According to The American Academy of Dermatology, acne is the most common skin condition in the United States. Cystic acne can be hard to treat while being both physically and emotionally painful. As an Esthetician, I was often asked by acne sufferers if the food they ate had any impact on their breakouts.
Food can cause acne. Food can also help reduce acne. Research is starting to show a connection between High Glycemic foods and other foods that cause inflammation in the body, and acne. Chronic inflammation in the body not only increases arthritis pain, risk of heart disease, and stroke but can also trigger acne. On the other hand, eating a diet rich in fresh vegetables, healthy oils, and proteins can provide the vitamins and minerals needed to create healthy skin and fight inflammation. While diet alone will not cure acne, a healthy diet can be the firm foundation needed to build an effective anti-acne regimen.
Let’s take a look at which foods cause inflammation and trigger acne, and which foods help fight acne.
Research Shows That Food Causes Acne.
Finally, I can answer the question “does food cause acne” with a resounding Yes! People have known it for years, but the research is finally catching up.
I started working in dermatology as a medical assistant almost twenty years ago. Back then the answer to that question was this: “No, food does not cause acne. But if you eat greasy foods and then touch your face, you will clog your pores and cause acne.” At that time, there was no research supporting the idea that food caused acne.
Now there is! The research is small, and you will see caveats such as “more research should be done,” but doctors are starting to finally acknowledge that there seems to be a link between food and acne in some people.
Foods that cause a quick spike in your blood sugar, such as processed foods or foods with a high Glycemic Index are to blame. Also, foods that disrupt your hormones can be a trigger. This includes dairy for many. I will go more into what the glycemic index is in this post and also explore how hormones play a role.
On The National Library of Medicine website, Pubmed.gov, you can access several small study abstracts on food and acne:
- Read this research showing a study on the effect of a high-protein, low glycemic–load diet on acne vulgaris. Participants who ate a low glycemic load diet show a decrease in the number of acne lesions.
- This study abstract shows that there may be a link in a high glycemic diet that increases the production of hormones in the body that aggravates acne.
- And this is a study abstract on how milk consumption results in a significant increase in insulin and IGF-1 serum levels comparable with high glycaemic food. IGF-1 hormone is thought to have an impact on acne.
How Does Food Cause Acne?
Your body is regulated by hormones. Any number of things can disrupt the balance of the hormones in your body. That includes stress and illness, but also food.
When you eat foods with a High Glycemic Index, it causes a quick spike in your blood sugar. This causes your pancreas to release the hormone Insulin. Which is a normal function of the body.
Excessively high levels of insulin, however, can cause a cascade effect within the body and disrupt hormonal balances. It may cause a spike of insulin-like growth factor 1 activity, which leads to the production of more testosterone in the body. Testosterone increases the amount of oil that your skin produces. Too much oil will clog pores, therefore causing acne (1).
It is important to note that when we say inflammation in the body, we are talking about cells. The body contains inflammatory mediator cells, such as cytokines and chemokines, that initiate the body’s inflammatory immune response (2).
The body’s inflammatory response is very important in fighting off illness, infections, and wound healing. It is why you develop a fever during the flu. It’s not something we are looking to shut down completely.
However, if these inflammatory cells are put in overdrive, they can start attacking healthy tissue. Bodies suffering from cystic acne already have their inflammatory response triggered. It is trying to fight off the bacteria growing in the acne lesions. We want to avoid foods that unnecessarily trigger even more inflammatory responses in the body.
What Food Causes Acne?
Foods that cause inflammation cause acne. Also, foods that cause hormone imbalance cause acne. A big culprit for causing inflammation is food with a High Glycemic Index. While hormonal imbalance looks to be caused by Dairy, specifically cow’s milk, and Whey protein supplements. Other foods that cause inflammation include:
The Glycemic Index is a tool used to measure how foods affect blood sugar. Foods that have a High Glycemic Index are foods that cause a spike in blood sugar quickly after consumption. Any food with an Index of 70 or higher is considered a High Glycemic food, while 56 to 69 are considered moderate.
The following foods are examples of High Glycemic Index foods ( 4 ):
- White bread and bagels
- Most processed cereals and instant oatmeal, including bran flakes
- Most snack foods
- White rice
- Watermelon, pineapple
You lose Pop-tarts! Good day white pasta! Depressing right? It doesn’t need to be. This looks like an extremely restrictive diet, especially to Americans who love quick/easy/sugary processed foods. But once you explore eating fresh foods that are anti-acne, you will see how delicious healthy foods can be. Take that from someone who grew up on canned vegetables.
Does Dairy Cause Acne?
The link between dairy and acne is another highly contested theory. There is not a lot of research to support dairy causing acne, and yet the anecdotal evidence is astounding.
The theory that dairy can cause acne is based on the fact that dairy contains the proteins whey and casein from the cow. These proteins stimulate hormones in us. Specifically the insulin-like growth factor 1. If you are someone whose acne is caused by the IGF-1 in your body, then adding more IGF-1 would cause the same reaction.
According to Chromo Dermatology, located in South East Melbourne, “Low-fat and skim-milk may aggravate acne because the fat-reducing process could enhance the insulin and IGF-1-promoting components of milk. So, get onto full cream milk and yogurt and keep up the cheese but it’s all about moderation.”
This doesn’t mean all dairy is off of the table for you though. Goat’s milk doesn’t seem to cause the same reaction in humans because its proteins are slightly different than cow’s milk. Which is great, cause I love me some goat cheese and wine! Also, cheeses and yogurt don’t seem to trigger acne. Go figure!
How to Replace Dairy in your diet?
There are a plethora of fortified milk alternatives you can choose from. like oat milk or coconut milk. Just watch that added sugar. Check out the “Dairy alternatives: How to replace milk, cheese, butter, and more” article from Medical News Today for a much more comprehensive list.
- Replace butter with avacado.
- Replace ice cream with frozen bananas you then put in blender (I have tried this and it is quite good)
- Replace milk with oat milk, coconut milk, etc.
If you are going to remove all dairy from your diet, you need to make sure you are getting those important nutrients from something else.
|Milk||Contains: Protein, Calcium, Riboflavin, Phosphorus,Vitamins A, D, B12||To replace: Increase other protein foods: meat, fish, poultry, legumes, eggs (if not allergic), fortified milk substitutes; leafy greens, calcium-fortified foods|
(Replacing Lost Nutrients Due to Food Allergies from kidswithfoodallergis.org)
Do Eggs Cause Acne?
The chances are slim that eggs are causing your acne. You would have to ask your gut.
After cow’s milk, eggs are the second most common allergy risk in children(5). Children with an egg allergy often present with atopic dermatitis, a skin rash.
However, children most often outgrow egg allergies, making the allergy rare in adults. That doesn’t mean as an adult you can’t be sensitive to eggs. Your gut may respond to egg consumption by triggering an inflammation response (6).
How to Substitute Eggs in cooking.
If you want to learn how to substitute eggs in your cooking or baking, check out the Kids With Food Allergies website. This is a very helpful resource for this kind of information. For example, this page list ways to avoid eggs in baking. One such way is this:
“Eggs as a Leavening Agent
For recipes that use eggs primarily as a leavening agent you can try a commercial egg replacement product (see above) or the following mixture:
1-1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil mixed with 1-1/2 tablespoons water and 1 teaspoon baking powder per egg.
Note: this mixture calls for baking powder, not baking soda. The two products are not interchangeable.”
|Eggs||Contains: Protein, Iron, Biotin, Folacin, Riboflavin, Vitamins A, D, E, B12||To replace: Other protein foods: meats, fish, poultry, legumes, fruit, vegetables, leafy greens, enriched grains|
Does meat cause Acne?
Meat can be another acne trigger for some people. This doesn’t mean that every acne sufferer must immediately become a Vegan. Again, it all comes down to your body’s sensitivity.
Meat contains an amino acid called Leucine. A high intake of Leucine in the body can trigger a hyper-activation of the mTORC1- pathway. Recently, this mTORC1 pathway has been shown to increase dead skin cell production (8). Overstimulation of this pathway can also increase oil production. The combination of excess dead skin cells and oil production leads to clogged pores.
How To Find Out If Food Is Causing Acne?
If you want to find out if food is making your acne worse, you need to become your own hired detective.
I could try and go through every food people think may cause acne: Does chocolate cause acne? How about peanut butter causing acne? The answer is, there is no definite yes or no. Only you can discover that for yourself.
The first thing you should do is create a food journal. You can just use a cheap notebook or use this helpful “Food Sensitivity Journal” found on Amazon. Created by a Functional Nutrition and Lifestyle Practitioner and Holistic Health Coach, this Food Sensitivity Journal will help you find out which foods trigger a physical response.
Let’s say you want to find out if dairy is triggering acne. When you start your research, describe your acne in your journal. How many lesions? Is it painful and swollen? Nodular or cystic? And so on. Do this every day. Make sure to log everything you eat each day. Even if it is one or two pieces of Welch’s Fruit Snacks.
After several weeks off of all dairy, between four to six weeks, compare your acne now to your acne at the start. Is there a difference?
Then slowly add dairy back into your diet. Start with butter the first week, then hard cheese the second, and so on. Watch your acne carefully and see if it worsens once a particular dairy is added back in. If it does, that is your connection!
Keeping a food journal sounds like an annoying process, I know. Most of us want the answer now. I get that. That is why I said this process takes commitment. You need to know yourself and be honest with yourself; will you keep this up or give up? Do you have an unhealthy emotional relationship with food that will make giving certain items up too difficult? If this is the case, then consider asking a trusted friend or loved one to walk through a food journey with you. At the minimum, ask them to be an accountability partner for you. Do not look for shortcuts. I know the idea of sending some spit, blood, or urine away to a lab for a food sensitivity test in seven days sounds so appealing. Plus there are some convincing testimonies out there. But these IGG tests cost you a lot of money and the work isn’t sound. Plus they lead many people down a long distracting road of incorrect fears or assumptions about food (7).
What is important to remember is that what causes acne in one person, may not cause it in you. And just because a food is listed as an anti-inflammatory food, doesn’t mean you can’t be sensitive to it. This is why keeping a food journal is an important tool in connecting food to your specific acne flares.
For more information about food sensitivity and it’s reaction in the body, visit FARE’s website at www.foodallergy.org. FARE is a trusted resource for food allergies!
What Is An Anti-Acne Diet?
An anti-acne diet reduces inflammation and supports skin function. There is one diet that is thought to be the Ultimate Anti-Inflammatory diet. That is the Mediterranean Diet. This is such an amazing diet, I’m surprised the entire world doesn’t eat this way. The Mediterranean Diet is shown to help with weight loss, lower blood pressure, protect against stroke, and also reduce chronic inflammation,
Not only does the Mediterranean Diet consist of foods that do not trigger inflammation, but it also contains foods rich in vitamins and minerals essential for good skin health.
This means the Mediterranean Diet is not also great for fighting acne, but may also be helpful for other skin conditions such as Rosacea, Eczema, Psoriasis, and everyone’s favorite, anti-aging!
My only problem with the Mediterranean Diet is that it includes a lot of seafood. I DO NOT like seafood. Of course, if you are allergic to seafood, that isn’t great either! However, just because you want to try the Mediterranean Diet doesn’t mean you have to down a lot of fish. Just be sure to get some Omega-3 from other sources such as walnuts or flax seeds or chia seeds.
If you are in need of a recipe book for the Mediterranean Diet, I highly suggest this one by America’s Test Kitchen. It is found on Amazon here and is called The Complete Mediterranean Cookbook. America’s Test Kitchen knocks it out of the park with all they do, and that includes this cookbook. It’s more than just recipes. It is a learning tool with tips and tricks and expert knowledge of what makes each recipe work.
The Complete Mediterranean Cookbook
This is a valuable resource for learning about this diet and how to begin.
Includes helpful ingredient information and buying tips.
Wonderful recipes to make vegetables delicious!
Loading up on vegetables will help you get the vitamins and minerals you need to fight acne.
Which Foods Help Clear Acne?
Foods that build healthy skin functions help to reduce acne flares. You want to look for foods that contain the following:
- essential vitamins and minerals for skin health: fruits and vegetables .
- promote the growth of healthy bacteria: yogurt.
- are full of antioxidants: fruits and vegetables.
- good fats: unsaturated fats found in real butter (mmmm butter), vegetable oils like olive and coconut. Also nuts, and seeds.
- good carbs: whole grains, beans, and lentils.
- good proteins: chicken, turkey, lamb, pork, eggs.
Below is a chart with some of these essential vitamins and minerals and which foods contain them.
Remember, fighting acne with food does not mean eating more carrots to cancel out a day’s worth of processed foods and sugar. Fighting acne with food means committing to a well-balanced diet and lifestyle.
|Vitamin & Minerals||Benefit For Skin||Source|
|Vitamin A||Helps skin exfoliate dead cells better Promotes wound healing|
Combats clogged pores
|Carrots Sweet Potatoes|
Red Bell Pepper Eggs
Plain Yogurt Salmon
Be sure to eat with a healthy fat compliment so it can be absorbed.
|Vitamin C||Reduces inflammation Hydrates|
Promotes healing Helps skin to have a glowing appearance
Peppers Brussel Sprouts
Products should have L-ascorbic acid stabilized with Ferulic Acid.
|Omega-3||Fights depression Reduce inflammation|
Prevent acne Reduce acne
Improves skin barrier function
|Salmon Tuna Mackerel Sardines|
Walnuts Flaxseeds Chia Seeds
Fish Oil Supplements
|Zinc||Reduces redness Improve appearance of scar|
|Chickpeas Oatmeal Chicken|
Yogurt Cashews Crab Lobster
|May reduce stress and increase more coenzyme A. Some people believe acne suffers are deficient in CoA. CoA is important for the cell metabolism process.||Almost everything|
Eggs Vegetables Nuts etc..
Eating a diet rich in fresh vegetables in big portions will provide plenty of B-5.
Examples of Anti-acne Recipes.
Here are some examples of anti-acne recipes. If you are like me, getting a list of foods to eat is great but I need someone to tell me how to use them in a recipe.
Make overnight oatmeal for an anti-acne breakfast.
In a jar combine the following ingredients and then put in fridge the night before for up to two days.
- add 1/3 to 1/2 cup non-dairy liquid such as oat milk or almond milk.
- 1/3 to 1/2 cup oats.
- can add 1/3 to 1/2 cup yogurt (optional).
- 1 teaspoon of chia seed or flaxseed for Omega-3.
- 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon.
- In the morning top with finely chopped walnuts or hazelnuts and then blueberries.
- Mix of dark leafy lettuce.
- Half of an avocado.
- Crumbled goat cheese (optional)
- Chopped walnuts.
- cooked sweet potato
- topped with the finest olive oil, and some apple cider vinegar
Make a Soup!
You can add cooked shredded chicken to low sodium chicken broth and simmer. Add favorite anti-inflammatory foods/spices to add flavor!
- Whole wheat pasta
- fresh basil and parsley
- colorful peppers
- Italian seasoning
While diet alone can not cure acne, it can be a healthy foundation to build a skincare routine. However, when it comes to hormonal or cystic acne, you may still need the help of a skincare professional. Hormonal and Cystic acne are often resistant to products, since the clogging occurs deep inside the pores.
Skincare professionals can offer prescription medications or medical-grade procedures, such as chemical peels or light therapy. Yes, you can buy these types of products over the counter, but they will be nowhere as effective as those used in a clinical setting.
To build a healthy acne routine, you want to be sure to include products that heal and treat. For a starter, look for products with:
- Niacinamide – hydrate and normalize the lining of your pores.
- Benzoyl Peroxide – kills bacteria and unclogs the surface of pores. It can bleach towels and pillowcases.
- Salicylic Acid – penetrates into pores to unclog and exfoliate. Reduces redness
- Retinol – reduces oil, exfoliates, and unclogs pores. Can be irritating so add gradually. Use at night. Be sure to use sunscreen during the day.
For a quick product recommendation, I highly recommend Paula’s Choice. This product line offers an amazing BHA leave-on exfoliation product which I personally love. They have also recently come out with an at-home salicylic peel product which I can’t wait to try.
For acne, I would recommend trying Paula’s Choice 4-Step Clear product line. When trying any new products remember that there will be a time of “purging,” when your acne gets worse. You should also add products slowly into your routine to make sure your skin can tolerate them. Watch for rashes or irritation.
These Paula Choice products can be found on Amazon here. Be sure it says “Sold By Paula’s Choice” by the add to cart button.
Together with a good home skincare regimen, a healthy diet can play a role in clear skin. Fresh vegetables, healthy fats, and foods packed with antioxidants can help provide your skin with the essential building blocks for proper function. Finding out if food is a trigger for your acne takes time and commitment. Shortcuts can not be taken and patience is key. With any change to your acne-fighting routine, you must give it a minimum of four weeks to start to see improvement. Don’t be afraid to consult with a skincare professional for help selecting skincare products, or a licensed nutritionist to help walk you through an anti-inflammatory eating lifestyle.