Every day at my dermatology practice, young adults walk in trying to find the cause of their acne. Typically, they’ve tried dozens of topical products with lackluster results. But what if reducing severe acne wasn’t just a matter of what you put onto your face, but into your body?

The link between nutrition and acne continues to become clear. Recent studies have begun to also show a link between improving acne and dietary changes. Before buying another skincare product, consider hitting the grocery aisle! 

Foods that cause acne include:

  1. Dairy
  2. Sugar
  3. Processed Foods
  4. High Glycemic Foods
  5. Fried Foods
  6. Alcohol
  7. Gluten
  8. Eggs
  9. Caffeine

If you think Taylor Swift’s “You Need to Calm Down” might have been written about your pimple breakouts, there’s hope! Below, I cover why these sneaky foods cause acne, along with a few acne-healing foods that can help those zits disappear faster.

1. Dairy

Teenagers and, especially young women, are especially vulnerable to acne caused by dairy.

The American Academy of Dermatology estimates that 85% of young adults between 12 and 24 have experienced this unpleasant skin condition.  If you’re searching for what foods cause acne, you may need to start by breaking up with dairy (and then listening to more TSwift to heal).

Particularly in teens, study after study confirms that the metabolic effect of milk and other dairy products can increase acne. Yes, this also applies to skim milk or ice cream.

In fact, young women who consume cow’s milk regularly are up to four times as likely to develop acne vulgaris. This is due, in part, to the fact that dairy increases insulin — a hormone that controls blood sugar levels and can worsen acne. 

To clear your face, try lactose-free milk, almond milk, coconut milk, or more! Check out my 5 steps to eliminating dairy for practical tips.

2. Sugar

What other foods cause acne? Sugar causes acne by disrupting hormones and increasing overall inflammation. 

Sugar wreaks havoc spiking your insulin levels. This, in turn, causes your body to produce more androgens and increases your levels of IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor). 

These two hormones signal to your oil glands that it’s time to increase sebum production and tell your skin cells it’s time to grow. As you can imagine, this is the perfect storm for inflammation and an acne breakout.

Sugar hijacks your hormones, and even seemingly innocent dark chocolate can cause more acne lesions, despite its lower sugar content. To fast-track your acne healing process, skip the sugar.

3. Processed Foods

Highly processed foods are often another cause of acne. 

These Western staples are often high in saturated fats, empty carbohydrates, and calories. These elements have been linked to more severe acne cases.

Regularly eating fast food or highly processed, high-fat items causes acne, plain and simple. A high-fat, high carb diet can increase the risk of acne by anywhere from 43%, and adding on regular fast food consumption increases those odds to to 60%. 

Processed meats like sausages and burgers can cause a 24% higher chance of breakouts. As you can see, additives, chemicals, and additional saturated fat can throw your sebaceous gland (which produces the oil on your face) into overdrive.

To avoid processed foods, ditch fast food and shop the “edges” of the grocery store. Eat as many whole, unprocessed foods as you can.

4. High Glycemic Foods

Foods that rank high on the glycemic index (GI) are known to spike insulin levels, which is a trigger for acne vulgaris. 

High glycemic foods cause acne and can include:

  • Refined carbohydrates: white bread, white rice, and and rice-based pasta
  • Snack foods: popcorn, pretzels, and rice cakes 
  • Pastries: donuts, snack cakes, and cookies
  • Cereals: instant oatmeal (a double whammy paired with dairy), grains, and wheat products

5. Fried Foods

Fried, greasy foods can cause pore clogging in acne-prone faces. 

Not only do these foods often have a high glycemic load, but they’re usually fried in vegetable oil, which adds another layer of problems. Vegetable oil is high in omega 6 fatty acids, which increase acne and overall inflammation.

Steer clear of starchy or carb-dense options that can exacerbate acne.

Frying whole, fresh foods in olive oil or avocado oil, however, won’t be so damaging to skin health. Your body will thank you as you clean up your diet and clear up your face. 

6. Alcohol

Studies show that alcohol is a common aggravator of acne issues. Not only does it dehydrate you, which isn’t ideal for skin health, but it also typically has a high glycemic index.

However, alcohol’s most harmful effect is that it can throw off your body’s levels of testosterone or estrogen. As we’ve learned, skewed hormones cause skin issues. 

Keep drinks to a minimum and stay hydrated in order to avoid turning a girls night out into a breakout.

7. Gluten

Many people have a food sensitivity to gluten, which causes an inflammatory response from the digestive system. Even a milder intolerance can still increase inflammation and redness in the face (not to mention bloating). 

Cutting out gluten may immediately help with acne lesions.

Also, many gluten-containing foods have a higher glycemic index. Gluten is found in wheat, rye, spelt, and barley. Stick to low glycemic whole grains like quinoa or brown rice if you absolutely must have your carb fix.

8. Eggs

Eggs can fall into the same inflammatory category as dairy for some people. It’s also possible to build up an intolerance to eggs after overconsumption, triggering further inflammation. 

If you’re trying to decrease flare-ups, take a break from eggs and add in some other lean proteins.

9. Caffeine

Yes, your daily latte can cause acne. 

Caffeine causes an adrenaline rush, not to mention more than doubling your body’s stress response in a single cup of coffee. Anything that throws off your hormonal balance and increases stress (and therefore inflammation) needs to go.

If you’re considering diet as an acne treatment, so say goodbye to coffee and energy drinks. If you’re absolutely addicted or need a pick me up, green tea is full of antioxidants and will do the least harm. 

Best Acne-Healing Foods

Anti-inflammatory and acne-healing foods to banish breakouts include:

  1. Broccoli: Compounds found in broccoli include phytonutrients, DIM, vitamin E, and glucoraphanin. These can help the body repair damaged skin, regulate estrogen levels, and boost collagen production.
  2. Carrots: Carrots contain retinoids from vitamin A, which can help even skin tone and turn over a new layer of skin.
  3. Sweet potatoes: Sweet potatoes also contain high levels of vitamin A, fighting off inflammation as well as the benefits listed above.
  4. Tomatoes: Tomatoes contain lycopene, which reduces skin damage, along with both vitamins A and C, combining their powers to accelerate acne healing.
  5. Pumpkin seeds: Pumpkin seeds are full of zinc, which has been shown to fight acne lesions.

Supplements and dietary changes may also help. 

Two of the most effective supplements for acne are fish oil, which is full of omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamin D, an immune-boosting, hormone-regulating vitamin that many acne patients are deficient in.

You may also want to try a low glycemic diet, which has shown to reduce acne severity. However, always consult with a doctor or dermatologist or doctor before adding a new supplement or substantially changing your diet.

As they say, beauty comes from the inside out, and that includes our diet! As you eliminate foods that cause acne and add in ones that can heal, you might be surprised how your acne improves.


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