Wondering If Coffee Is Really That Bad for You? We've Got Answers

Updated 10/13/19

Our thoughts toward the magical brown elixir known as coffee usually veer along the lines of “godsend” and “life necessity.” When it comes to coffee and our skin, however, things get a little murkier. Some say that coffee can exacerbate acne and dryness, while others say it doesn’t affect your skin at all. Thus, we did what we always do in times like these: turn to science.

In short, coffee is good for your skin because of its antioxidant properties, but the way that you drink your coffee could be causing your skin to break out. Ahead, you’ll find out the truth about coffee and your skin, based on some pretty eye-opening scientific studies and expert insight from dermatologists Gary Goldenberg, MD, and Whitney Bowe, MD. Keep reading to learn more about the effects of coffee.

What Is in Coffee?

There's no surprise that coffee contains caffeine—that's the main reason people drink it in the morning and rely on it for a midday pick-me-up. You might have also heard that caffeine, although a lifesaver when you're tired, is a diuretic that can cause dehydration. But is it really? Many recent studies have found that caffeine is a very mild diuretic at most; a review of 10 studies at the University of Connecticut found that 12 out of 15 cases showed that people went to the bathroom the same amount, regardless of whether or not the water they drank had caffeine in it. This study even claimed that there was no difference between males who consumed coffee versus water. It’s all still up for debate, but there’s an easy solution for those worried their coffee habit is dehydrating their skin—just drink more water.

Coffee also contains antioxidants. In fact, a surprising study from 2005 claimed that coffee was the number one source of antioxidants in the U.S. diet. Now, this doesn’t mean it has more antioxidants than fruits and veggies—just that we consume more of it. We all know that eating a diet rich in antioxidants can help improve your skin health, but research into the actual process of how antioxidants are absorbed and utilized in the body is still ongoing. We do know this: free radicals cause signs of aging, like fine lines, wrinkles, and brown spots. Antioxidants (whether consumed orally or applied topically) fight free radicals, and thus, help to fight signs of aging.

Is Coffee Safe?

According to Goldenberg, drinking more than four cups of coffee can be detrimental to your health. But he adds that when consumed in moderation, not only is coffee safe, it has been shown to be beneficial to the skin, thanks to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.

Meet the Expert

Gary Goldenberg is a cosmetic dermatologist at Goldenberg Dermatology in NYC and an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital.

Can Coffee Make Your Acne Worse?

By now, you might have learned to expect a breakout when things are particularly stressful at work. That’s because the stress hormones (e.g., cortisol) that get released can also trigger acne by making your body pump out insulin, which can cause your skin to produce excess oil, overproduce new skin cells, and increase your body’s inflammation levels.

In short, Goldenberg says, "Caffeine doesn’t cause acne. However, overconsumption of caffeine has been associated with stress, which is associated with acne." In one study, researchers found that those who drank a cup of coffee before going through a stressful event saw a 211% increase in cortisol levels, versus those who didn’t drink coffee. In other words, coffee can heighten your stress levels, which in turn can cause your body to overproduce insulin: bad news if you’re already struggling with acne. 

Additionally, the way that you take your coffee could play a huge role in your breakouts. “There are studies linking skim milk and dairy milk with acne,” Bowe says. “Whey and casein are the two proteins found in dairy that have been associated with inflammation in the skin, and acne, in particular.” But it's not only coffee creamer to blame. Goldenberg adds, "Inorganic milk can adversely affect your hormones and cause acne—so can white sugar and syrup." So, if you already struggle with acne, you might want to cut back on the creamer and sweetener and start drinking your coffee black.

Meet the Expert

Whitney Bowe is a board-certified dermatologist and the author of Dirty Looks: The Secret to Beautiful Skin. She is based in NY.

Is Coffee Good for Your Skin When Applied Topically?

So now we know that coffee has skin benefits when consumed orally, but what about when it's applied to the skin? You've likely heard about the wonders of caffeine in your eye cream or body scrub, but how effective are these products? "Caffeine in topical products has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties," Goldenberg says. "Caffeine in body wraps and topical products can also temporarily decrease appearance of cellulite by dehydrating the tissue, but again, these are short-term effects." In other words, if you like coffee-based skincare products, by all means, keep using them, but don't expect any miracles or long-lasting results.

The Final Takeaway

When consumed orally in moderation, coffee is not only safe for your body and your skin but is also considered beneficial. It can also be applied topically for temporary skin benefits.

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