Identifying the source of your breakouts can be one of the most infuriating processes on the planet. Trust me, I've been there. You try everything: Switching up your skincare products, getting prescription medication from the derm, sleeping on a silk pillowcase, meditating, praying, crying. Interestingly, though, when it comes to nailing down acne causes, our diet is often the last place we look (when it should be the first).
"Your diet and food have a direct impact on your skin," explains naturopathic doctor Gabrielle Francis. "If you are eating foods that are toxic, and the burden is too great for your liver and gut to eliminate them, then they will start to come out of the skin. A poor diet will cause inflammation, rashes, acne, dryness, wrinkles, and early aging."
But what exactly does "a poor diet" mean, when it comes to your skin? We all eat such a wide variety of foods (some seemingly healthy, others not so much) that recognizing which of them is the acne culprit can be a whole project in and of itself. "When it comes to acne, nothing is off the table, as every person's body responds differently," says celebrity esthetician Renée Rouleau. That said, there are certain foods that trigger breakouts, inflammation, and other skin issues far more commonly than the rest.
Keep scrolling to discover the foods that might be messing with your skin, according to experts.
Potential Breakout Foods
"By far, this is the most problematic food for causing problems with the skin for Americans," says Rouleau. The problem with cheese, ice cream, and other dairy products is that they are mucus forming and hard to digest (thus the widespread phenomenon of lactose intolerance). "So when you get too much dairy for your body to digest, it may come out in the form of cystic acne (hard, painful bumps under the skin) on the chin and jawline area," says Rouleau. The reason, as Rouleau explains, is that the hormone levels in mass-produced milk products "may play a role in excess sebum production, which promotes acne."
Why must something so pretty and delicious cause such suffering? According to Debbie Palmer, DO, a holistic dermatologist and the author of Beyond Beauty, "Sugar or high-glycemic foods like soda, candy, desserts, and white bread are bad for the body and skin because they spike blood insulin levels and cause systemic inflammation." Not only can this inflammation lead to rashes, eczema, and acne, but it also causes the production of enzymes that break down collagen and elastin, enhancing the signs of aging.
No surprises here: When consumed in excess (that means more than seven drinks a week on average for women), alcohol can have a number of negative effects on the skin. "Alcohol is a diuretic that causes water loss in the body and skin," Palmer says. "This loss of moisture can cause fine lines and wrinkles to become more apparent. Alcohol can also trigger a facial rosacea flare."
In addition, too much rosé can deplete your body's supply of antioxidants, which is crucial for keeping your pores clear and breakout-free.
According to Rouleau, citrusy food is a seldom-discussed but very possible cause of certain breakouts. "I don't hear much talk among industry professionals on this one, but I have experienced some clients who have found that eliminating acidic foods (tomatoes, salsa, spaghetti sauce) and citrus fruits (oranges, grapefruit) from their diet has helped to clear up breakouts when they appear in the cheek area," she says.
As we learned earlier this year, hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils are some of the worst ingredients a human can eat. Often found in processed and pre-packaged foods, these trans fat–containing oils are linked to everything from weight gain to Alzheimer's to excess oil production and skin aging. "Hydrogenated fats disrupt the cellular membranes of the skin causing a reduction in elasticity," Francis explains. "This makes skin saggy, dry, and promotes aging."
If it isn't any of the foods listed above, your acne might be linked to soy. "There are natural plant estrogens found in soybeans," Palmer says. "Phytoestrogens mimic human estrogen and can throw off our hormones." Though more research needs to be done on the matter, Palmer recommends that acne sufferers limit their consumption of tofu, veggie burgers, and other soy-laden culprits.
Potential Diet Tweaks
If you suspect your breakouts might be diet-related, Rouleau recommends trying one of three techniques. The first: "Do an elimination diet such as The Whole30," she says. "This is where you completely remove certain food groups—potential 'trigger foods'—from your diet for 30 days. After 30 days, you slowly reintroduce them back into your diet to determine what may be the culprit."
You can also try making "partial eliminations." Let's say you get cystic breakouts along your chin and jaw. In that case, you might remove dairy from your diet for several weeks. "If you don't develop any new cysts in a three week time period, then this might be the solution to your problem," Rouleau says.
The third option is to keep a daily lifestyle diary to help you determine all possible causes of your breakouts, diet and otherwise. "At the end of a month, being able to see the entire 30-day period at a glance will allow you to look for any possible patterns," Rouleau says. "Generally, food-related blemishes occur 12 to 36 hours after eating the potential culprit. So when you do get new breakouts, assuming nothing else has changed in your lifestyle or with your skincare products, you can look back and see what you were eating."