Last updated by Dr Sarah Brewer on
Evening primrose oil is one of the most popular food supplements, taken to improve skin quality and to treat eczema, premenstrual breast pain, menopause hot flushes and hair loss. Up to 10 per cent of its essential fatty acid content is in the form of gamma linolenic acid (GLA). This omega-6 fatty acid from evening primrose oil has an anti-inflammatory action, similar to that of omega-3s, when intakes are sufficiently high.
Some GLA is incorporated into cell membranes, making them more fluid and flexible. This produces a noticeable improvement in skin softness and hydration within a few days. Some GLA is also converted into hormone-like substances, known as series 1 prostaglandins, which relax blood vessels to improve blood flow to the skin, decrease inflammation to reduce redness, and improve nerve function to reduce itching and discomfort. These effects can also improve hormone imbalances.
Natural essential fatty acid production
Although your cells produce small amounts of GLA, this process is easily blocked by factors such as increasing age, smoking, pollution, lack of vitamins and minerals and excessive intakes of saturated fat, sugar or alcohol. As a result, deficiency is common and is associated with skin that is itchy, feels rough and dry, and which can become prematurely wrinkled. Although dry, skin also becomes more prone to spots as oil gland ducts become distorted to trap grease.
Evening primrose oil health benefits
Taking evening primrose oil (EPO) capsules helps to stabilise the skin barrier and maintain hydration so skin appears softer and more luminous. Research has shown that taking evening primrose oil supplements can provide many skin benefits. It is one supplement that I would not do without – if I stop taking it, I soon notice my skin feels more dry and itchy. As a bonus, evening primrose oil may even reduce the formation of wrinkles, too!
A review of nine studies found that evening primrose oil frequently reduced the symptoms of dry itchy skin after several months use, with the greatest improvement seen in itching.
Evening primrose oil and eczema
Atopic dermatitis has been related to a deficiency of an enzyme, delta-6-desaturase, which is needed to convert dietary linoleic acid to gamma-linolenic acid. In people with eczema, evening primrose oil supplements were 25% more effective at reducing skin scaling, dryness, redness and itching than placebo.
You can also apply evening primrose oil directly to the skin for intensive treatment of dry patches. Snip open a capsule to apply the oil, or use a liquid evening primrose oil skin product with a dropper for easy application.
Evening primrose oil for ageing skin
Evening primrose oil helps skin take on a more youthful appearance. In one trial involving women in their forties, those taking 3g evening primrose oil for 12 weeks experienced a twenty per cent improvement in skin moisture, smoothness, elasticity and firmness, compared with those taking placebo. You can also apply evening primrose oil directly to the skin, where it sinks in to provide moisture and soothe dryness and fine lines.
Evening primrose oil can also reduce the over-production of the pigment, melanin, which is associated with mottling and so-called age spots in older skin. It appears to work by reducing the activity of an enzyme (tyrosinase) involved in melanin synthesis. As a result, evening primrose oil is included in some cosmetic products used to lighten skin tone.
A review published in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology included evening primrose oil among the Top 10 botanical ingredients currently used in anti-ageing creams.
Evening primrose oil and hormone balance
Evening primrose oil provides building blocks for making sex hormones, and some women find it improves symptoms of premenstrual syndrome such as bloating, breast tenderness, irritability, mood swings and anxiety. Research findings are conflicting, however, and the only way to know if it will help you personally is to take it for three months to assess the benefits.
If you have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), evening prirmos oil can help, too – especially against any associated acne. If you have been prescribed the drug isotretinoin to treat acne, one side effect is increasing skin dryness, especially around the mouth. In a study involving 40 people, those who took evening primrose oil supplements with their acne medication showed significant improvements within eight weeks treatment compared to those who did not take evening primrose oil.
Hormone changes can mean hot flushes cause significant problems around the menopause for some women. A study involving 56 menopausal women found that taking evening primrose oil (1 gram daily) for 6 weeks significantly reduced the severity of hot flashes compared with placebo.
Evening primrose oil may help with hormone-related hair loss, too. Although little research has been carried out in this area, the anti-inflammatory benefits of evening primrose oil, and its effects on skin, can improve hair quality. Many people give their pets veterinary evening primrose oil supplements to improve hair/fur gloss, shine and thickness, for example. It may offer similar benefits for human hair, too. If you hair is thinning, caffeine containing hair products (shampoo, conditioner and scalp tonic) will help, too.
Evening primrose oil and dry eyes
Evening primrose oil helps to reduce dry eyes, especially in contact lens wearers. A study involving 76 women who took either EPO or placebo (olive oil) for 6 months, found those taking EPO showed significant improvements in dryness and overall lens comfort. The viscosity of tears was also increased.
Evening primrose oil dose
The usual recommended dose is 1g evening primrose oil, taken one to three times per day.
Vitamins C, B6, B3 (niacin), zinc and magnesium are also needed for the metabolism and action of evening primrose oil, so it’s important to ensure your intake of these is adequate. A multivitamin and mineral supplement may be a good idea.
Evening primrose oil safety
Do not take evening primrose oil if you have a rare nervous system disorder known as temporal lobe epilepsy.
Some doctors recommend avoiding evening primrose oil if you have schizophrenia or a bleeding disorder.
Check with your doctor before taking evening primrose oil – or any supplements – during pregnancy. There is some evidence that evening primrose oil may be associated with increased risk of prolonged rupture of membranes during labour.
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