Iron-induced cystic acne

(This is an update of a 2011 post.)

Except for several regrettable weeks in 1995 when I was drinking seven cans of Pepsi a day, I have rarely been bothered by anything but the occasional pimple despite heavy chocolate abuse, which I’m guessing is offset by my heavy water drinking.

But then ten years ago, in a desperate attempt to get some energy, I started taking about 100 mg of iron a day. I had taken iron off and on, sometimes for years at a time, sometimes at 150 mgs at a time, but had never been able to get my ferritin levels past 26. Conventional doctors feel this number is fine, but… don’t get me started on how stupid lab ranges are. Even though iron had done nothing for me in the past before except energize me for two days and then disable me with zombie brain and splitting headaches, I tried it one more time for about a week.

I was rewarded with all new reactions: the kind of vertigo that makes you have to throw up when you stand up, and the kind of acne that erupts even under the hair in large, painful cysts. Since I’d been eating poorly and avoiding supplements for two years — from constant exhaustion, and because the whole nutritional therapy thing really can be a pain in the ass — I knew I was most likely deficient in a whole lotta stuff. I figured the iron was outcompeting other nutrients.

First, obviously, I quit the iron. The vertigo got better but still hung on. Since I was also experiencing dry eyes, which I had learned earlier was what happens when my vitamin A levels fall, and since vitamin A was one of the nutrients that competes with iron, I thought I’d start with that. I did an internet search for an association with vertigo, found it, and decided to try 30,000 IU a day. The vertigo went away in about three days. I kept taking a smaller dose for a few weeks, until it, too, gave me headaches.

This also put a small dent in the acne, but not enough. It was a very minor case compared to what some people experience, but still, it did not go away for weeks and I had the scars for A YEAR. My friend suffered this several times a year and always ended up going to the dermatologist for a cortisone shot, but my insurance wouldn’t cover that.

Zinc is closely associated with acne (as is vitamin A) but I didn’t think of this for a while because for years my first sign of lower zinc levels would be a plummeting mood, which I did not have, except for the normal feeling you get when you have to appear in public looking like a disfigured freak. (This is another example of how your deficiency symptoms will change over time.) I finally got wise and looked online at a bunch of forums on the subject and decided to try 90 mg a day for a while. The acne was gone in four days (having lingered for weeks up to that point). I kept taking a smaller dose for several weeks — 50 mg and then 25 mg.

After that lovely episode, I remembered that in high school and college I would get a much milder case of these cysts, in the same place every time. (But not in the places I had them for this episode.) According to, , “unresolved nodules can sometimes leave an impaction behind, which can flare again and again.” That might be an argument for taking the zinc long after the cyst disappears, to make sure you’re getting rid of all the crap that lies beneath.

In my later self-experiment with super-mega-walloping doses of iodine, the zinc/acne issue was also a problem, but 25 mg every other day was enough to prevent it.


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