5 Common Foods That Affect Acne–and 4 That Don't

Is food causing your acne? We're here to verify the facts⁠—and debunk the myths.

People suffering from consistent, painful, and annoying breakouts well into adulthood would likely do anything for clear skin. From treatments and ointments to procedures and prescriptions, acne is one of the most frustrating issues dermatologists attempt to solve. The challenging part about treating frequent zits, bumps, and inflammation is that there is no magical cure for all symptoms. Everyone has varying levels of sensitivity to their environment, products, and diet. Even so, dermatologists and researchers have been able to discover certain connections between some food groups and acne conditions. Here is what advice to consider—and what to disregard.

01 of 09

Sugar is the number one ingredient linked to skin conditions.

Bad news for those in a lifelong battle with their sweet tooth: those cakes, cookies, and other sugar-filled goodies can trigger breakouts. Papri Sarkar, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Brookline, Massachusetts, says sugar is the number one food ingredient shown to be the most harmful to our skin. How come?

Sugars cross-link our collagen fibers or twist around each other, making it more difficult for our body to repair. Glucose and fructose also link the amino acids in collagen and elastin, causing glycation end products, or AGEs. In other words, sugar can age us, too. "Although this happens in many different organs—not just the skin—skin is somewhat more prone to this damage because the damage caused by AGEs is also stimulated by ultraviolet light," Sarkar adds.

02 of 09

Foods with a high glycemic index can make you break out.

If you're familiar with the keto diet, you already know about high-glycemic foods like potatoes, sugar-filled fruits like bananas or watermelon, white rice, and so on. Glycemic index is characterized by a high intake of carbohydrate-contained foods quickly digested and absorbed, thereby readily increasing blood glucose and insulin concentrations in our blood, says Mamina Turegano, MD, a board-certified dermatologist for the online dermatology booking platform Apostrophe

From a weight-loss perspective, these foods offer little nutrition and can leave us feeling irritated and hungry. From a skin angle, Dr. Turegano says the uptick in insulin production impacts our skin cells and oil glands. This can cause our pores to become clogged and the surface of our skin to become oiler, leading to zits.

03 of 09

Those with oily skin may need more vitamin A.

Sometimes, it's not what you're eating contributing to your breakouts, but what you're not. Some people may suffer from acne if they aren't getting enough vitamin A through their meals, says Kachiu C. Lee, MD, MPH, a board-certified dermatologist and assistant professor of dermatology at Temple University in Ardmore, Pennsylvania. In one study, those with higher blood levels of vitamin A had less oily skin, and even a slight increase in serum vitamin A concentrations resulted in a noticeable decrease in sebum levels. Dr. Lee recommends foods like eggs, oranges, and dark leafy vegetables to enrich your diet and improve skin quality.

04 of 09

Chocolate doesn't cause acne.

While Dr. Lee says chocolate has been given a negative rap for causing breakouts, it's not even half as bad for your skin as a doughnut, milkshake, or baked potato would be. This is especially true for dark chocolate, which has a high cocoa content and low glycemic index. "Because of the high-fat content in chocolate, the sugars tend to get processed slowly, thus leading to a lower glycemic index and less likelihood of causing acne," Lee explains.

05 of 09

Dairy can be problematic for many.

Though the connection between dairy and acne is still a little milky (pun intended), research has found a relation, says Channing Barnett, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. Scientists are still identifying what's happening exactly, but lately, many derms believe growth hormones in cow's milk can cause inflammation and irritability. The same is true for many products containing 'whey protein,' often found in various milk supplements. Dr. Barnett always recommends that acne-suffering patients cut out dairy and switch to plant-based milk to see if it makes an impact—and for many, it does.

06 of 09

Coffee and tea don't worsen acne.

There are a handful of old wives' tales circulating about acne, and one blames caffeine for breakouts. But if you're already giving up milk in your coffee to fight zits, do you honestly have to sacrifice your cup of Joe, too? Dr. Turegano says no since there has been no clinical evidence connecting tea or java to acne. "Actually, in some studies, it has been shown that green tea polyphenols may be beneficial in reducing sebum secretion while also showing some antimicrobial properties, thus being potentially beneficial for acne," Turegano explains.

07 of 09

Drinking water won't necessarily keep your skin clear.

Have you ever made a vow to start chugging water in an effort to improve your skin? You might even be chasing after the elusive eight glasses of water a day. Being hydrated is excellent for our overall health, but Dr. Lee says it doesn't directly translate into clear, pretty skin. When we swallow and digest water, it doesn't impact the level of hydration seeping through our pores. 

"Rather, it is your skin barrier, made up of ceramides, lipids, and other proteins, that determines how well moisture is trapped within your skin. The best way to hydrate your skin is through using moisturizers, which replicate your skin's natural barrier to trap moisture in," says Dr. Lee.

08 of 09

Probiotics could lower your risk for acne.

It's hard to miss all the noise surrounding probiotics these days. From fermented foods to the controversial taste of kombucha, more health fanatics are giving their gut a second chance. But since our digestive system is tied to every part of our body—including our skin—a happy belly could also translate to a clearer complexion.

09 of 09

Dietary changes won't cure acne overnight.

If you're planning on giving up sugar and dairy for a week, you might see minor changes in the condition of your skin. But unfortunately, Dr. Barnett says significant impact doesn't happen overnight, and not everyone sees a difference.

"Yes, some patients can see a direct reduction in acne inflammation very quickly. But some do not. Don't give up. Changing your diet is a game of weeks and months, not hours and days," Barnett continues. "So start with realistic expectations, make those changes, and enjoy a healthy lifestyle. Besides, being healthy will help you feel more beautiful, too."

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