Can Your Diet Really Cause Acne?

We’ve all heard the old wives’ tales about how a greasy meal, bowl of ice cream, or piece of chocolate would lead to breakouts. But are they true? The AEDITION investigates.
Written by Meg Storm
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Can Your Diet Really Cause Acne? Rod Long/Unsplash

We’ve all heard the old wives’ tales about how a greasy meal, bowl of ice cream, or piece of chocolate would lead to breakouts. But are they true? At one time, the relationship between diet and acne was largely dismissed by the scientific community. Today, dermatologists, aestheticians, and nutritionists alike have come to recognize the synergies between the food we eat and the health of our skin.

“Acne is considered an inflammatory condition, so any foods that increase inflammation in the body can cause acne breakouts,” says Amy Spizuoco, DO, a board certified dermatologist in New York City. With that said, diet is rarely the only factor in determining breakouts. “According to compilations of scientific data, certain foods that can increase the severity of acne,” explains New York City-based board certified dermatologist Morgan Rabach, MD. “But it’s worth pointing out that, in the majority of people, diet alone will not cure acne.”

For those who deal with inflammatory acne (think: pimples, pustules, and cysts), understanding that certain types of food can exacerbate breakouts is an important part of holistically treating the skin condition. Here, The AEDITION breaks down the relationship between diet and acne and the best way to eat for a healthier and, possibly, clearer complexion.

The Relationship Between Diet and Acne

Yes, a plate of French fries isn’t great for your skin (or overall health), but it’s not for the reason you might think. “Interestingly oily foods — like fried foods and chips — have not been shown scientifically to increase acne unless the oil is wiped on the face,” Dr. Rabach says. So, what is the relationship between diet and acne?

“Typically, the more processed or refined a food, the more likely it is to cause breakouts. For example, foods with a high glycemic index — those that raise blood sugar very quickly — will affect two hormones, insulin, and testosterone,” explains Jennifer Hanway, a board certified holistic nutritionist. “When testosterone is raised, it increases sebum levels in the skin, making it more oily. When insulin is raised, it can lead to follicular hyperkeratosis, in which excess keratin is produced in the hair follicles and cellular turnover slows down. Oily skin plus blocked follicles can equal acne and breakouts.”

But that’s not all. The relationship between the gut and the skin can also come into play. “Foods that trigger an inflammatory reaction in the gut can also lead to breakouts,” Hanway says. “Again, a diet high in processed and refined foods can lead to increased intestinal permeability and an unhealthy microbiome, which can then create food intolerances and a chronic inflammatory response.” Acne, eczema, and rosacea flare ups are all possible side effects of this inflammation.

Foods That Can Trigger Acne

Generally speaking, foods that are high on the glycemic index are more likely to lead to acne. “A high glycemic diet causes oxidative stress and inflammation, leading to increased levels of hormones and insulin,” Dr. Rabach says. Those fluctuations can trigger increased oil production, which, in turn, can cause acne. If clearer skin is your goal, you’ll likely want to lay off the following foods:

  • Sugary, processed foods (think: candy, cookies, sodas)
  • Starchy foods (like white bread, pasta, rice)
  • Inflammatory fats and oils (i.e. corn, safflower, sunflower, soy, vegetable)
  • Dairy products (specifically, low-fat milk, cheese, yogurt)

While there is no clinical evidence to suggest that specific foods trigger acne on specific parts of the face and body, anecdotal evidence often reveals a correlation. “We know that hormonal imbalances cause breakouts along the chin and jawline,” Hanway notes. “In my experience, dairy can trigger forehead breakouts, [while] people who eat a diet high in inflammatory oils will often experience breakouts on their back and shoulders.”

Foods That Improve Skin Health

Just as a poor diet can negatively impact skin health, a nutritious diet can have a positive effect. “The number one recommendation I give to people is to eat a whole foods-based diet, limiting the amount of processed foods and focusing on quality proteins, seven to nine servings of vegetables and fruit a day, and some healthy fats,” Hanway says.

You’ll be hard pressed to find someone who wouldn’t benefit from an anti-inflammatory diet that is rich in fiber, healthy fats, antioxidants, and water and low on processed carbohydrates (read: sugar). With that in mind, consider upping your intake of the following:

  • Fibrous foods (bananas, beans, broccoli, apples)
  • Healthy fats (avocados, salmon, extra virgin olive oil)
  • Antioxidants (berries, citrus, kale, almonds, sweet potatoes)

“Foods that are high in fiber can help lower blood sugar and reduce acne flares, as can foods that decrease inflammation, such as omega-3 fatty acids,” Dr. Spizuoco says. “Foods that contain antioxidants protect cells from damage and infections.”

Additionally, Hanway has identified a few superfoods that she recommends to clients to amplify these skincare benefits. “I love to add in what I call the ‘skin saviors,’ which are collagen protein for skin and gut healing, turmeric and curcumin to lower inflammation, and fermented foods for gut health and minimization of damage from free radicals,” she says.

The Takeaway

While science has come a long way from denying the relationship between diet and acne, it is important to remember that food alone will not determine the quality or health of the skin. “Please note that even a perfect diet cannot cure acne,” Dr. Rabach cautions. “Most acne needs medicated creams and pills to treat.” Even so, consulting with a board certified dermatologist and opting for a well-balanced and nutritious diet can only benefit one’s overall health and well being. When in doubt, remember: “Everything in moderation is, of course, recommended,” Dr. Spizuoco concludes.

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MEG STORMis the editorial & content director at AEDIT.

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