Affecting as many as 50 million people in the United States each year, acne is the most common skin condition in the country. It often begins during puberty, and it is especially prevalent between the ages of 12 and 24.
Acne can cause oily skin and several types of lesions, including pimples. Symptoms vary from mild to severe, and they can impact a person's quality of life.
While there is currently no cure for acne, the range of effective treatments includes prescription medications and over-the-counter gels and creams. Lifestyle changes can also help to reduce symptoms and prevent breakouts.
Some people believe that the diet plays an important role. Results of a 2016 survey showed that 71 percent of participants thought that fried or greasy foods caused acne. Others thought that chocolate, dairy, and soda drinks were responsible.
In the medical community, there is extensive debate about the impact of the diet. While many experts once thought that the diet had no role in the development of acne, results of some recent studies suggest otherwise.
In this article, we examine the effects of the diet on the skin and explore which foods might provoke or reduce acne breakouts. We also describe general tips for treating acne.
How does the diet affect the skin?
Recent studies suggest that diet may affect acne.
Acne develops when pores in the skin become clogged with dead skin cells, bacteria, or both. This clogging also occurs when the body produces too much sebum, an oil that keeps the skin from drying out.
Clogged pores can lead to inflammation and cause pimples and other types of lesion to form.
During puberty, the body produces more of a hormone called insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1). Some studies suggest that IGF-1 may increase the production of sebum and worsen symptoms of acne.
Certain foods can also raise IGF-1 levels. Avoiding these foods may help improve symptoms of acne and help prevent breakouts.
Foods to avoid
According to the results of a 2016 study, the following foods are most likely to increase a person's IGF-1 levels:
- dairy products
- foods with a high glycemic index (GI) and a high glycemic load (GL)
Measuring GI determines how fast and how high a type of food can raise levels of blood sugar.
Measuring GL allows a person to compare types of food with different GIs and portion sizes.
A person can calculate GL using this formula:
GL = GI x the amount of carbohydrates per portion (in grams) / 100
Several online lists provide the GIs of various foods. As a very general rule, more processed foods tend to have higher GIs and GLs.
According to the American Diabetes Association, the following are examples of foods with high GIs:
- breads, especially white bread and bagels
- sweetened breakfast cereals, such as those with corn flakes, puffed rice, and bran flakes
- instant cereals, such as oatmeal and grits
- some fruits and vegetables, including melons, pineapples, pumpkins, and potatoes
- enriched pastas, such as rice-based pasta
- short grain white rice
- snack foods, such as pretzels, rice cakes, and popcorn
Examples of dairy products include milk, cheese, ice cream, and yogurt. Some people with acne may benefit from avoiding these foods.
However, the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) suggests that avoiding foods with high GIs may be more helpful than avoiding dairy products.
Eating chocolate may also worsen symptoms of acne. This effect is likely the result of chocolate's high sugar contents. However, results of a small study suggested that unsweetened chocolate containing 100 percent cocoa may also worsen symptoms in young men with a history of acne.
Currently, there appears to be little evidence that greasy foods cause acne. Overactive sebaceous glands cause oily skin, not the fat and oil in food.
Which foods might help to improve acne?
Tofu and wild rice may help to improve acne.
The research is even less clear when it comes to identifying foods that may combat or prevent acne.
Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids include:
- fish, such as mackerel, salmon, and sardines
- pastured eggs
- soybeans and soy products, such as tofu
- spinach and kale
- navy beans
- grass-fed beef
- nuts, such as walnuts and almonds
- mustard seeds
- wild rice
Putting together an anti-acne diet
With so much uncertainty surrounding the effects of the diet on acne, it can be hard to know which foods to try and which to avoid.
Also, certain strategies may work for some people but not for others.
Keeping a food diary can help a person to identify foods that trigger or worsen acne breakouts. Log every meal and snack and record the type and severity of acne symptoms that develop each day.
A person should do this for a few weeks or longer and bring the diary to an appointment with a doctor or dermatologist.
The doctor can help to find links between the timing of breakouts and entries in the food diary. They can also advise about dietary changes.
When changing the diet, it is important to be patient. According to the AAD, it can take up to 12 weeks for a dietary change to have a noticeable effect on the skin.
General tips for treating acne
Washing the face after sweating may help to treat acne.
A variety of over-the-counter and prescription medications are available.
A doctor can advise on an appropriate course of treatment, which will depend on the severity of symptoms. For severe acne, the doctor may refer an individual to a dermatologist.
General tips for managing acne include:
- washing the skin and face twice a day and after sweating or playing sports
- washing the hair, especially oily hair, with shampoo regularly
- using gentle, oil-free skin care products and cosmetics
- avoiding picking, scratching, or touching pimples
- avoiding prolonged exposure to the sun
According to the AAD, a person should also consider the relationship between stress and acne. Stress causes the body to produce more of a hormone called androgen, which stimulates the sebaceous glands in the skin. They then produce more oil, and this can cause acne.
Acne can also affect a person's self-esteem and lead to depression, especially in teenagers and young adults. The AAD recommend taking the acne seriously and emphasize the importance of managing stress and watching for signs of depression.
Some evidence suggests that dietary factors can affect acne, though conclusive research is needed.
Some people with acne may benefit from making the following changes to the diet:
- consuming more foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, and plants
- avoiding dairy products and foods with high GIs and GLs
Following the Mediterranean diet is an excellent way to incorporate these changes. Also, a food diary can help a person identify any foods that trigger or worsen their acne.
Dietary changes alone will not clear up acne breakouts, and it is important to follow a regular treatment routine.