I Tried a "Skin Cleanse"—And No, It's Not What You Think

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Full disclosure: My skin is generally pretty clear—only with the occasional breakout or dullness—and I like to think I’m pretty blessed in that regard. However, this past month really threw me for a loop: I was dealing with a ton of personal issues and indulging in food and alcohol to cope. So, earlier this month I was left with puffy, dull, acne-prone skin. I was ready to try something new.

Enter: The "Skin Cleanse"

While we all know the foods you eat affect your skin in more ways than one, I was looking for an even deeper solution, as my favorite skincare rituals just weren’t cutting it. My skin still felt uneven and dull, and while my breakouts calmed down a little, it was a far cry from the pretty much flawless (dare I say somewhat glowing?) complexion I was used to prior to the blip in my life that I like to refer to as "March." So, I turned to Dr. Rachel Nazarian, MD, of Schweiger Dermatology Group, to find out if there was a way I could tweak my diet and get my skin in even better shape than it was when I left it. And it turns out, there was.

Meet the Expert

Rachel Nazarian, MD is a board-certified dermatologist and fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology. She specializes in cosmetic treatments, skin cancer, and dermatologic surgery.

“While it’s been hard to conduct clinical trials that cut out entire food groups, we do know that foods that are considered ‘high-glycemic index’ items, or those that rapidly spike blood sugar levels, can increase oil production in our skin and increase severity of acne,” she says. “There’s also evidence that suggests that natural hormones found in dairy products, including milk and cheese, may mimic our own natural growth hormones and stimulate the formation of acne pimples. For whatever reason, evidence is strongest against skim milk. Greasy and fried foods are thought to potentially change the quality of sebum production of our skin’s oil glands, making them more prone to congestion and clogging, leading to acne formation.”

In addition, Dr. Nazarian stressed that I should increase my consumption of anti-inflammatory foods—defined as foods that consist of high levels of antioxidants—in order to fight free radical damage (aka, acne and discoloration). In short, I was to avoid alcohol, high-glycemic index foods like white breads and pastas, foods with higher levels of refined sugar, fried foods, and dairy. The foods I was meant to increase included berries, pomegranate, green tea, whole grains, salmon and other omega-rich foods such as walnuts, avocados, oatmeal, and citrus fruits. I also had to increase my water consumption to over 10 cups a day, as it would hydrate my skin from the inside out and give it that elusive glow.

Foods to Avoid:

  • Alcohol: “Alcohol can be highly inflammatory, and your body can actually look at it like a toxin,” says Dr. Nazarian. “It also decreases the hydration levels in your body, which could lead to wrinkles later on.”
  • High-glycemic index foods: “These foods get converted to sugar in your body,” says Dr. Nazarian. “This creates a spike in your blood sugar levels, and it’s been known to make acne worse.”
  • Fried foods: “Fried foods can increase oil production in the skin, called sebum,” explains Dr. Nazarian. “That sebum sticks to dead skin cells, which leads to plugs, and that can cause acne.”
  • Dairy: “Studies show the hormones in dairy rev up oil production in the skin,” says Dr. Nazarian. “This, again, can cause acne—and particularly skim milk is a trigger, but studies aren’t exactly clear why.”

Foods to Eat:

  • Berries, pomegranate, and green tea: “These foods contain antioxidants, which neutralizes free radicals and reduces oxidative stress on the body,” says Dr. Nazarian. “This helps protect the skin against environmental stressors like smoke.”
  • Whole grains: “Unlike the high-glycemic foods, whole grains don’t raise your glucose level that much,” says Dr. Nazarian. “This is why they keep your blood sugar stable, which helps skin as there isn’t that rollercoaster effect of spikes.”
  • Salmon and other products with omega: “Omega fatty chains are great anti-inflammatories, and these essential fatty acids are ideal for the moisture levels of your skin,” says Dr. Nazarian. “They’re basically what the building blocks of your skin are made of.” 
  • Avocado: “Avocado is also a great source of healthy fat, so it’s a similar reaction than the salmon and walnuts,” says Dr. Nazarian. 
  • Citrus fruits: “I love citrus fruits because they have high levels of vitamin C,” says Dr. Nazarian. “Vitamin C is essential for building collagen, which is the main structural protein for your skin, and it’s also high in antioxidants.”
  • Water: “Most of your body is water,” says Dr. Nazarian. “Too little water means your skin starts looking dull, but water is also essential because low hydration means the concentration of your sebum goes up, and the likelihood of you getting more acne increases too.”

The Experience:

Were there challenges? Um, am I human? In fact, I would say the first week was pretty brutal, especially given the fact that I was consuming so much dairy and alcohol just prior to starting the cleanse (cheese plates, I missed you so). I had a few headaches on a weekly basis, and it seemed my skin was actually getting worse—but according to Dr. Nazarian, that was normal. “There may be a bit of purging or things may look worse during the cleansing process, but it’s important to see the process to the end,” she advises. This is because my body was detoxing all the food I had consumed prior to the cleanse pretty rapidly due to my change in diet, and as a result, a lot of that purging showed up on my face while my skin was getting used to the change. I was also encouraged to do the cleanse for a minimum of 30 days so that my body could get used to it, as in this way, the foods would have time to really make a difference to my skin during the regeneration process.

All in all, my typical eating schedule looked a little something like this: Breakfast was oats with almond milk and blueberries or spinach omelettes with avocado, lunch was a huge salad with protein, my snack was walnuts or almond butter on an apple, and dinner was brown rice or quinoa bowls with greens, accompanied by chickpeas or salmon. I had green tea or sparkling water instead of alcohol, and aside from the very occasional glass of wine (some days just needed it, what can I say?), I stayed away from the “no” foods for a solid four weeks. And honestly, the final outcome amazed me.

The Results:

First of all, I noticed that my acne was pretty much non-existent, except for some under my chin when my period hit. I also found that my skin was definitely glowing—I didn’t need to apply as much foundation as I did previously, and I also realized that my puffiness had pretty much disappeared. I could finally see my cheekbones again! My blackheads were unfortunately still there, although less (I blame the NYC air). But overall, my skin finally looked like mine again. 

The difference was, however, that it looked like my skin on an exceptionally good day, and it was like the past two months just never happened. However, I realized that I had to consistently eat this way to maintain the results after the 30 days were up, and having excess pasta and a glass of wine one day absolutely showed up on my face the next—basically, the cleaner I was, the more dramatic my skin liked to get when I strayed too far from the part. But because I was no longer eating and drinking to an extreme, my skin was able to bounce back fairly quickly, even after all the penne the night before.

Things to Note:

Keep in mind that my regular skincare routine was also fairly consistent during this time—I still regularly used microdermabrasion and LED light, as well as extractions. I also kept up a regular cleansing and exfoliating practice, and used night cream, oils, blemish serums, and sunscreen every single day. However, this is a skincare routine I’ve kept up without any changes for over five years now, so if we’re really looking at what’s changed, it was only my diet and nothing else. 

Another important point, according to Dr. Nazarian, is the fact that we need to let go of the belief that we can control every aspect of our skin—such as my hormonal acne, for example. “Some factors are out of our control, and even the most perfect diet does not guarantee perfect skin,” she stresses. “We have our own natural hormones, fluctuations from stress, and many other external factors such as free radical damage that affect the way our skin looks and behaves.” If you have a long day at work, stay in a really polluted city, or just had a huge cry, for example, that could all affect your skin in ways you may not even realize. The best thing you can do for yourself, therefore, is to just try and get the basics right when you can—a regular skincare routine, sleep, water, antioxidant-rich foods, and stress relief practices—and trust that they’re all making a difference. But if you want to go a little more hardcore, well... you now know what to do.

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