Acne is caused by excess oil production, bacteria, dead skin cells clogging pores, and inflammation. Hormones play a role in how much oil your skin produces, so acne is also a disease affected by hormones like testosterone and estrogen. That’s why women are more likely to experience acne outbreaks during certain times in their menstrual cycle.
Diet plays a role in acne too since what you eat affects hormones and inflammation. A study involving almost 25,000 participants in France looked at the role diet plays in triggering acne outbreaks. After comparing the diets of people who had acne in the past, currently had acne, and those who had never had acne, they discovered four types of foods are linked with acne outbreaks. Let’s look at each one.
Foods High in Sugar
There’s a rallying cry against eating foods high in sugar and for good reason! Sugary foods aren’t healthy for your body or your skin. The study found that subjects who ate a high-sugar diet were more likely to experience acne outbreaks than those who avoided sugary foods. The same would likely apply to refined carbohydrates too. One way to explain this link is the effects refined carbohydrates have on blood sugar and insulin levels.
Refined carbohydrates quickly break down into simple sugars and they enter your bloodstream fast, causing blood sugar spikes. In response to the rise in blood sugar, insulin increases to shuttle the sugar into your cells. But insulin spikes aren’t healthy for your skin.
One study found that foods that cause a rapid rise in blood glucose, like sugar and refined carbohydrates, increase insulin more and the sharp rise in insulin is a trigger for acne outbreaks. In fact, some studies show fasting insulin levels are higher in people who get severe acne than in people who don’t have severe acne.
Why is insulin so problematic if you’re acne prone? It increases androgens, like testosterone, that stimulates oil production. The increased oil causes clogged pores that lead to blackheads and pimples. Insulin spikes also boost another hormone called insulin-like growth factor one (IGF-1) that boosts oil and sebum production.
Sugary beverages have the same problems that refined carbohydrates to; they cause insulin surges and spikes. Blood sugar spikes from drinking soft drinks boost insulin release. This increases androgens and oil production, and triggers acne outbreaks. The best way to reduce acne outbreaks is to nix the junk food and soft drinks.
Some studies show a link between drinking milk and consuming dairy and a higher risk of acne. Why might drinking milk trigger acne? Milk is a food that triggers the release of insulin and IGF-1. As mentioned for refined carbohydrates, insulin and IGF-1 increase hormones called androgens that boost oil production. For example, some of the amino acids boost IGF-1 production by the liver.
One analysis of multiple studies, called a meta-analysis, found a link between consuming more whole milk and skim milk and a higher risk of acne outbreaks. However, the study didn’t show a link between yogurt and cheese consumption and acne.
A large observational study found people who consumed more foods high in fat and sugar increased the risk of acne outbreaks. Some of the foods that appeared to trigger acne include chocolate, fast food and other foods high in sugar and fat. It’s hard to separate out the effects of sugar versus fat though.
The Bottom Line
Acne is caused by a complex of factors, both internal and external. There are many different causes of acne, including genetics and hormonal changes that influence oil production. Acne can also be triggered by dietary changes. Now you know some of the types of foods to avoid.
- Penso, L., Touvier, M., Deschasaux, M., Szabo De Edelenyi, F., Hercberg, S., Ezzedine, K., & Sbidian, E. (2020). Association Between Adult Acne and Dietary Behaviors. JAMA Dermatology, 156(8), 854. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7287950/
- Emiroğlu, N., Cengiz, F. P., & Kemeriz, F. (2015). Original paper Insulin resistance in severe acne vulgaris. Advances in Dermatology and Allergology, 4, 281–285. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4565837/
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