If you’ve ever suffered from acne or even an annoying pimple here and there, you’ve probably tried to rack your brain with what could have been the cause. While there are many known causes of acne, diet tends to be the most popular one to blame. Even though there is evidence that certain foods and food groups can be the source of a person’s acne, there may not be as clear of a path as once believed.
Outside of diet, some other factors to consider are sebum production, the oily substance produced by your body to protect your skin, keratin production, bacteria, hormones, blocked pores, and inflammation.1
When it comes to diet, the main factors that have been suggested to be connected to acne production are refined carbohydrates, dairy, and ultra-processed foods. Let’s take a look at why these food groups could be the cause of your acne!
What Foods Can Cause Acne?
Studies show that there continues to be a connection between a Western diet and acne. One of the things that a Western diet most commonly contains is an abundance of refined carbohydrates and, more specifically, foods with a high glycemic load. Some foods with a high glycemic load include sugar, white bread, and white rice. These foods are highly refined and therefore are quickly absorbed by the body, which leads to higher blood sugar levels and, in turn, elevated insulin levels. Further, insulin andinsulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) have both been found to increase the production of sebum, which plays a role in the development of acne.
Studies that have tested this theory have found that a diet low in glycemic load resulted in an improvement in acne, decreased inflammation, and improved insulin sensitivity.2
Dairy has long been to blame for the cause of acne for a couple of theorized reasons. First, milk has been reported to increase IGF-1 levels. IGF-1 is a hormone that manages the effects of growth hormone (GH); therefore, increased IGF-1 has been shown to increase the production of acne. Additionally, one of the primary proteins in milk is casein, and since casein greatly stimulates IGF-1, this could be a reason milk could cause the production of acne.
Secondly, skin that is oilier is more prone to blockages which can lead to acne. And hormones found naturally in milk have been shown to overstimulate the oil glands leading to acne.2
Another theory that backs up the idea that dairy causes acne is related to the content of carbohydrates in dairy products. Similar to refined carbohydrates, the blood sugars and IGF-1 may be increased due to the carbohydrates in some dairy products, particularly nonfat products.
Much like refined carbohydrates, other types of ultra-processed foods have been linked to acne production. Most ultra-processed foods have a few things in common—one of them is that they are highly refined. Additionally, many of them also contain high amounts of saturated fats and omega-6 fatty acids. The reason this is notable is that increased trans-fat and saturated fat consumption have been shown to worsen the severity of acne.
A typical Western diet not only consists of these trans-fats and saturated fats but also has higher amounts of omega-6 fatty acids compared to omega-3 fatty acids. Ideally, this ratio would be closer to 1:1, but, nowadays, it’s closer to 16:1.4 Studies also show that adding an omega-3 supplement can significantly reduce the inflammation in damaged tissue. This suggests that people who suffer from acne may benefit from increasing their omega-3 fatty acid intake.3
What Foods Can Improve Acne?
Luckily, many foods and nutrients can support your skin’s health! These include omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E, beta carotene, and vitamin C. There’s also strong evidence suggesting that consuming a low glycemic diet and reducing milk consumption may reduce the severity of acne.
Overall, several studies show that there’s a connection between diet and acne production. But when it comes to improving your skin, the best approach is to find what works best for you and address your individual needs.
If you struggle with skin issues or simply want to support your skin health, what you eat can have a large impact! Your genetics can provide insight into the foundational level of your individual dietary needs. With a personalized DNA analysis, you can better understand your body and allow your genes to inform new dietary habits to support your skin health.
Burris, J., Rietkerk, W., & Woolf, K. (2013). Acne: the role of medical nutrition therapy. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 113(3), 416–430. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jand.2012.11.016
Katta, R., & Desai, S. P. (2014). Diet and dermatology: the role of dietary intervention in skin disease. The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology, 7(7), 46–51.
Baldwin, H., & Tan, J. (2021). Effects of Diet on Acne and Its Response to Treatment. American journal of clinical dermatology, 22(1), 55–65. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40257-020-00542-y
Simopoulos A. P. (2002). The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids. Biomedicine & pharmacotherapy = Biomedecine & pharmacotherapie, 56(8), 365–379. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0753-3322(02)00253-6