Cosmetic and therapeutic benefits of fish oil have been studied for over 50 years. Rich in fatty acids, fish oils are specifically known for their high content of long-chain, polyunsaturated (omega-3) fatty acids (PUFAs). Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) are the two PUFAs responsible for much of the medicinal value of fish oils. When you look at the label on a bottle of fish oil, you should be able to identify the amount of EPA and DHA in each serving. Importantly, these mmega-3 fatty acids are essential nutrients that cannot be synthesized in the body and must be obtained from the diet.
A multitude of studies have shown benefit for dietary or supplemented fish oil the setting of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, some cancers, ulcerative colitis, psoriasis, asthma, depression, osteoporosis, and neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s Disease. PUFAs in particular are ascribed to down-regulate inflammation via inhibiting pro-inflammatory pathways (ie COX-2, NF-Kb, and others). Omega-3 fatty acids are incorporated into cell membranes in all bodily tissues and are also used in a process called Beta-oxidation to make energy for cells. If fish oils can help to reduce inflammation, support the health of every cell in the body and provide fuel for cellular energy, what outcomes do they have on the health of our hair, skin and nails?
Deficiency of the polyunsaturated essential fatty acids (EFAs) has been associated with changes to hair quality including loss of scalp hair and eyebrows as well as lightening of hair. This has been observed in conditions of malabsorption and starvation. It is suspected that essential fatty acids may modulate hormonal factors, such as 5-alpha reductase and may promote hair growth by enhancing follicle proliferation. While there is only limited studies available to assess the effect of supplementation, one 2015 study evaluated the effects on hair loss of a 6-month supplementation program with specific omega 3&6 essential fatty acids and antioxidants. A great majority of patients reported a significant reduction in hair loss (89.9% of subjects), improvement in hair diameter (86.1%) and hair density (87.3%).
Fish oil has been suggested to provide therapeutic application in photoaging, skin cancer prevention, dermatitis, (inflammation of the skin), surgical/wound healing, and melanogenesis (tanning). Aging of the skin can be described in terms of chronological aging or photoaging. Photoaging (sun damage) results from repeat exposures to UV light and may be responsible for skin changes such as brown spots, dryness, wrinkles and texture. Fish oil as an anti-inflammatory (anti-COX-2) agent appears to be associated with photo-protection. In a 2003 human study published in the journal Carcinogenesis, researchers concluded that the EPA content found in fish oil may protect against acute UVR-induced damage. They observed a reduction in early markers of inflammation including sunburn, UVR-induced p53 in skin and damage to peripheral blood lymphocytes.
Fish oil quality may vary greatly among manufacturers. Different products will also contain different amounts of EPA and DHA. Some products may contain other therapeutic and non-therapeutic ingredients. Fish oil may have a minor blood thinning effect. There are several vegan and vegetarian alternatives to obtaining dietary or supplemented essential fatty acids, such as flax oil, chia seeds and many others. Before starting any essential fatty acid product or fish oil, talk with your naturopathic doctor or health care provider to ensure safety and best practices.
- Marc E. Surette, PhD. The science behind dietary omega-3 fatty acids. CMAJ. 2008 Jan 15; 178(2): 177–180.
- Tse-Hung HuangCosmetic and Therapeutic Applications of Fish Oil’s Fatty Acids on the Skin. Mar Drugs. 2018 Aug; 16(8): 256.
- Lesley E. Rhodes et al. Effect of eicosapentaenoic acid, an omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid, on UVR-related cancer risk in humans. An assessment of early genotoxic markers Carcinogenesis, Volume 24, Issue 5, 1 May 2003, Pages 919–925,
- Le Floc’h CEffect of a nutritional supplement onhair loss in women. J Cosmet Dermatol. 2015 Mar;14(1):76-82. doi: 10.1111/jocd.12127. Epub 2015 Jan 8.