You’ve probably heard of people taking fish oil supplements to boost their daily intake of omega fatty acids. Or maybe a healthcare professional or nutritionist suggested an increase in your own intake of fish or fish oil supplements for the same reason. But, you might be wondering: What exactly do omega fatty acids do?
Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids are known as “essential fatty acids” (EFAs), and they’re vital to the health and activity of the brain, among many other organs and bodily functions.¹ While we’ve known about the health benefits of EFAs in our diets for years,² it wasn’t until fairly recently that we began to understand just how important these fatty acids are for our skin.
Here’s a quick guide to fatty acids in skincare and the advantages they can have for your routine.
There are a few different kinds of EFAs, but you’re probably most familiar with the omegas, especially omega-3 and -6. Also called polyunsaturated fatty acids or PUFAs, the body doesn’t synthesize these fatty acids on its own—they have to be obtained through our diet or supplements.³ However, the body can store EFAs in fat cells to be metabolized later.⁴
There are several kinds of omega-3 EFAs, including alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), stearidonic acid (SDA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosapentaenoic acid (DPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). All of these have been shown to have positive impacts on heart health, fetal development, as well as brain and eye functions.⁵ They ’ve also been shown to provide relief for symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis in some patients.⁶
Omega-6 fatty acids include linoleic acid, arachidonic acid, and several others. Having an adequate level of omega-6 in the body has been linked to a reduced chance of developing cardiovascular disease.⁷ There have been some concerns raised about the pro-inflammatory effects of omega-6 fatty acids, but the research is inconclusive and contradictory.⁸
In fact, most research seems to suggest that consuming foods or supplements of omega-3 and -6 fatty acids in roughly equal proportions is ideal.⁹ Unfortunately, the average diet in Western societies is high in omega-6s and deficient in omega-3s, with a ratio more like 15 to 1.
Aside from the effects that they can have on our internal physical health, EFAs also play a critical role in our skin’s functions and appearance. They are usually thought of as dietary substances, either in the foods we consume or as supplements. But EFAs can have some amazing benefits as topical applications as well. Here are just a few of the benefits that fatty acids can have for your skin health.
A deficiency of dietary omega-3 and EFAs can manifest physically in a variety of skin conditions, including the scaly, dry, irritating rash of dermatitis.¹⁰ But fatty acids aren’t just essential for avoiding dermatitis and other skin problems. They can actually aid in treatment and promote recovery from certain conditions.
While EFAs aren’t considered to be treatments on their own, they’ve been effective as supplements in the treatment of many skin conditions, including the healing of wounds as well as the treatment of both melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers, among others.¹¹ One study showed that supplements rich in omega-3 EFAs had significant benefits in the treatment of psoriasis.¹² And, while it hasn’t been proven conclusively, another study suggested that fish oil supplements, known to be rich in omega-3s, were effective in treating patients with moderate to severe inflammatory acne.¹³
Donna McIntyre, a nurse practitioner at Curology notes, “Eating more fish or taking fish oil may have a protective effect against acne. Fish rich in omega-3s like Alaskan salmon may be helpful.”
Essential fatty acids aren’t just effective as dietary supplements. They can have some awesome benefits as topical treatments as well. That’s one reason why EFAs are often used in cosmetics and skincare products. They make great emollients to lock in moisture and fantastic emulsifiers to thicken creams and lotions, among several other uses.
Fatty acids are one of the key components that make up the stratum corneum, the outer skin layer, that protects the body from water loss, mechanical trauma, environmental hazards, as well as serving as an antimicrobial barrier.¹⁴ The fatty acids in fish oil are just as beneficial in improving skin barrier function when applied topically as it is when taken as a dietary supplement.¹⁵ Some botanical extracts and plant oils, like sunflower oil, are rich in omega fatty acids and have also shown significant benefits in improving skin barrier function after topical application.¹⁶ Sunflower seed oil, which is particularly rich in linoleic acid, has also been used as a topical treatment for dermatitis.¹⁷ There’s some evidence that suggests that alpha-linoleic acid and linoleic acid may be effective in treating hyperpigmentation, though additional research in human subjects is needed.¹⁸
As we mentioned, our bodies don’t create most EFAs, so we have to get them from other sources. The best and most common source of omega-3 and -6 is in the foods we eat, but there are also dietary supplements widely available for over-the-counter purchase as well as a number of topicals that can be used for skincare.
Here are a few of the more common food sources of EFAs:
Coldwater fish, like salmon, tuna, and mackerel
Flaxseed, chia seeds, and walnuts
Plant oils, such as flaxseed, canola, and soybean oil
Some fortified foods, including juices, yogurts, soy milk, and baby formula
Meat and meat-derived products
While the best source of fatty acids is in the foods we eat, we’re not knocking supplements. Studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acid supplements contribute significantly to improved cognition and brain activity.²¹ You can find these for sale over-the-counter in the same section as multivitamins in your local grocery store or pharmacy. That said, it’s best to talk with your medical provider before starting new supplements.
Here are a few recommendations if you’re looking for topicals that contain omega fatty acids to incorporate into your skincare routine.
Shira Omega 3 Line Replenishing Day Cream: With SPF-15, this moisturizing cream also provides some light sun protection.
Paula's Choice Omega+ Complex Serum: This nourishing skincare product has chia and flax seed oil and concentrated levels of omega-3, -6, and -9.
Balmonds Skincare Omega-Rich Cleansing Oil: This cleansing oil can be used as an alternative to soap-based cleansers while also nourishing the skin and protecting the natural oils
The INKEY List Omega Water Cream Moisturizer: A water-based gel moisturizer with omega fatty acids, glycerin, betaine, and niacinamide for all skin types.
Sundãri Omega 3 And White Birch Cream Cleanser: With flaxseed oil, white birch extract, and soapnut extract, this cleanser removes makeup and excess oil while repairing the skin barrier functions
Fatty acids are essential for our overall physical health, and they form a vital part of the skin’s natural protective barrier. As our bodies don’t produce EFAs, we must find sources for them.
The foods we eat are the best sources of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, but dietary supplements can also be beneficial. Topical skincare products containing fatty acids may have benefits as well, but those benefits are limited to the skin.
If you want to take the guesswork out of your skincare, Curology’s here to help. Our team of licensed dermatology providers is ready to answer questions that you may have and help create a skincare solution based on your individual needs. Sign up for a 30-day trial* at Curology for a one-on-one consultation and take the first step on your personalized skincare journey today.
According to research, omega-3 and omega-6 are both equally essential for our health.²² However, because Western diets are usually very high in omega-6 acids and very low in omega-3, it’s likely more important to focus on increasing your intake of omega-3 fatty acids.
No. EFAs are generally non-comedogenic, which means they won’t clog your pores. However, that doesn’t mean that all of the other ingredients in any given product are also non-comedogenic. Check your ingredient list, and consider doing a patch test before fully incorporating any new product into your skincare routine.
At a glance, it looks like omega-3 is the most commonly used fatty acid in skincare products or cosmetics. But there are still plenty of products out there that contain omega-6 and even omega-9 fatty acids, like Paula's Choice Omega+ Complex Serum.
Kaur, N., et al. Essential fatty acids as functional components of foods - a review. J Food Sci Technol. (October 2014).
Spector, A.A. and Kim, H.Y. Discovery of essential fatty acids. J Lipid Res. (2014, October 22).
Kaur, N., et al. Essential fatty acids as functional components of foods - a review. J Food Sci Technol. Ibid.
Cohen, P. and Spiegelman, B.M. Cell biology of fat storage. Mol Biol Cell. (2016, August 15).
Shahidi, F. and Ambigaipalan, P. Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids and Their Health Benefits. Annual Review of Food Science and Technology. (March 2018).
Shahidi, F. and Ambigaipalan, P. Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids and Their Health Benefits. Annual Review of Food Science and Technology. Ibid.
Marklund, M., et al. Biomarkers of Dietary Omega-6 Fatty Acids and Incident Cardiovascular Disease and Mortality. Circulation. (2019, April 11).
Innes, J.K. and Calder, P.C. Omega-6 fatty acids and inflammation. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. (2018, March 22).
Simopoulos, A.P. The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids. Biomed Pharmacother. (October 2002).
Roongpisuthipong, W., et al. Essential fatty acid deficiency while a patient receiving fat regimen total parenteral nutrition. BMJ Case Reports. (2012, July 27).
McCusker, M.M. and Grant-Kels, J.M. Healing fats of the skin: the structural and immunologic roles of the omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. Clin Dermatol. (July-August 2010).
Balbás, G.M., et al. Study on the use of omega-3 fatty acids as a therapeutic supplement in treatment of psoriasis. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. (2011, June 20).
Khayef, G., et al. Effects of fish oil supplementation on inflammatory acne. Lipids in Health and Disease. (2012, December 3).
Wertz, P.W. Lipids and the Permeability and Antimicrobial Barriers of the Skin. J Lipids. (2018, September 2).
Huang, T.H., et al. Cosmetic and Therapeutic Applications of Fish Oil’s Fatty Acids on the Skin. Marine Drugs. (2018, July 30).
Casetti, F., et al. Dermocosmetics for Dry Skin: A New Role for Botanical Extracts. Skin Pharmacology and Physiology. (September 2011).
Eichenfield, L.F., et al. The Benefits of Sunflower Oleodistillate (SOD) in Pediatric Dermatology. Pediatric Dermatology. (2009, December 21).
Ando, H., et al. Linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid lightens ultraviolet-induced hyperpigmentation of the skin. Arch Dermatol Res. (July 1998).
National Institutes of Health. Omega-3 Fatty Acids - Fact Sheet for Consumers. (2022, July 18).
Coniglio, S., et al. Unsaturated Fatty Acids and Their Immunomodulatory Properties. Biology. (2023, February 9).
Bauer, I., et al. Omega-3 supplementation improves cognition and modifies brain activation in young adults. Hum Psychopharmacol. (March 2014).
Simopoulos, A.P. The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids. Biomed Pharmacother. Ibid.
Donna McIntyre is a board-certified nurse practitioner at Curology. She obtained her Master of Science in Nursing at MGH Institute of Health Professions in Boston, MA.
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Donna McIntyre, NP-BC