Iodine is perhaps the most controversial nutrient in the world of acne. On one hand, lack of iodine can make you fat, weak, sick and tired. Iodine deficiency is rampant and you need it for proper thyroid function, preventing goitre, and manufacturing all your T3 and T4 thyroid hormones.
On the other hand, iodine has been branded as an acne-causing villain since the early 1960s now.
The fear was initially sparked by reports of drugs containing iodine, or ingredients similar to iodine, sparking “acneiform eruptions”, or inflammatory skin conditions whether they be acne, psoriasis, or dermatitis.
The World Health Organisation released a chemical assessment document on iodine in which it claimed “Oral exposure to markedly excess iodide can produce skin lesions, referred to as ioderma, which are thought be a form of cell-mediated hypersensitivity”. Iodine supplements are blamed for acne by countless user reviews and kelp/seaweed, iodised salt and even eggs (usually an excellent food for acne) are similarly feared.
If you don’t care about all the scientific detail and mechanisms, then understand now that you NEED iodine for your health. Iodine can cause acne, but only at high doses and only during the first few weeks of supplementation.
The evidence in full
Firstly, let’s discuss the old studies blaming acne on iodine. The fear started in the early 1960s when a handful of studies were conducted and the condition was dubbed “ioderma”. You see mentions of studies from Australia and the USA constantly, but unfortunately, I cannot find them anywhere on the internet.
However the reports I have read say that they were all poorly conducted; no proper controls for comparison, only a handful of patients examined, and whole foods used rather than isolated iodine itself.
Recently however, there have been studies on iodised salt and acne. This one detailed a case study on a male acne patient:
- “A 28-year-old man presented with acneform eruption over the face and upper trunk which had been present for the past 4 years. The majority of the lesions were inflammatory, consisting of superficial papules and pustules with a few deep, nodular lesions. In places, post-inflammatory hyper-pigmentation and a few atrophic macular scars were seen. The patient had failed to respond to multiple courses of antibiotics, topical erythromycin, tretinoin, and benzoyl peroxide. A detailed history was taken to determine the offending agent, including “hidden iodides” in cough mixtures, expectorant, vitamins, etc. We advised the patient to stop taking iodized salt in the diet and to continue applying topical erythromycin 4% cream. After 4 weeks, the patient showed marked improvement with the the regression of old lesions and no appearance of new lesions. There was complete disappearance of inflammatory lesions at 6 weeks of follow-up. In order to confirm iodized salt as the offending agent, the patient was challenged with iodized salt (dietary supplementation) at 12 weeks of follow-up. The patient presented with new inflammatory papules and pustular lesions over the face after 3 weeks, which improved when iodized salt was stopped.”
That’s clearly strong evidence that iodised salt can cause acne, but iodine itself? No.
As opposed to healthy varieties like sea salt or himalayan salt, common table salt is one of the worst foods for acne in existence. Table salt contains many other contaminants including moisture absorbents, flow agents, and anti-caking agents.
Table salt even contains aluminosilicates, which are derivatives of the heavy metal aluminium. Table salt is so contaminated that it’s linked to autism, something you could never accuse iodine of. There’s clearly another villain lurking in there.
Furthermore, the evidence elsewhere is completely contradictory. There are other studies which completely and utterly destroy the acne-iodine connection.
One study performed in 1961 gathered a group of normal people from three different regions in North Carolina. The regions were selected to have wildly varying iodine intakes for a proper comparison; there was a group of mountain folk, a group of coastal dwellers, and a group of in-between people. The scientists measured the patients’ intake of iodine from food, water and iodised salt and correlated it with the quantity and severity of acne lesions.
The conclusion? People who ate more iodine had exactly the same amount of acne as people who ate less iodine. The trail of hype was extinguished.
This study also examined the link between iodine and acne and concluded “To summarize, there is no evidence to support iodides as a cause of comedonal acne”. Of course, they are just two studies. But it hasn’t been proved either way.
Conclusion: the evidence that iodine causes acne is thin and scrappy at best and non-existent at worst.
What about the user testimonials then? Well, a good proportion of them do report skin problems and that’s partly how the whole fear kicked off in the first place. On acne.org, iodine has a score of 4.4/5 and 81% of acne patients would recommend it to a friend. That’s good, but these quotes from acne patients appear to tell a different story:
- “I’ve been supplementing iodine as recommended and sure enough, I’ve had small acne break-outs each time I increase the dose but they subside quickly.”
- Just began taking kelp to displace my high bromide levels. My facial acne has been breaking out like crazy…”
- One person took iodine and “broke out with acne very badly all over my face. It was so bad that I could not leave my house. As soon as I stopped taking iodine, the acne went away.”
As you can see, iodine is blamed for causing inflammatory acne. Upon closer inspection though, you’ll notice two key points. 1) The reported burst of acne only lasts for a couple of weeks, and 2) the users were eating contaminated food with known acne-causing ingredients. It’s similar situation to vitamin B12.
Iodine temporarily increases fluoride levels
In short, iodine displaces bromine and fluoride from your cells and into the bloodstream, where they cause acne. Iodine is called a mineral by health bodies but it’s actually a halide. There are four of these halides on the periodic table: fluoride/fluoride, bromide/bromine, chloride/chlorine, and iodine/iodide.
However, three out of four are highly toxic to the human body. Fluoride causes neurological impairment, chlorine causes reproductive problems, and bromide was once fed to prisoners to keep them docile.
The problem is that iodine is heavier than all the others. Hence, fluoride, bromide and pure chloride all bind with halide receptors easily and that is what is happening to many of us today, with bromide in our bread and fluoride in our tap water. Our iodine struggles to get a foot in the door…
…so here’s what happens. When you take high levels of iodine supplements for the first time in years, possibly ever, it causes massive displacement of the toxic halides from your cells. A study mentioned here gave patients iodine and found that “there was a progressive increase in urinary levels of fluoride and bromide with increasing intake of the preparation”.
How does that cause acne? In the blood, fluoride causes “fluoroderma” by depleting antioxidants and increasing inflammation.
Bromide was shown in this study and this study to dramatically increase oxidative stress. All halides have a ton of other toxic effects like disrupting your endocrine system, inhibiting insulin receptors, and stressing you out by messing with your brainwaves.
As the weeks progress, iodine continues to kick the toxic halides out of your receptors and that’s why your acne gets worse.
So that is why iodine often causes acne. The good news is that this displacement eventually stops…
…and the best part is that your cells will then be free of fluoride and bromine. Fluoride won’t be acting on your immune system receptors to directly increase inflammation and acne. Bromide won’t be downregulating your insulin sensitivity either.
Best of all, the presence of iodine in your bodily cells, which will increase dramatically after several weeks of a higher intake, will block fluoride and bromide from binding to those cells again. Therefore iodine can defend against fluoride’s substantial acne causing powers like inflammation and depleting your antioxidants, ONCE you’ve got the initial detox done with.
Remember: if you break out with acne during the first month of a pro iodine lifestyle, you are SUCCEEDING. Clearing your cells of bromide and fluoride will make you stronger against acne in the long run.
Iodine – a case of mistaken identity?
Iodine is so notorious among dedicated acne clearing enthusiasts that it gets blamed automatically and unnecessarily. One of the stories above blamed the iodine in fish oil pills for a monstrous acne outbreak. But when you consider the dosage it’s impossible.
The WHO says this: “The lesions regress and heal when the excess iodide intake is discontinued. The clinical literature includes cases of ioderma that occurred subsequent to oral doses of iodide at 300–1000 mg/day”.
Iodine only causes acne consistently at levels 2000 to 7000 times higher than the recommended daily allowance (RDA) which is 150 micrograms (mcg) for men and women aged 19 and over. Fish oil would contain 100% of the RDA at best, depending on the source species.
Here’s the truth: almost all foods and supplements rich in iodine contain other compounds, ingredients, and contaminants that can cause acne:
Eggs – often fried in cheap vegetable oils like canola oil or soybean oil.
Commercial seaweed – kelp and its relatives are often seasoned with gluten, which causes inflammation in many and severe inflammation in a select few.
Dairy – a classic acne food.
There’s no plausible action through which iodine would cause acne in the long term either. It doesn’t affect inflammation much, it’s not connected to acne antioxidant depletion.
In fact there’s preliminary evidence that iodine’s ability to balance the endocrine and hormone systems could improve your insulin sensitivity, thereby lowering serum insulin levels and clearing your acne.
Should an acne patient avoid iodine?
The answer is a stone cold no. If you supplement with iodine then yes, you’ll probably get a burst of acne in the medium term, especially if you live in a water fluoridated area or eat bromide through bread. But that’ll subside within weeks. I have yet to see a scientist come up with an explanation for how iodine would cause acne except in the short term.
Furthermore, deficiency is an epidemic. The chances that you as an individual are getting acne from iodine are minimal, except if you’re Japanese, Brazilian, Zimbabwean, or living in the 8 other countries where excessive levels are common (see below).
Therefore we can safely conclude that if you’re an acne patient who is obsessed with seaweed or eats eggs for breakfast every day, you can relax about the iodine…
…and there’s another happy twist in this tale: iodine can help your acne in the long run. Without iodine it is impossible to sweat, no matter how long you spend in a sauna or exercising.
Iodine is also important for mental health; depression is a side effect of deficiency. Therefore, increasing your intake could combat chronic stress and any acne from the stress hormone cortisol.
Iodine clearly fails next to vitamin E but every piece of effort helps.
Now here’s why you really need to reject any iodine minimising strategies. Deficiency in iodine is rampant across almost the entire world. Iodine is critical for health, but the in 2007 the World Health Organisation estimated that 2 billion people worldwide are deficient. Iodine helps breast cancer cells to self-destruct, it provides energy through thyroid function; getting less iodine is the last thing you want.
In fact, if you have any nagging fatigue, body fat or lack of motivation then iodine could be an unexpected/surprising solution. Hypothyroidism and goiter is the main symptom of iodine deficiency but there are many others:
Saliva – your salivary glands need iodine to manufacture saliva. A common sign of iodine deficiency is a dry mouth.
Brain function – this study examined the relationship between iodine status in children and their intelligence. They concluded that “the intelligence damage of children exposed to severe iodine deficiency was profound”. Severely deficient children had 12.45 less IQ points on average and by supplementing with iodine, they regained 8.7 IQ points.
This study found that worldwide iodine deficiency is resulting in a 10-15 point loss in IQ on a global level. Apparently, iodine “constitutes the world’s greatest single cause of preventable brain damage and mental retardation.”
Bone health – in central and southern China iodine deficiency is rampant and the government recently iodised many of their salt supplies. A common syndrome among Tibetan children is Kashin Beck disease. That’s a classic bone disorder; symptoms include joint pain, extension of the elbows, morning stiffness of joints, growth retardation, and secondary osteoarthritis.
Hypothyroidism, the main symptom of iodine deficiency, is believed to cause osteoporosis by leaching minerals from the bones. Iodine can also prevent fluoride from getting in and causing skeletal fluorosis. If you want tough bones for a body that’s built to last, get more iodine!
How to get more iodine
It’s clear that more iodine is preferable. But how do you achieve that?
Well, the US government began iodising salt in the 1920s after the discovery of the goiter belt, a stretch of the country where everybody had massive growths on their thyroid glands thanks to extreme iodine deficiency in the soils. In the mid-20th century, bread was also iodised…
However, this has since been replaced with the toxic bromide for who knows what reason. The average American eats less iodine through government programs than previously. Additionally, the intense fear of dietary fat has led to less consumption of iodine in eggs and dairy products.
If you’re not making a conscious effort to get iodine in the 21st century then you’re not going to get enough except through luck. Instead then, you have to use the following food and supplementary sources:
Seaweed – the best source ever. The reason why the Japanese enjoy so much iodine. The average piece of seaweed contains 750mcg or 0.75mg of iodine, which is 500% of the RDA. Some species of brown seaweed accumulate iodine levels 30,000 higher than the iodine level of seawater.
WARNING: boiling your seaweed can deplete the iodine count by 99% in 15 minutes, in the case of Kombu seaweed. A brown seaweed called sargassum loses 41% in 15 minutes and other species are spread right across the middle. Steam your sea vegetables for optimal acne nutrition, as you should steam other vegetables like broccoli. The one exception is seaweed soup; in that case the iodine will leach into the stock juice which of course will create a nutritious juice which you later drink.
Iodine supplements – there are people on the internet who preach iodine supplements like there’s no tomorrow. However you don’t need them for an acceptable daily intake. Eggs and fish are easily enough. If you use iodine supplements anyway then a good option is this TPCS Iosol Formula.
Eggs – this is where I get most of my iodine from seeing as I eat four eggs per day. One average sized egg contains 18% of the RDA; 4 eggs contains 72%. Probably the simplest source. Eggs are high in acne minerals like magnesium and zinc, as long as you cook them correctly. You HAVE to eat the yolk; the yolk contains over 12 times the iodine of the egg white. Boiling eggs was found not to deplete the iodine levels in the yolk or white.
Remember though: the iodine content in eggs varies substantially. There haven’t been studies on the iodine content of free range versus factory raised eggs, but other nutrients which depend on the animal’s intake through soil and food, like magnesium and selenium, are as much as ten times higher in free range eggs.
Watch out for the goiter belt too. If your eggs are produced using low iodine soil then your chickens won’t magically get enough, and this deficiency is passed onto the eggs. The same applies to a cow’s milk. In the goiter belt, eating sea vegetables or tasty fish is your best strategy.
Dairy – dairy from any animal whether cow or human has to contain iodine, because a baby isn’t getting it any other way. A daily bowl of natural bio-live yoghurt adds to my iodine intake on top of the eggs, because yoghurt is the fourth best food source.
One bowl contains 47% of the RDA (71mcg). 4 ounces of cow’s milk contains 19% of the RDA and cheese is similarly rich, especially aged cheese like Cheddar in which the nutrients have slowly become hyper concentrated.
Of course, dairy is notorious for causing acne in those who are genetically prone to it, and that certainly isn’t a myth. We discussed dairy’s connection to acne at length in my eBook Annihilate Your Acne.
If you can handle dairy though, then it’s a great source of iodine. Studies on vegetarians have concluded that by eating eggs and dairy products they can enjoy iodine levels very similar to the general population.
Other seafood – iodine is hidden in many common and widely loved fish species. Scallops are the second richest source of iodine after sea vegetables, with 90% (135mcg/ug) of the RDA per serving. Cod contains 88%, shrimp contains 31%, salmon contains 21%, and sardines have 24%.
Fish is great for acne anyway; it’s very high in omega 3 fatty acids, which can reduce acne by 42%. Tuna is a good source (15% of RDA), but it’s contaminated with acne-causing mercury, so stick to small oily fish.
Organic strawberries – you almost never find iodine in fruits and vegetables, but for some reason the common strawberry is an excellent source. 100 grams contains about 35% of the RDA. That’s a lucky coincidence because strawberries are the single best fruit for clearing acne anyway.
So are you personally deficient? It’s highly likely wherever you are, but one place with high deficiency is the aforementioned goiter belt, where the soil is depleted.
The goiter belt states are found in the upper Midwest and Great Lakes regions. Around the world, it’s estimated that 130 countries have badly iodine depleted soils. Tibet is one region where goiter is an epidemic.
You’re likely to be deficient in iodine if you eat a diet high in soy because soy isoflavones block iodine receptors, but the solution there is to ditch the soy because it’s nearly all laced with acne-causing herbicides anyway. It’s also full of lectins and phytates and is generally controversial.
Raw green cruciferous vegetables also contain goitrogens, which are touted as inhibiting iodine uptake in the thyroid. However, these only show weak inhibiting activity and you can deactivate them by cooking your broccoli, kale, brussel sprouts, cabbage etc. for just a couple of minutes.
Which countries have high iodine levels? Iodine intake was deemed to be excessive in 11 countries: Armenia, Brazil, Colombia, Georgia, Honduras, Liberia, Paraguay, Somalia, Uganda, and of course Japan. The Japanese are obsessed with seaweed. 21% of Japanese meals feature seaweed and there are 20 different popular species including red, brown, and green seaweeds. The most favoured brands are nori, wakame, and Kombu. Nori has a massive 8mg of iodine per gram and Kombu contains 2.35mg per gram.
Japanese seaweed consumption declined after World War 2 as American soldiers brought over their own Western cuisine. But since the 1970s seaweed consumption has remained stable. Hence, one study estimated the average Japanese man to eat 12.5mg to 45mg of iodine per day. The Ministry of Health Labour and Welfare of Japan has a safe limit of 3mg per day.
That raises one last important point: overdosing on iodine is possible. In Japan, iodine induced goiter is very common and not surprisingly, this usually heals when seaweed intake is restricted. Likewise, iodine can impair thyroid activity in those with existing disorders.
Clearly, you should not go over the top then. What’s fortunate is that these side effects only kick in at extreme Japanese style intakes.
So there you have it. You can relax about iodine causing acne because it only does so in the short term. It’s like vitamin B12, which only causes acne at huge doses.
Furthermore it’s critical for your health. Iodine might be the most potentially beneficial micronutrient of all 32 of them because you’re so likely to be deficient. That isn’t true for your acne, but it is true for your energy, your mind-set and your longevity.
Consider the case of Japan. The average middle aged Japanese man eats 1-3mg of iodine per day, over 10 times the American FDA’s recommended intake of 1mg. Meanwhile the Japanese life expectancy is 83, 5 years longer than the 78 of the US. In 1999 the US rate of breast cancer was three times higher than that of Japan. In 2002, age-adjusted prostate cancer rates were nearly 12 times higher in the USA compared to Japan. Infant deaths were higher in the US in 2004: 6.8/100,000 against 2.8/100,000.
Of course, other dietary and lifestyle factors will be at play here. But combine it with the positive studies on iodine and the fairly limited side effects both on and acne and your health, and the solution is clear.
Thanks for reading!