Acne at any age can take an emotional toll. So when there's literally anything we can do to prevent it, we listen up. We all know by now that environment and genetics are contributing factors, but diet also plays a pretty major role in our skin’s fate. Amazing news, because this means we have the power to take steps to keep at least some breakouts from rearing their ugly head. We talked to skincare experts to see just what foods we should be avoiding in order to keep our skin clear. Note that these are general guidelines, so be sure to consult with your doctor in the case of serious skin conditions. Keep scrolling to learn which foods cause acne and why.
According to Bobby Buka, MD, JD, New York dermatologist and CEO of The Dermatology Specialists, “Skim milk can make acne worse. It contains bovine growth hormones that are fat-dissolvable. Since there’s no fat in skim milk, they don’t dissolve. Those hormones, left in the body, can result in acne.” Yikes, time to reconsider our coffee order. Jennifer MacGregor, a board certified dermatologist who specializes in laser surgery and dermatologic procedures at Union Square Laser Dermatology, recommends, "getting dairy from a little almond or oat milk" instead.
What to eat instead: Probiotics. She also acknowledges, "Probiotics are controversial but shown to be anti-inflammatory in other conditions. I have my patients take them if they are on antibiotics and sometimes as a trial for 60 days to see if it helps." According to Shapiro, "Probiotics play an important roll in a healthy diet. They help to boost immunity and studies show that they help to decrease inflammation, may help with weight loss, regularity, and digestion. I recommend incorporating foods such as Greek yogurt, fermented sauerkraut, tempeh, or kefir to your diet regularly or taking a well-sourced probiotic supplement that contains over 12 strains of bacteria. It is essential that you eat probiotics with a high fiber diet to maintain and build the bacteria colony in your gut."
According to MacGregor, "Any refined, white, sugar or grain-based food (pasta, white bread, desserts, juice, or soda) are foods that are high on the glycemic index and therefore, release sugar into the bloodstream—followed by a crash. This wreaks havoc on our bodies, causes skin damage (and damage to other body systems), triggers inflammation, and worsens acne, rosacea, and other skin disorders."
What to eat instead: Whole foods. If you want to see if it might work for you, she recommends doing a 60-day trial. As to what you should be incorporating into your diet, MacGregor suggests eating whole, real foods (e.g. fish, meat, eggs, root and green vegetables). Darden agrees: "In general, sticking to whole, unprocessed foods is better for overall health which will also help to keep your skin glowing." Shapiro backs up these whole food health claims, stating: "Whole foods are not processed, provide vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, all which help to protect our skin and to promote health. Additionally, many whole foods provide fats to keep our skin moist, fiber to help remove toxins from the body and proteins to help repair the skin. By remaining unprocessed and not packaged whole foods 'come as they are' and our bodies digest and use them for energy much more efficiently. (Note: Before beginning any kind of change to your daily nutritional intake and for more serious skin conditions, be sure to consult a doctor.)
As a healthier alternative, MacGregor tells her acne-prone patients to get their carbs elsewhere, namely, "from gluten-free oats, sweet potato or squash, and quinoa."
Not only are pastries high in calories and low in nutritional value, but according to a study, consuming a diet rich in fat and sugar was found to be positively correlated with acne.
What to eat instead: The next time you're trying to satisfy your sweet tooth, consider reaching for some sugar-free treats. Amy Shapiro, MS, RD, CDN, dietitian and founder of Real Nutrition, recommends:
- Hard-Boiled Eggs: "Portable, high in protein, void of sugar, [hard-boiled eggs] keep you full and provide vitamin D3, omega 3s, b-vitamins, choline, and iron [which is found] in the yolk."
- Pistachios: "I love pistachios. They're good for your heart, are high in fiber, keep your hands busy, and a serving is 49 [calories]!"
- Good Pops: "These ice pops are a hit in my house as they are made from fruit and water, have many options that are vegan, and are portion controlled. They are organic and refreshing. Many flavors are low in sugar and calories which make them a great store-bought option and a healthy dessert when the craving calls."
- Dark Chocolate: "This is my go-to sweet treat that is high in antioxidants, fiber, and low in sugar. The darker the chocolate, the less sugar it contains. Some favorite brands include Hu Kitchen and Endangered Species. Aim for greater than 70% cacao for a healthy balance of flavor and health."
Foods that score high on Harvard's glycemic index chart are also no-nos when it comes to a blemish-free existence. Bananas are right up there, scoring a whopping 62—the highest glycemic score possible is 100. Enjoy a banana smoothie every morning? Don’t beat yourself up about it. We do, too. There are health benefits to eating bananas (especially in the morning), but if clear skin isn’t your current reality, maybe ditch the bananas for a while and see if there’s a noticeable difference. They could be contributing to your acne.
What to eat instead: Cherries. If you use bananas for sweetness in your smoothies, try swapping with a fruit that's a bit lower on the glycemic index chart, like cherries (which come in at 20 on the scale, as opposed to bananas at 62).
Before you go ahead and order that orange mocha frappuccino, know this: "Caffeine, sugar, and refined carbs cause a spike in cortisol in the body," according to celebrity esthetician Shani Darden. "Cortisol is the stress hormone and it’s what your body releases when it’s stressed out. This spike can cause your body to overproduce oil, resulting in breakouts," she says. Rule of thumb: If it tastes like a dessert, it will affect your body like a dessert.
What to eat instead: Green tea. Green tea is still caffeinated, but it's lower in caffeine than coffee.
Stick to low-glycemic foods like grapefruit, prunes, and hummus for a midday pick-me-up; your body will thank you. Plus, you won't have that annoying sugar crash after.
While this doughy-dairy combo is indeed delicious, it also ranks high on the GI chart, meaning, it releases glucose quickly. As mentioned earlier, this can result in a spike in sugar which can instigate inflammation, ultimately aggravating skin and contributing to acne flareups. Cheese is believed to further exacerbate skin damage—read: dairy face—if it contains high levels of hormones that drive acne.
What to eat instead: Popcorn. To satisfy your salty cravings, try air-popped popcorn instead of sodium-rich pizza or potato chips. "Instead of chips or 'healthy chips' enjoy air-popped popcorn or make your own popcorn quickly on the stovetop. Popcorn is simply made from corn, a whole food that contains fiber and b-vitamins. Additionally, you can flavor it yourself with sea salt or parmesan cheese and spices for added flavor and nutrition," suggests Shapiro.
While soy products are a popular way to get your protein intake, especially if you're a vegetarian, MacGregor discourages loading up on soy-based products. "A little is okay but look for added sugar and avoid eating a quantity of pre-packaged soy-everything."
What to eat instead: Nut-based products. A quick swap from soy milk to almond or cashew milk can help clear skin. Nut-based swaps are available for most of your soy-based favorites, including dips and spreads.
Dried Fruit and Fruit Juice
Fruit is a great source of vitamins and nutrients and should be incorporated into our diets—with the right portion control—but not all states of fruit are created equal. While whole fruit contains natural sugars, dried fruit and fruit juice are sources of concentrated sugar content. Known to promote oil production and inflammation, consuming too much dried fruit and juice would result in high sugar intake, which has been linked to acne.
What to eat instead: Trail Mix. Shapiro recommends, "Instead of energy bars, eat trail mix. Energy bars are often glorified candy bars filled with sugar and fillers to help them taste good. Trail mix contains a mix of nuts full of protein, heart-healthy fats, and fiber along with some dried fruit for natural sweetness and energy—and it's a whole food snack."
According to Darden, "f you’re eating a lot of processed and/or fast food, it’s going to show up on your skin. These foods tend to be higher in refined carbs, which means the sugar content is higher and the nutritional value is lower. Refined carbs cause a spike in blood sugar and insulin that causes inflammation and increased sebum production, which can lead to acne."
What to eat instead: Omega 3s. To get started on your journey to clear skin, MacGregor recommends, "omega 3 (fish oil/DHA supplement especially if you're not eating oily fish several times a week) since there is evidence that an elevated omega 6 to 3 ratio (common in the modern American grain-based diet) can be pro-inflammatory and lead to acne. Shapiro adds, "Omega 3s decrease inflammation in the body and also help with skin inflammation. They also help to protect the skin from UV rays, keep it moisturized, and promote integrity to enhance healing. Some amazing sources include wild salmon, walnuts, chia seeds, flax seeds, and krill oil."
Buka emphasizes, “Eating something like Sour Patch Kids is probably the worst thing you can do for your skin.”
What to eat instead: Dark chocolate. Buka did drop some good news on us, sharing, “There is no link between acne and chocolate. It was totally disproven in a small blind trial back in 2008 and again in later trials.” Dark chocolate is especially good for you, including being a powerful source of antioxidants.
MacGregor acknowledges that the idea that diet can help acne is controversial, however, she does reference how "protected hunter-gatherer communities eat a more Paleolithic style diet and they have no acne. To me, that is powerful. That said, controlling for any one thing in a diet is beyond difficult so it’s not easy to study." As with any dietary change, consult with your own doctor for personalized advice.
While MacGregor admits that she doesn't adhere to the above diet advice (exactly) herself, she does follow "a modified version that allows for additional carb sources like white potato, gluten-free oats, brown rice, some Greek yogurt, some wine, some cheese and dessert on occasion, even ice cream—we're listening, doctor—so unless you have a food intolerance, follow 85% of the above and you'll get most of the benefit, not to mention, make life easier."
Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology. "Acne: Prevalence and Relationship With Dietary Habits in Eskisehir, Turkey." 2011.
Dermato-Endocrinology. "Acne, Dairy and Cancer." 2009.