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

By Lindsay Tigar
February 27, 2020
Getty Images

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

1
Sugar is the number one food ingredient linked to skin conditions.

Bad news for those who are in a lifelong battle with their sweet tooth: those cakes, cookies, and other sugar-filled goodies can trigger breakouts. In fact, Papri Sarkar, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Brookline, Mass., says sugar is the number one food ingredient that has been shown to be the most deleterious 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,” she adds.

2
Foods with a high glycemic index can make you break out.

If you’re familiar with the keto diet, then you already know abut high-glycemic foods, like potatoes, sugar-filled fruits like bananas or watermelon, white rice, and so on. Glycemic index is characterized by high intake of carbohydrate-contained foods that are 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.

3
Those with oily skin may need more vitamin A. 

Sometimes, it’s not what you’re eating that’s 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, Penn. In one study, those who had 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. 

4
Chocolate doesn’t cause acne.  

While Dr. Lee says chocolate has been given a negative rap for causing breakouts, it’s actually 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,” she explains.

5
Dairy can be problematic for many.

Though the connection between dairy and acne is still a little milky (pun intended), research has found a connection, says Channing Barnett, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. Scientists are still identifying exactly what’s happening, 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,’ which is often found in various milk supplements. Dr. Barnett always recommends his acne-suffering patients cut out dairy and switch to plant-based milk to see if it makes an impact—and for many, it does.

RELATED: We Tried 124 Dairy-Free Milks—Here Are Our 6 Favorites

6
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 really 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,” she says. 

7
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 great for our overall health, but Dr. Lee says it doesn’t directly translate into clear, pretty skin. In fact, when we swallow and digest water, it doesn't make an impact on 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.

RELATED: These Are the 6 Best Face Moisturizers for Acne-Prone Skin

8
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 gut could also translate to a clearer complexion. Probiotic supplements offer your gut the friendly microbes it needs to fend off bad bacteria and parasites, says Sonia Vaidian, an assistant medical director at the online health advisory brand EHE Health. “Good bacteria also assist with many vital functions in the body and are linked to lower inflammation," she says. "In fact, one study found that taking probiotic supplements is directly linked to a lower prevalence of acne."

9
Dietary changes won’t cure acne overnight. 

If you’re planning on giving up sugar and dairy for a week, you might see a small change in the condition of your skin. But unfortunately, Dr. Barnett says significant impact doesn’t happen overnight and it doesn’t make a difference for everyone. “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,” he continues. “So start with realistic expectations, make those changes, and enjoy a healthy lifestyle. Besides, being healthy will help you feel more beautiful, too.”

RELATED: The 8 Best Foods to Eat for Healthy-Looking Skin

Advertisement