Acne is an inflammatory skin condition of the sebaceous (oil-secreting glands) glands. The more inflammatory your acne is the higher risk of scarring and hyperpigmentation. The goal of most nutritional acne treatment is to calm the inflammation and bring the sebaceous glands back into balance. In the last few years, lactoferrin has been appearing in acne dietary supplements. So what is it? Does it work? Who might it best suit?
What is lactoferrin?
Lactoferrin is a glycoprotein (sugar bound to protein). It’s found mucus tears, saliva, breast milk and semen. Dairy milk and colostrum also contain lactoferrin. One of lactoferrin’s essential functions is to shuttle iron around in your body. It also regulates the absorption of iron in your digestive tract.
So, what does this have to do with acne?
Well, lactoferrin is not just a one-trick pony. It is also antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and helps keep the pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory arms of the immune system in balance. These three actions are beneficial in treating acne.
How can it help acne?
The bacteria associated with acne is Cutibacterium acnes (formerly known as Propionibacterium acnes). While it’s tempting for those with acne to see this bacteria as an all-out bad guy, the truth is that C. acnes is part of the healthy skin microbiome. The trouble starts when C. acnes gets drunk on excess sebum and starts to take over the joint. Out of control, C. acnes releases enzymes which activate the immune system and cause inflammation, leading to blocked pores and pimples. Too much C. acnes is not good and attracts other undesirable bacteria such as Staphyloccocus aureus.
Lactoferrin helps dial down this wild party behaviour by inhibiting both C. acnes growth and destroying existing bacteria.
Lactoferrin also helps directly modulate the immune system turning down pro-inflammatory cytokines.
What does the research say on acne and lactoferrin?
There have been clinical studies exploring the potential of lactoferrin in acne treatment. Although results have been promising researchers are cautious in their recommendations noting small sample sizes. Some studies combined lactoferrin with a probiotic. This makes it challenging to determine what benefits can be attributed to solely the lactoferrin.
A trial of 36, 18-30-year-olds with acne took lactoferrin for 12 weeks. In that time, the inflammatory lesion count decreased by 38%, and the sebum content decreased by 31%. While those percentages sound promising, the small sample size can make this misleading.
A larger 2017 trial with 168 people saw a 28.5% reduction in lesions at the 12-week mark. The product used in this study also contained Vitamin E and zinc, which are two nutrients also found to have benefit in acne.
A 2019 study notes that lactoferrin seemed to have better results in severe acne as opposed to mild-moderate disease. Also, the benefits might be more significant in those with a genetic predisposition for acne.
In all studies, the lactoferrin supplements were well tolerated with minimal and mild side effects.
Lactoferrin seems to show promise as a component of an acne treatment protocol; however, researchers advise more extensive studies are needed.
Clinical experiences with lactoferrin and who might benefit
I have found lactoferrin a valuable part of a prescription for severe acne with inflamed cystic lesions, especially at the early onset. I often recommend it where there is a family history of acne, other immune conditions or concurrent digestive issues.
Clients have seen improvements within four weeks, but as the research suggests, 12-16 weeks use will give better results. However, it’s essential to address the underlying drivers of acne by improving digestive and immune health.
Key things to know about lactoferrin
Lactoferrin is generally safe. Supplemental lactoferrin is of bovine origin, so it’s not suitable for people following a vegan diet. People with milk/ dairy allergies can usually tolerate it. However, if you are highly sensitive lactoferrin should be avoided.
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Norelle Hentschel is an experienced naturopath with a clinic in Crows Nest, Sydney and Telehealth consults Australia wide. She enjoys supporting her clients to reach their health goals.
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