutritionist circles. In particular, there is one researcher, Ray Peat who claims they do all sort of horrible things to your metabolism when you ingest them. For example, he says PUFAs are responsible for…

“cirrhosis of the liver, diabetes, obesity, stress-induced immunodeficiency, epilepsy, brain swelling, retardation, hardening of the arteries, cataracts, and so on. He says they are “They are possibly the most important toxin for animals.”

We’re not nutritionists so we won’t debate that point but Peat also claims that PUFAs are bad for skin which is relevant to Ling’s question. Peat claims (and we quote) that “Free radicals are reactive molecular fragments that occur even in healthy cells, and can damage the cell. When unsaturated oils are exposed to free radicals, they can create chain reactions of free radicals that spread the damage in the cell, and contribute to the cell’s aging.”

So according to Peat, adding PUFAs to your skin is sort of like pouring gasoline on a fire. You’re adding fuel that can make the UV damage worse. That’s a serious accusation and it is counter to what science has been telling us for years. Is it legit?

Are PUFAs really bad for skin or not?

It is true that these oils oxidize. No question about that. But I couldn’t find any evidence that they are harmful to skin. Peat seems to be the ONLY researcher raising this concern. At least the only one I could find. EVERYTIME I came across an article stating that PUFAs are dangerous to skin the source of their information was one of Peat’s articles. And by the way, as far as I could tell, he hasn’t been published in any peer reviewed scientific journal.

These articles are well referenced – at least regarding nutrition. His articles include dozens of citations for scientific studies going back 70 years or more. But in all his references I could not find a single study that corroborated his claim that polyunsaturated oils are bad for skin. I may have missed it – but I couldn’t find it. In fact, when I reviewed the technical literature all I could were studies that confirmed what we have always been told about these oils which is that they are essential for skin health.

These oils do oxidize and I did find some research addressing this problem. Not from a “ it’s bad for skin” perspective but just a “don’t let the oil go rancid.” I’ll put a link to that study in the show notes but essentially what it says by mixing the polyunsaturates with other types of oils (canola) and with antioxidants you can greatly reduce the amount that the polyunsaturate is oxidized. Here’s one data point in that regard: they measured PUFAs to determine how long it took before the oil showed significant oxidation. They did this at elevated temperature and with exposure to UV and found it only takes about eight hours. But with antioxidants and other oils it lasts hundred hours.

So if oxidation of PUFAs leading to more free radicals really is a problem, the simple solution is to blend them with other oils and antioxidants. Specifically look for tocopherol, which is Vitamin E.

The Beauty Brains bottom line

The current scientific consensus is that certain polyunsaturated fatty acids (the ones we call Essential Fatty Acids) play an important role in maintaining healthy skin. Your body can’t make these EFAs so you have to get them through your diet or by applying them directly to your skin. These oils are prone to oxidation but despite the claims or Mr Peat, there seems to be no credible evidence that they are bad for your skin. But, as always, we love to be proved wrong so if anyone has proof that EFAs are bad for skin, we’d love to see it.




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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Katemonster July 29, 2014, 1:27 pm

    Thank you! I used to subscribe to Beauty Editor’s daily blog, and Michelle’s article on PUFA’s in reference here is what drove me away. I was suspicious that the article was presented as proven scientific fact, and was irresponsible and potentially damaging information. I’ve no room in my reading regimen for pseudo science and the scare fad of the day. Thank you again!!

    • Randy Schueller July 29, 2014, 2:30 pm

      Hi Kate. I suspect that Beauty Editor would keep more its readers if they took a more balanced approach to reporting stories such as this.

  • Eileen July 29, 2014, 1:37 pm

    Personally, I’d seriously take any so-called medical/nutritional advice on The Beauty Editor with a grain of salt. Michelle has posted articles based on Ray Peat’s studies before and she takes everything he says as gospel even when it is non-sensical. By the way, Michelle’s oft quoted Dr. Peat is not a medical doctor. According to his website, he holds a PhD in biology and he conducts private nutritional counseling. His bailiwick is nutrition and hormones and so his whole approach to what ails you is dramatically skewed in that direction. I’m not disparaging the man, mind you, but in evaluating anything he says, it is important to note that his articles indicate a lop-sided approach and a strong bias against traditional medicine. I’m all for exploring alternative medicine (I actually use a combination of diet and acupuncture to help manage my chronic migraines) but not at the exclusion of traditional medicine and sound scientific research.

    If you check out Peat’s website and skim through his articles, you’ll quickly see where Michelle is getting some of her ideas. She’s been dramatically swayed by Peat’s opinions–opinions that she admits are controversial and not mainstream. But, are they “The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”? If The Brains are correct, probably not.

    On a side note, something I found somewhat comic for a website supposedly providing medical research is Peat’s Art Gallery. He has eighteen nudes he painted himself accompanied by his own philosophical musings. Seriously! LOL And, of course, he sells his own books 😉

    • Randy Schueller July 29, 2014, 2:31 pm

      Eileen: As always thanks for your thoughts. Except for your comment about Peat’s Art Gallery. Aack!!

  • Ling July 29, 2014, 8:27 pm

    Ah, thank you for answering my question!
    I’ve been skeptical of the beauty science she posts on her site, and she is quite defensive of her ideas if anyone disagrees. This article in particular is alarming, so i’m glad to hear your thoughts on it.
    P.S. I have to say, the tag line is growing on me…… I don’t hate it anymore

    • Randy Schueller July 30, 2014, 8:46 am

      You’re very welcome, Ling! (I think our tag line is like Perry’s voice – at first it’s annoying but then it grows on you.)

  • eastvillagesiren July 30, 2014, 12:23 pm

    Hi Beauty Brains,

    As always, a great topic. But now, I am confused, and being a non-chemist, non-scientist, I want to understand your bit about “To some extent you can “bypass” the digestive system by applying EFAs directly to skin. That’s because they provide some benefits when applied directly to the stratum corneum but it’s also because they are absorbed through the skin into the blood stream where they can be redistributed.”

    So EFA’s can enter the bloodstream? I guess that means that they are small molecules? Wouldn’t it be bad for our health to have fat (oil) enter our bloodstream? And does this mean that synthetic chemicals in skin care can also enter our bloodstream – and do damage?

    So many questions, but you Brains are the only ones I trust with the answers. Thanks for your time.

    • Randy Schueller July 30, 2014, 2:05 pm

      Hey EW. The quick answer is this: most chemicals can not penetrate through the skin and into the blood stream. Of course some can because that’s how transepidermal drug patches work (for nicotine addition, sea sickness, etc.) The degree to which an ingredient penetrates depends on many factors: the shape of the molecule, its polarity, its molecular weight, etc.

      Linoleic acid happens to be one of those ingredients that can penetrate. That doesn’t mean that ALL EFAs do. And it doesn’t mean that synthetic chemicals do.

      Make sense?

      • eastvillagesiren August 1, 2014, 11:50 am

        Yes, it does. Thank you!

  • Dre November 5, 2014, 9:07 am

    I’ve been using facial oil for the past year now and have had wonderful results. I started making my own, with specific oils that contain anti-inflammatories, vitamins and EFA’s. I was under the impression that these would penetrate better due to the nature of oil and that our skin is lipophilic, is that assumption correct? I honestly have less wrinkles now than I did 2 years ago, but I apply the oil 4-5 times daily (I live at 9600 ft and I’m dry/mature skin). I also wonder if you could provide some information regarding spf in essential oils? I’m trying to formulate a facial oil for hydration and protection…I love your website!! Just found it but I will definitely be exploring more!!

  • Ida March 3, 2017, 7:19 am


    Very interesting topic this is. I have been recommended Peats articles from someone I know and trust when it comes to diet and health (he helped me heal my babys tarm system), but I also work with skin care and must say it didn’t make sense that polyunsaturated fatty acids could be that damaging to the skin, that would mean that the skin care industry are fooling us big time with their claims on how these oils can help the skin. Now I am searching for the truth. I contacted some producers of natural skin care here in Norway, and one of them told me that “fatty acids that has fewer double bonds between the hydrogen and carbon molecules and consists of long chains, can not enter the blood stream”. But you write that some can (linoleic acid
    alpha-linolenic acid?) So now I am confused, and wondering which can penetrate to the blood stream and which can not?

    I know this is an old post, but I would be so happy for an answer to this, and your page seem the most trustworthy until now:)

    Regards from Norway

    • Randy Schueller March 4, 2017, 7:43 am

      The ability of a fatty acid to penetrate skin involves the size, shape, and molecular weight. The number of double bonds in a molecule is part of that equation.

      • Danielle April 29, 2017, 7:38 am

        Hi Mr. Schueller, I was all set to buy a particular sunscreen until I came across your article and others and am now worried about the dangers of PUFAs in oils used in skincare…could you please advise me as to whether I should purchase the following product (the ingredients are listed in the link)?


        Sweet almond oil, avocado oil, sesame seed oil, rosehip seed oil, evening primrose and borage oil, peppermint oil…there are so many oils contained in this product and some are listed as being high in PUFAs…I just don’t know what to do anymore because really good all-mineral sunscreens are so hard to find and after much research I was convinced that this particular product would be suitable for me. Please help and I thank you kindly for your consideration!

        • Randy Schueller April 29, 2017, 8:16 am

          Hi Danielle. If you’re afraid to buy the product you asked about because of PUFAs, I don’t believe that you need to worry about using PUFAs on your skin. As we said in the article “The current scientific consensus is that certain polyunsaturated fatty acids (the ones we call Essential Fatty Acids) play an important role in maintaining healthy skin.”

          Having said that, $38 for 1.7 ounces seems like a lot to spend on a sunscreen. But if you can afford it and you like the product, I say go for it.

  • Amal December 26, 2017, 4:25 am

    With that being said, may I ask for your opinion regarding Paula’s Choice Omega+ Complex System. I wanted to purchase it but I’m a bit hesitate on how it will actually work to improve my skin texture.

    • Perry Romanowski January 9, 2018, 11:06 am

      That’s really your choice. I’m sure it’s a fine product but it is likely that you can find less expensive alternatives that work just as well.

  • Rose March 22, 2018, 3:53 pm

    Loved the post! I tried searching for the study you referenced regarding oxidation of PUFA when mixed with other oils, but couldn’t find it anywhere. The links provided don’t seem to work anymore. Would it be possible to update them?