8 Diet Dos and Don’ts for Preventing Acne
Eating a healthy diet can help promote clear skin and prevent acne. Find out what to stash — or trash for— Glowing Skin!
There are so many things you’ve wanted to leave behind from your teen years — and yet you just can’t shake the pimple problem. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), adult acne is on the rise, and 15 percent of women complain about breakouts.
Exactly what is often a mystery for dermatologists to unravel — and it’s more than just finding a good benzoyl peroxide cream at the store like you did when you were 17. Some experts think that what you eat may play into pimple formation, but they don’t agree across the board.
While some foods are suspected as acne-causers, including dairy, sugar, and processed foods like potato chips, crackers, and granola bars, “research is not conclusive on what foods cause acne. However, we do know that our skin reacts to different things from person to person,” says Gretchen Frieling, MD, a board-certified dermatopathologist in Boston. “It’s possible for different foods to have different effects on different people,” she says.
Your diet can influence the sebum (oil) production in skin, hormone regulation, and inflammation, all of which can set the stage for acne, says Dr. Frieling. But it’s not only diet. The development of acne is multifactorial. For example, emotional stress is one contributor to more severe breakouts, per research published in December 2017 in the journal Clinical, Cosmetic, and Investigational Dermatology, possibly because stress puts sebaceous (oil-producing) glands into overdrive. “While stress may not be the single cause of pimples, it does aggravate acne-prone skin,” says Frieling.
When you want to get rid of acne, it’s important to look at your body as a whole — diet, skin-care habits, topical products (namely, making sure they are anti-comedogenic so they won’t clog pores) — to find a clear skin solution that will work for you. “Some factors, such as genetics and skin type that influence acne, [are] beyond your control. However, what you eat can make a big difference in your overall skin health and the production of sebum,” says Frieling.
In a small study, published in April 2016 in Dermatology Practical & Conceptual, 71 percent of the study participants with acne tried to change their diet to address their skin concerns, but they often didn’t home in on the foods (including refined carbohydrates) that have some of the more strongly suspected links to acne.
Figuring out your own triggers may require some self-experimentation. The AAD recommends paying attention to your breakouts and asking yourself if certain foods seem to make breakouts worse, and if they get better when you don’t eat those foods.
Here are some foods to have on your radar — and how to build an overall diet that will keep breakouts at bay.
Don’t: Eat Foods High on the Glycemic Index, Such as Refined Carbs
- Some of the strongest evidence to date links foods high on the glycemic index (GI) and acne, says Whitney P. Bowe, MD, a clinical assistant professor of dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City and Medical Director of Integrative Dermatology, Aesthetics, and Wellness at Advanced Dermatology in Briarcliff Manor, New York.
- According to Harvard Health Publishing, foods high on the GI include refined carbohydrates and sugars — including white bread, russet potatoes, boxed macaroni and cheese, and other highly processed foods that tend to rapidly increase blood sugar levels. This spike in blood sugar levels triggers a cascade of effects that increases inflammation and causes the skin to produce more oil and plug the pores, which sets the stage for acne, notes the AAD. "Anything white or refined is something you want to avoid," says Dr. Bowe.
- Try switching from white bread to whole-grain and from white rice to brown. These foods (100 percent whole-wheat bread and brown rice) are lower on the glycemic index; they’re not only less processed, but they’re also higher in fiber, which slows blood sugar’s rise after a meal, according to Harvard.
Do: Opt for Fish and Other Food Sources of Healthy Fats
- Focusing on eating an anti-inflammatory diet may play a role in calming breakout-prone skin.
- “Acne is an inflammatory disease in and of itself, so foods that cause inflammation contribute to the pathology of acne,” says Frieling.
- More than that, chronic inflammation can lead to the breakdown of elastin and collagen fibers in skin, exacerbating wrinkles, according to an article published in May 2018 in the journal Cell Transplant.
- (Collagen is a protein present throughout your body, including in your muscles, bones, and skin, notes the Cleveland Clinic.) Worsening acne (lesions that are more red or painful), sagging, or loss of smoothness are indicators of chronic inflammation, she adds.
- Whereas unhealthy fat can trigger inflammation, “you don't want to steer clear of fat altogether," Bowe says. "You want to have healthy fats, like omega-3 fatty acids."
- The National Institutes of Health note that healthy fats include good sources of omega-3 fatty acids, such as fatty fish like salmon and sardines, as well as flaxseed, walnuts, and chia seeds.
- Unhealthy fats includes artificial trans fats, though these were officially banned in 2018 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, according to an article published in June 2018 in The Washington Post. You should also be careful to avoid overconsumption of saturated fats, according to Harvard Medical School.
- Sources of unhealthy fats include full-fat dairy, fast food, and commercial baked goods, they note.
Don’t: Binge on Milk and Other Dairy Products
- Several studies have pointed to a link between eating milk and other dairy products and an increased risk for acne, according to the AAD.
- Two potential reasons: These foods prompt the release of insulin and growth factors in the body, which contribute to breakouts.
- One review of 14 studies, published in August 2018 in the journal Nutrients, found that among children and young adults ages 7 to 30, eating any dairy was associated with 25 percent greater odds of having acne compared with skipping it entirely.
- "Milk proteins, especially casein and whey, are emerging as things responsible for the acne link," says Bowe.
- But there are also hormones in milk that are precursors to testosterone, and those along with protein may be a combination that triggers acne.
- Initially, we kept seeing a stronger link between skim milk and acne, and we still can't account for why it's more than for whole milk.
- One person may be able to handle dairy okay, while for another a dairy-filled diet begets breakouts.
“Our bodies’ reaction to these hormones may vary from person to person, but dairy promotes an insulin-like hormone called IGF-1, which can lead to breakouts,” adds Frieling, supporting findings in the aforementioned Nutrients review.
- Bowe recommends finding nondairy alternatives, such as soy- and almond-based milks that are fortified with calcium, if acne is a concern.
- They’ll also most likely be fortified with vitamin D — a plus, as some research, such as a study published in February 2018 in the journal Dermato-Endocrinology, has indicated that a vitamin D deficiency may be linked to acne, possibly because an adequate amount of vitamin D quells inflammation.
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Do: Eat Plenty of Heart- and Skin-Friendly Nuts
- Many nuts, like walnuts and almonds, are high in the omega-3 fatty acids that can help fight inflammation, as well as being high in zinc.
- Zinc is anti-inflammatory, reduces levels of the bacteria that causes acne (Cutibacterium acnes), and may also decrease sebum production, noted a review published in July 2014 in the journal Dermatology Research and Practice.
- Bowe says that creams and supplements with the nutrient have be used topically to treat acne. "I try to recommend getting it through food sources or taking a multivitamin because supplements can give queasy side effects," she adds.
Don’t: Overdo It on the Chocolate Milk (and Do Be Wary of Chocolate Itself)
- Like all dairy, the real connection between chocolate milk and acne is controversial, and needs more research.
- But early studies published in the 1960s and 1970s suggested that milk chocolate was linked to acne.
- That research didn't specifically look at what component in milk chocolate — the sugar, nonfat milk solids, milk fat, or the cocoa — was responsible for acne, and though it’s controversial, some subsequent research indicates there is a link.
- For instance, a very small study, published in May 2014 in The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, found that in acne-prone men, consuming 100 percent cocoa was associated with worsening acne.
- Later, a study published in July 2016 in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology compared the effect of eating chocolate versus jelly beans.
- After 48 hours, the chocolate group had about five more acne lesions, compared with less than one in the jelly bean group.
- While the case isn’t closed about if chocolate alone causes acne, based on the milk and sugar content of milk chocolate, Bowe says she recommends avoiding it for people concerned with acne.
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Do: Fill Your Plate With Antioxidant-Rich Fruits and Vegetables
- Also known for their anti-inflammatory properties, antioxidants can have a beneficial effect on acne.
- According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, antioxidants are in brightly colored fruits and vegetables, including peppers, spinach, and berries.
- In addition, eating healthy foods that are high in antioxidants can fight free radicals and oxidative stress within the body, which Bowe says can calm down acne. (The AAD defines free radicals as “molecules that cause skin damage and aging,” while oxidative stress occurs when there are more free radicals present than antioxidants to counter them, according to an article published in January 2014 in the Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention.)
- A produce-packed diet also offers “vitamins and minerals, such as zinc, vitamin A, and vitamin E, that reduce inflammation,” says Frieling.
- A few nutrient-packed options she recommends: carrots, pumpkin, squash, beans, spinach, kale, sunflower seeds, broccoli, and brown rice.
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Don’t: Go Overboard on Eating Fried Foods
- You should limit unhealthy saturated and trans fats — like those found in fried foods and processed baked goods — for your health.
- These trigger inflammation in the body, but contrary to popular belief, “oily, greasy foods are not what causes acne,” says Frieling.
- (If you are cooking with a lot of oil all the time, you might get oil on your skin, which could clog pores, she says, but that’s an entirely different issue.) “While most doctors and nutritionists would advise against eating these foods for your overall health, it’s not what’s going to clean up your skin,” Frieling says.
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Do: Eat Foods With Probiotics, Such as Yogurt
- "Probiotics are very hot when it comes to acne right now," says Bowe. According to the Mayo Clinic, probiotics are bacteria that are thought to have beneficial effects on the gut — they're often referred to as good bacteria.
- These beneficial bugs may reduce inflammation to help prevent acne, and when added to the fermentation process (to turn milk into yogurt), they may also decrease levels of the growth factor found in milk, called IGF-1, per an article published in April 2015 in the International Journal of Women’s Dermatology.
- That means yogurt could be one type of dairy that you can eat in an anti-acne diet.
- While more research is needed, the role of probiotics in clear skin looks promising. Probiotics are found in yogurt with live active cultures, sauerkraut, kefir, and kimchi, as well as in supplements, notes the Mayo Clinic.
- Although more studies are needed to confirm that they're healthy foods for clear skin, Bowe says that probiotics may create a healthier bacterial environment in the gut, and that may help prevent the cascade of events that lead to inflammation and acne.
- Frieling also recommends probiotic-rich foods to help get rid of acne. She advises including foods like kimchi, yogurt, sauerkraut, miso, tempeh, and kombucha in your diet.