Diet and Acne: What Foods Cause Acne Breakouts?
Have you ever thought about how your diet might be affecting your skin health? Is what you’re eating causing your acne? Could a food allergy cause acne symptoms? Could one particular food worsen acne or increase your risk of developing acne, whilst another might lead to clear skin?
If you have skin that’s prone to acne breakouts then thinking about what foods might be triggering your symptoms could help you take control of your skin and even help to prevent acne breakouts.
The Top Foods that Cause Acne
Different foods trigger different symptoms in different people. What might contribute to acne in your skin, might reduce acne in others. However, there are some common foods (and drinks) that tend to lead to the worst symptoms in people that have acne vulgaris, to give it's proper, medical name.
The tough thing is finding out what, if any, specific foods might make acne worse for you. So here’s a look at the most common acne causing foods and why your diet might play a role in your inflammation and acne.
Dairy Milk and Acne
Cow’s milk, cheese, yoghurt and other dairy products have all been linked with acne, particularly in the skin of teenagers and young adults.
Studies have shown that eating a diet rich in dairy can trigger acne in young skin. However, studies so far haven’t provided conclusive evidence that dairy products cause acne, only that there seems to be parallels between eating dairy and having acne.
Researchers can’t find a mechanism by which cow’s milk may may you develop acne breakouts, but they do have theories.
Cow’s milk triggers levels of the hormone insulin to rise. Insulin has been proven to play a role in the development of acne. Dairy products also cause another hormone called insulin-like growth factor, or IGF1, to rise. IGF1 can lead to this skin condition by increasing levels of inflammation and sebum production. An excess of sebum, the oily substance naturally produced by the skin, is a major cause of acne.
Dairy products also contain hormones that are naturally present in the bodies of dairy cows, including the hormone testosterone. Testosterone is an androgen, or male hormone, that is present in both males and females. A rise in androgens causes an increase in sebum production and therefore can lead to acne spots too.
If you have acne prone skin, it’s likely that consuming cow’s milk and dairy products will cause your acne to flare up, so consider avoiding all dairy.
Can Lactose Free Milk Also Affect Acne?
Lactose is a milk sugar that some people are intolerant to. In lactose intolerant people, lactose causes stomach complaints such as pain, bloating and diarrhoea.
Considering that it’s the hormones in milk that are thought to trigger acne breakouts, it’s likely that lactose free milk, that still contains hormones, will still provoke acne symptoms if you have acne prone skin.
Can Whey Protein Powder Cause Acne?
Whey powder, often used in protein shakes, is a by-product of dairy. Studies show that whey protein can increase the risk of acne by increasing the activity of insulin.
As with regular dairy products, it’s still unclear how whey might trigger acne flare ups, but it’s thought to be linked to its ability to stimulate skin cell growth (useful for athletes looking to bulk up, not so much for patients with acne) as well as the insulin connection.
If you use whey protein in your pre- or post-gym shakes and you have acne, it’s worth switching to a dairy free protein powder such as hemp or pea protein to see what effect it has on your skin.
What About Dairy Alternatives? Can Soya Milk Cause Acne?
Soya milk is a common alternative to cow’s milk consumed by those sensitive to cow’s milk or that would rather consume a dairy free or vegan diet. Certain foods can worsen skin problems, in some people soya milk can lead to acne breakouts. Soya contains plant oestrogens that mimic our own levels of the female hormone oestrogen. This can cause a hormonal imbalance that can lead to an increased acne risk.
If you want to avoid dairy products, it might be a good idea to avoid soya too, and replace your milk, cheese and yoghurts with other plant-based alternatives made with oats, coconut oil, almonds and cashews.
Does Chocolate Cause Acne Spots?
Like with dairy products, for some people, eating chocolate can trigger acne breakouts, especially if it’s milk chocolate. But just like with dairy, scientists can’t find an exact method by which chocolate causes acne but they do have theories.
All chocolate, even dark chocolate that contains no dairy, can lead to an increase in acne spots in those with acne prone skin.
It’s thought that in some people, chocolate stimulates the immune system which leads to an increase in inflammation. This in turn can cause the skin to react to the presence of acne-causing bacteria allowing them to colonise the skin and trigger acne spots. Especially so, if you have moderate to severe acne.
Therefore, if you have acne prone skin, it’s best to keep chocolate to a rare treat.
Does a High Sugar Diet Affect Acne?
A high sugar diet causes your body to experience higher levels of inflammation which leads to acne breakouts. Therefore foods high in sugar are linked to high blood sugar levels and an increased number of acne lesions.
Consuming sugar also raises insulin levels very quickly, and a surge in insulin can lead to spots and acne as we discovered above when discussing dairy products.
Given that excess dietary sugar leads to obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers, it’s always best to limit it anyway. It may also keep your skin clear - bonus!
Having acne prone skin can is therefore another reason to go easy on the sugar.
Fast Food and Acne: Does Greasy Food Cause Acne Breakouts?
Does fast food cause acne? Like chocolate, it’s always been up there on the list when considering the link between diet and acne, but is it true?
Eating a diet high in saturated fat, such as processed foods, ready meals, red meat, fried foods, crisps, cakes and biscuits (hello, typical Western diet) is in no way healthy, for any part of the body. Skin-wise, there is a high correlation between eating a high fat diet and having acne. So yes, it’s true - regularly eating foods with high fat contents is linked to acne.
Dietary fat is thought to cause acne because in high amounts it can cause changes to the hormones that are related to acne development.
Also, eating oily food can leave fatty residues around the mouth which can block the pores, leading to acne breakouts around the mouth area. A diet low in saturated fat is best all round, with a small amount of good fats coming from nuts, seeds, oily fish and avocados.
Can a Gluten Intolerance Cause Acne?
There’s no doubt a diet high in refined grains such as white bread, pasta and rice is bad for our health. But can these refined grains trigger acne too?
Whether you have a gluten intolerance or not, it seems that foods like white rice, pasta, bread, crackers and desserts made with refined white flours can cause acne.
This is because refined carbohydrates such as these aren’t much different from eating spoons of sugar. In fact, the body treats them in the same way as sugar.
Foods and beverages with high sugar and refined carbohydrates are said to have a high GI or glycaemic index. This means that foods high on the glycemic index are turned into glucose in the bloodstream extremely quickly, giving us a sugar rush. Inevitably, what goes up must come down, and blood sugars then rapidly fall again making us feel low in energy and craving the next sugar hit.
This rush of sugar triggers the release of insulin to deal with the high levels of glucose in the blood. Insulin triggers the release of IGF1 and androgen hormones, both of which trigger the release of excess sebum. So it seems that sugar even in the form of processed, white rice, bread and pasta or any food with a high GI is a no-no if you have acne prone skin.
Therefore, following a low-glycemic diet may help to clear up acne.
Can Eating Eggs Cause Acne?
In some people, eggs are another food that can trigger acne. This is thought to be for three reasons.
1 - Non-organically reared egg laying hens are often fed hormones to increase their egg laying productivity. These hormones are transferred to their eggs, which then enter our bodies when we eat them. This can cause hormone imbalances which in turn can play a role in acne.
2 - Non-organic hens are also sometimes fed antibiotics to prevent and treat disease. These antibiotics can also enter our bodies via their eggs. Antibiotics, whether we take them knowingly, or we eat them in our food (meat from chickens and other animals such as cows is also thought to contain traces of antibiotics and hormones) can disrupt the delicate balance of good bacteria in our guts called the microbiome. An imbalance in this gut bacteria can lower our immunity which can be responsible for acne.
3 - Finally, eating all animal products, including eggs, can increase the levels of inflammatory markers in our body. This can then trigger acne breakouts. Aim to eat organic eggs or even better, try eliminating eggs altogether.
Can Eating Fish Lead to Acne Spots?
Fish is a great source of essential omega 3 fatty acids. We need to eat omega 3 for a healthy brain and heart as well as healthy skin. A similar fatty acid, omega 6, is present in cooking oils such as vegetable oil or rapeseed oil.
However, omega 3 and omega 6 are not created equally.
Omega 3 helps to lower the level of inflammation in the body, which helps to protect against acne, so eating oily fish could help to manage your skin and have a positive impact on acne.
But omega 6 has the opposite effect and can cause levels of inflammatory markers to increase which can aggravate acne prone skin - as we discovered the connection between acne and and consuming a diet rich in refined, high inflammatory foods above. It’s thought that many of us eat too few omega 3 fatty acids and too many omega 6.
Therefore, cooking in high omega 6 oils should be avoided and olive or coconut oils used (sparingly) instead.
It will be trial and error, but if you eat fish, aim to eat up to two or three portions of oily fish such as sardines a week and change the cooking oil to use olive, linseed or coconut oil and see how this might be correlated with acne in your case, and improve your skin.
Can Eating Nuts Cause Acne?
Nuts are rich in omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids but there are certain nuts that contain more inflammatory omega 6 than others.
To avoid consuming too much omega 6 whilst still getting omega 3 and antioxidant vitamin E which is great for healthy skin, eat a few walnuts, cashews, hazelnuts a day. Avoid eating too many nuts that are high in omega 6 including almonds and brazil nuts.
Seeds are also a great food to add to your diet for healthy skin as they’re high in omega 3 fatty acids and low in omega 6. Aim for a small handful of chia or hemp seeds a day.
Does Drinking Coffee, Alcohol or Sugary Drinks Cause Acne Breakouts?
As we’ve discussed, sugar can trigger acne breakouts in some people with acne prone skin, and this includes sugary, fizzy drinks. These kinds of drinks can lead to obesity and tooth decay and are best kept to a minimum anyway, but especially so if sugar triggers your acne. Young people are often lured into drinking sweet drinks by fancy advertising and influencers, but diet can play a role in acne in adolescents, so limiting sugary drinks could be of great help.
There isn’t any conclusive evidence that caffeine in tea and coffee can trigger acne. In fact, it’s thought that the antioxidants found naturally in tea and coffee are beneficial for the skin.
Drinking more than a couple of cups a day however can cause the thin blood vessels in the skin to constrict. This means that the skin will be starved of the nutrients and oxygen it needs to stay nourished and healthy. The research into the link between drinking alcohol and having acne is not clear. One or two alcoholic drinks may not cause a problem, but excessive alcohol consumption does lead to higher levels of inflammation.
As we’ve discussed here, inflammation leads to a worsening of acne symptoms, so anything you can do, including limiting your alcohol intake, to reduce inflammation is good news for your skin.
Can Too Much Meat and Animal Protein Cause Acne?
There is some evidence to suggest that eating animal protein, including red meat and lean, white meat, can lead to an increase in IGF-1, as consuming cow’s milk can. Therefore, consuming high levels of meat can lead to a worsening of acne prone skin.
Look for any links between acne flare ups and when you’ve eaten meat (it may take a few days). If you think meat consumption might be affecting your skin, try to eat more plant based protein such as lentils, beans, peas and chickpeas.
Acidic food, such as meat can also cause inflammation and lead to a buildup of toxins, which can negatively affect the skin. We like to live by an 80-20 approach to eating non acidic, or alkaline, foods. This means 80% of the time eating alkaline foods, 20% of the time eating acid forming meat if you wish to.
Does Spicy Food Cause Acne?
Sadly, if you love hot, spicy food, that doesn’t get let off the list either. There is evidence to suggest that such food contains lycopenes which are acidic and can irritate the skin by upsetting the delicate pH of the body.Also, eating very spicy food can make us sweat, and sweating can also irritate the skin by blocking the pores, leading to spots and acne breakouts.
It might be worth giving up the curries for a while, and seeing what effect that has on your skin.
Foods to Avoid to Treat Acne
So, what food causes acne? The message here is clear, some foods are linked to increased acne spots in some people.
As we’re all so different, there is no definitive answer, no absolute “dairy products cause acne” statements or conclusive evidence that “sugar causes acne breakouts”. (But having said that, both dairy products and sugar should be consumed as little as possible for good overall health.)
It’s up to us all as individuals to put in the hard work to really discover if certain foods trigger acne breakouts in our own skin. Once we do, we’ll know that to have clearer skin, we’ll need to eliminate those acne-causing foods from our diet.
If you think there may be certain foods that can cause acne that might be causing your acne to flare up, then looking closely at your diet will help. Keeping a food diary, where you record everything that you eat, plus what acne symptoms you notice for a few weeks will be enormously helpful.
What Foods May Help to Manage Acne?
What would a list of acne causing foods be without another list - of the best foods for acne to treat the skin right?! Some people find that following the Mediterranean diet versus a conventional high GI, high sugar, fat and salt diet can help.
There are certainly some foods that should form part of an acne diet plan that may help. As ever, we’re all different and it may take some time to work out the best food for acne for you. Here’s some of our tips:
- 80% alkaline diet full of alkalising green, leafy vegetables
- Berries, peppers, fruits and tomatoes that are rich in antioxidants
- Blood sugar stabilising wholegrains such as those in brown rice and bread
- Probiotic-rich, gut-loving foods such as kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut and yoghurt
Acne doesn’t have to rule your life – there are things you can do holistically such as amending your diet to avoid trigger foods, along with trialling certain medications and topical acne creams and getting your skincare for acne right.
If you have any questions about skincare and the treatment of acne vulgaris, drop us a line below, we’re always happy to help.
Discover what acne diet plan works for you - best of luck!
This article is not meant to treat or diagnose. Please visit your doctor for advice about any health concerns you may have.