The Link Between Diet and Acne: Exactly What to Eat and Avoid for Clear Skin
You might have thought you kissed acne goodbye when you left your teens. Not so fast. Breakouts can still strike when you’re in your 30s, 40s and 50s. You’re not even off the hook if you were a lucky teen who escaped this growing pain, as adult-onset acne can happen years later, as a result of stress, hormones or just aging.
While there are numerous treatment options, there’s one you may never have considered: Changing your diet. “Growing evidence suggests that components of your diet can cause or worsen acne,” says Caroline Robinson, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Tone Dermatology in Chicago. Although research is still somewhat scant on this topic, some facts are evident: Unhealthy foods and certain animal products drive skin issues like acne while plants may have the opposite effect.
How Certain Foods Can Worsen Your Acne
When you have acne, four main changes happen in the skin, including increased sebum (or oil) production; clogging of pores by excess skin; bacterial overgrowth, and general inflammation caused by any number of sources. Adult women are more prone to acne than adult men, which could be driven in part by hormones. There is a link to diet, as well: “Theoretically, any food that promotes inflammation can make acne worse,” Robinson says.
Start first with high glycemic foods. These are foods that cause a spike in blood sugar levels after you eat like white bread, rice, cookies and cakes. “High glycemic index foods increase insulin and other things in the body that lead to increased skin inflammation and increased oil production,” says Rajani Katta, M.D., dermatologist and author of Glow: The Dermatologist’s Guide to a Whole Foods Younger Skin Diet who serves on the voluntary clinical faculty of Baylor College of Medicine and the McGovern Medical School at the University of Texas in Houston. Studies show that after people follow a 12-week diet with a low glycemic load, a measure that’s obtained by multiplying the quality of a food’s carbohydrate by the amount of carbohydrates in one serving of that food, oil glands get smaller.
Dairy and whey products can also drive acne by promoting inflammation, even if you aren't lactose intolerant. There are studies with bodybuilders that reveal that those athletes taking whey protein supplements developed acne. Here’s the kicker: “In some cases, although they haven’t responded to acne medications, their skin improves when they stop taking whey protein,” Katta says. So if you're prone to breakouts, stay away from whey.
Why might dairy be damaging to skin? “By increasing the production of sebum in the hair follicle, dairy and whey contribute to worsening acne,” Robinson says. Other hormones and sugars in the dairy may also play a role.
Taming Breakouts and Other Skin Woes With Plants
Studies on how plant-based diets benefit acne aren’t as robust as the studies on how certain foods trigger acne. Yet there is evidence to suggest that people who eat a diet higher in naturally occurring antioxidants from plants tend to have less acne, Katta says.
And there’s a plethora of anecdotal evidence about how skin health improves after eating a plant-only diet. “If you begin excluding foods like dairy and processed foods from your diet, there’s a good likelihood that your skin will be clear,” says Hana Kahleova, M.D., Ph.D., director of clinical research with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, adding that many individuals in its studies report this as a major benefit.
Acne aside, a whole-food, plant-based diet has other noticeable effects on the skin. For starters, research shows that if you eat a plethora of fruits and vegetables, especially those that are high in betacarotene (think carrots, sweet potatoes and red and yellow peppers), you have a rosier glow to your skin, Katta says. Even better? Wrinkles may be reduced on a plant-only diet. In one study, folks who loaded their diet with more fruits and vegetables appeared younger than those who were on a meat-rich diet.
Put Your Acne on a Diet
If you’re struggling with breakouts and want to try some food fixes, start by eliminating or limiting the added sugar. “You’ll have to experiment to learn how much added sugar your skin can actually tolerate, as some can’t handle any while others can handle a small amount, Katta says. Follow the World Health Organization’s recommendation and aim to get no more than six teaspoons of added sugars a day. And note that chocolate can, unfortunately, be an acne trigger for some people, Kahleova says.
Then work on ditching dairy. First, if you’re taking whey protein, eliminate that from your diet and switch to plant-based protein supplements. Then do some trial and error with plant-based milk and other non-dairy products to find which ones you like best. Just don’t expect changes overnight, as it usually takes about eight weeks for acne to respond to a dietary change like this, Katta says.
Finally, move that diet as close to plant-only as possible, which will guarantee that you’re eating large amounts of fiber. “Fiber-rich foods can help maintain blood sugar levels, which may play a big role in some people’s acne,” Katta says. Among them, low-glycemic index foods like beans, certain fruits, vegetables and steel-cut oats may be particularly beneficial for your skin.
The Best Foods for Your Skin. These Foods Help Fight Acne
According to Dr. Katta, foods rich in zinc like kidney beans, pumpkin seeds and spinach are anti-inflammatory in nature and can aid acne. Studies have also suggested that a healthier gut microbiome may reduce skin inflammation, which is why Katta recommends eating probiotic foods like kimchi, miso, and sauerkraut to calm breakouts. And because fiber is one of the most anti-inflammatory food components there is, veer toward foods that are rich in fiber like beans, lentils, and broccoli.
Citrus like oranges, grapefruits, lemons, limes, or tropical fruits like papaya and mango are great places to start. Look for anything with an abundance of vitamin C and fiber. C is for collagen, or it should be: Vitamin C is the building block of collagen, which makes up the cellular scaffolding of skin, organ tissue and vital body functions. There is no such thing as too much C since you'll just pee it away. Aim for a whole orange or red pepper a day, or get it with your leafy greens. Vitamin C is your skin's building block.
Avocados are high in healthy fats, which improve the health of your skin. Getting enough of these fats is essential to keeping skin hydrated. In a study of 700 women, a diet high in healthy fats was found to contribute to having springy, supple skin.
Avocados contain compounds that protect skin from sun damage. And avocados are also a great source of vitamin E, which helps protect skin from oxidation, an important antioxidant that helps protect skin from oxidation and toxins. Most Americans don’t get enough vitamin E in their diets
Walnuts for Omega 6 and Omega 3 fatty acids are great for your skin, and walnuts carry are rich in both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which fight inflammation. Walnuts also carry zinc, an essential barrier that keeps UV's harmful rays from penetrating your skin's outer layers. Walnuts provide vitamin E and selenium and have o 4–5 grams of protein per ounce so eat them on repeat.