Going through puberty can be tough. Many teens grapple with
social awkwardness, school pressure, confusion about the future, hormonal
But acne doesn’t only strike teenagers. In fact, many
people struggle with
it, to one degree or another, for their entire lives.
And even apart from acne, if you’re like most people, you want
healthy skin. You know that beauty isn’t just skin-deep, but you want to look
good. And you want your skin to feel good, too.
So, let’s take a deeper look. What causes acne? And
are there foods that cause acne, or even fight it?
(Spoiler alert: Yes, there are foods that cause acne — and
even better, foods that can promote clearer skin!)
What Is Acne? And Why Do You Get It?
Most of us have been there: Among our peers at school or at
work, suddenly dealing with an eruption of embarrassing blemishes that appeared
out of nowhere — as if on a mission to steal our confidence.
Acne is a skin condition in which pores (or hair
follicles) — usually on your face, chin, chest, or back — become blocked.
So, what causes acne?
The sebaceous glands of your skin create an
oily substance called sebum. An overabundance of sebum, in cahoots with
an overgrowth of normal skin cells called keratinocytes, can clog your pores.
Both of these substances can promote excessive amounts of
the bacteria that normally live on your skin, which can compound the problem.
Pores don’t like to be clogged. And when they are, the skin
around them becomes red and irritated. This results in what we see as pimples,
blackheads, and whiteheads.
But, what causes your skin to make the sebum and
keratinocytes that clog your pores in the first place?
Both male and female bodies make hormones called androgens, which are known to trigger the production of
both keratinocytes and oily sebum. Androgens increase during puberty, and
women’s bodies also produce more of them during and after pregnancy, as well as
with oral contraceptive use.
Acne can also be caused by a normal immune response
to the skin bacteria that cause pimples, and even by imbalances in
Your body can also react poorly to certain personal care
products, which will, in turn, cause acne to worsen. Choosing
water-based, sheer, non-comedogenic cosmetics can
help prevent clogged pores and clear up the skin, as can fragrance-free
products and pure soaps with a neutral pH.
But above all else, the food you eat seems to be the
biggest factor in fueling, or fighting, acne.
In fact, there’s so much evidence that the question of
whether or not diet plays a role in
acne isn’t really up for debate anymore.
What’s the Role of Diet in Acne?
Among people who eat the modern industrialized diet, acne
is almost ubiquitous.
In the United States, for example, acne affects 79-95%
But among many non-westernized cultures, including
New Guinea, Paraguay, and among the
Inuit and Okinawans, acne is virtually non-existent.
Coincidence? Research says no.
Foods That Cause Acne: What Are the Worst Ones?
If there were an Olympics for the diet that was best for
promoting the most chronic diseases, the modern industrialized diet would stand
an excellent chance of winning gold.
It’s increasingly well-known that a diet high in
sugar, processed foods, factory farmed animal products, and chemicals fuels
cancer, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and a plethora of other diseases. But
now we can add a new downside to the list: acne.
And here are the top three foods that cause acne and why:
Scientists have been examining the link between dairy
consumption and acne for a long time.
A 2011 study done as part of the Nestle Nutrition Workshop
Series Pediatric Program concludedthat in
industrialized countries, the habit of consuming dairy products past infancy is
the biggest cause of acne. The researchers suggested two solutions:
either we stop drinking cow’s milk or we create a cow’s milk that doesn’t have
these effects on our health.
The first one sounds a lot easier to me!
One reason dairy may contribute to acne is because it promotes insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1).
Dairy products also increase the activity of an enzyme in
the body called mTORC1, which contributes to the development of acne (as well
as many other chronic
diseases, such as insulin resistance, cancer, Alzheimer’s
Disease, Parkinson’s Disease, and age-associated diseases).
Even if you don’t drink milk or eat cheese, a lot of the
foods we eat today contain dairy. To be sure, check packaging labels
for an allergen statement that will tell you if milk is an ingredient.
You can also choose plant-based
milk products instead because they don’t share the same properties
that make cow’s milk promote acne. Milk, yogurt, and cheese made from almonds,
cashews, coconut, soy, hemp, and peas are nutritious, have many uses, and they
2) Refined Carbohydrates and Sugar
People who have acne tend to eat more refined
carbohydrates than those who don’t have acne.
In fact, a 2012 study done in 2,300 adolescents in
Turkey found that those who ate the most added sugars
had a 30% increased risk for developing acne, and those who ate the
most sugary baked goods had a 20% increased risk.
For one thing, refined carbohydrates can contribute
to acne by causing more sebum production. They also have a higher glycemic index.
When the body digests foods with a high glycemic index, like
white bread, white pastas, and sugary beverages, they enter your bloodstream
faster than those with a low glycemic index, like kale, lentils, and whole
Research shows that refined foods — the ones with a higher
glycemic index — play a role in
fueling acne. But studies have also found that
a diet high in foods with a low glycemic index canimprove acne.
Many researchers now suggest that dermatologists tell their acne patients to
You can replace high glycemic index foods in your diet with
more whole grains, such as quinoa, millet, barley, oats, and farro. Your whole
body will thank you — and your skin may even clear up.
3) Fast Food
The modern industrialized diet features a lot of convenience
foods that are laden with sugar, salt, and cheese.
One study found that participants
who regularly consumed fast food, specifically sausages and burgers, had a 24%
increased risk for acne.
We don’t know with certainty what it is about fast food that
contributes to acne. Perhaps it’s the dairy, sugar, salt, animal products, or
bottled oils that are usually in it. But we do know that it can fuel acne, and
that just might be yet another reason to steer clear.
A Note on Chocolate
You’ve probably heard that sweets, especially chocolate, can cause acne. But it’s not that simple, so
don’t go blaming your chocolate bar just yet.
There is some evidence that individuals who are prone to more severe acne may want to avoid cocoa,
which is the basis of chocolate.
But what else is usually in a chocolate bar? That’s
right — cow’s milk and sugar, two of the top diet-related contributors to acne. It’s
not chocolate’s fault that we’ve clouded many of its proven benefits with
so much dairy and added sugars.
What Can I Eat to Improve My Acne?
Now that you know the foods that cause acne, here
are some of the foods and nutrients that can improve acne and contribute to
clear, glowing skin:
Zinc, a powerful anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial, is
more than just a lozenge to take when you start feeling sick. It has also been
long studied as an acne treatment.
A 2014 study in the journal Biomed Research
International found that lower
serum zinc levels might be related to the severity and type of acne for some
people. Increasing serum zinc levels by eating more zinc-containing
foods can help clear up the skin.
You can take zinc as a supplement — as zinc acetate, zinc
gluconate, or zinc sulfate — or apply it directly to your skin. You can find
zinc in foods like toasted wheat germ, whole grains, nuts, and beans.