What Foods Cause Acne and Which Fight Against It?

What Foods Cause Acne and Which Fight Against It?

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AUG  22, 2022

Acne (Acne vulgaris) is the most common dermatologic condition affecting nearly 10% of the worldwide population1. Many intrinsic factors, such as inflammation and hormones, can mediate acne development, but other extrinsic factors, such as diet, play a significant role that can be altered without medical intervention. This blog will discuss the relationship between food and acne and highlight how certain foods can trigger breakouts in those suffering from acne or with acne-prone skin. Continue reading to find out how your diet may trigger acne breakouts and which foods promote healthy, clear skin.

Do certain foods have an impact on skin health?

While many individuals will notice acne outbreaks after eating certain foods, it’s not the food itself that is directly responsible for acne. Rather, it’s a matter of the gut skin axis and how our bodies metabolize and respond to particular ingredients within those foods. These metabolic responses can cause effects in the skin that promote acne, including excess sebum (a combination of oily lipids produced in the follicles to protect the skin's surface), an imbalance of hormones, excess bacteria, and increased growth of skin cells in follicles2. We all respond to these foods in different ways. Still, dietary modifications, a proper face cleansing routine, and the use of the right topical skin care products have the potential to bring great relief to those with acne-prone skin.

How does our skin react to what we eat?

Our skin is the largest organ in our body and protects us from many external stressors. Due to this importance, the skin is in constant communication with all systems in our bodies, particularly inflammatory pathways, immune responses, and hormone regulation. This is why adolescents with rapid hormone production often battle with acne and why allergic reactions to food can often appear on the skin.

What foods are known to contribute to acne?


Whether it be white table sugar or high fructose corn syrup, processed sugar quickly absorbs into the bloodstream and increases insulin levels across the body. Sugary foods include chocolate, soft drinks, “junk food,” and fast foods. These are known to have a “high glycemic load” due to their ability to raise blood glucose levels quickly, and increased consumption directly correlates to acne severity3.

Refined Carbs

Refined carbohydrates like white flour and gluten also have a high glycemic load and are found in white bread, pasta, cereal, and noodles.

Dairy Products

Amino acids within milk or other dairy products, such as whey proteins, are known to promote insulin secretion and induce other factors that directly contribute to acne development. In fact, there is a direct correlation between the consumption of whole, low-fat, and skim milk consumption and acne occurrence4. Dietary supplements containing whey protein can also contribute to acne development5.

Vegetable Oils

Certain plant oils like corn, soybean, and peanut oil contain high amounts of inflammatory fats that can lead to acne6. These oils are the primary source of inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids in the western diet 7. Increased consumption of oils or fried/greasy food can also lead to clogged pores.
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Why do these foods cause acne?

Both dairy and sugar can rapidly increase blood sugar and insulin levels. Increased insulin can modulate hormone levels, such as increased androgen hormones that stimulate excess sebum production in the skin8. Insulin also increases hormones in the bloodstream that affect skin growth, such as IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor 1). These factors can cause the skin to grow too quickly and increase sebum production in the skin9. Studies have shown that the amount of acne lesions and skin inflammation directly correlate with the levels of facial sebum and blood IGF-110. Other components of foods, such as omega-6 fatty acids in vegetable oils, can promote inflammation and are associated with inflammatory acne11.

What foods are known to be good for healing acne?

  • Complex Carbs: While refined carbohydrates can be poor for health, carbohydrates are still necessary for proper bodily function. Complex carbohydrates serve as some of the best foods for skin repair and can be found in whole grains (whole wheat bread, quinoa, brown rice), fruits and vegetables (carrots, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, spinach, apricots), and legumes (dals, beans, peas).
  • Vitamins A: The Mayo Clinic suggests vitamin A supplements and rich foods (such as vegetables) to help reduce fine wrinkles and roughness and to treat acne12.
  • Vitamin E: People with acne often have low levels of antioxidants like vitamin E, which can be maintained with almonds, peanuts, and Brazil nuts13.
  • Vitamin D: Vitamin D also has incredible anti-inflammatory properties and was found to be present in low levels in patients with acne14. To get the proper amount of Vitamin D, experts suggest consuming fish and/or fish oil supplements, which are rich in Vitamin D, instead of increasing sun exposure, which can dry skin and disrupt oil production.
  • Turmeric: Turmeric contains the antioxidant curcumin known to reduce inflammation, regulate blood sugar levels, and inhibit acne-causing bacteria15.
  • Zinc: Acne patients often have decreased levels of zinc in the blood. Zinc has been shown to effectively treat acne by reducing inflammation in pimples16. Foods rich in zinc include oysters and other shellfish, chickpeas, beans, and seeds like pumpkin and sunflower.
  • Oils rich in Omega-3 and low in Omega-6: Omega-3 fatty acids are associated with a decrease in inflammatory factors, contrary to inflammatory omega-6 acids17. “Healthy” oils contain larger amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, including flaxseed oil. Avocado, olive, and sesame oils are the lowest in omega-6 fatty acids. Epidemiological studies have also shown that increasing the intake of omega-3 fatty acids through fish and seafood reduces rates of inflammation 18.

How long does it take to see improvements in the skin after changes in diet are made?

While results may vary from person to person due to many genetic and environmental factors, most studies have shown diet intervention to reduce the severity of acne in an average of 6 weeks, with reports of as little as 1 week and up to 3 months.

Everyone’s body has different rates of regeneration and repair based on nutrient absorption, so your results may vary. This time may be greater for those suffering from hormonal acne, as it takes time for the endocrine system to equilibrate to a controlled diet.

Main Takeaways

  • Increased sebum and hormone production directly correlate to acne and inflammation in the skin.
  • Foods with a high glycemic load or other inflammatory properties contribute to increased sebum and hormone production.
  • Avoiding these foods and focusing on healing foods can help reduce acne severity in just a few weeks.
  • Routinely cleanse your skin with a daily face cleanser, followed by a peptide moisturizer to lock in hydration.
  • Avoid acne-causing foods to promote skin health and acne-free skin.

  1. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23245607/
  2. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15556719/
  3. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27061046/
  4. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29778512/
  5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23257731/
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7037798/
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3076650/
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3969667/
  9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16092796
  10. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15781674/
  11. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12908901
  12. https://www.mayoclinic.org/drugs-supplements-vitamin-a/art-20365945
  13. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23826827/
  14. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4999291/
  15. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27213821/
  16. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32860489/
  17. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10617994/
  18. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12873901/
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