Adjusting Your Diet to Treat Acne

Heap of sugar and pouring more from a spoon

Limiting sugar and other refined carbohydrates in your diet can help reduce acne.

Just avoid chocolate, nuts, and fried food, and your acne will clear up, right? The fact is, research found that some otherwise healthy foods make acne worse, and some foods that we never hear about can help heal it. But there is general agreement that sugar aggravates acne.


  • If you have adult-onset acne, sugar is likely to make a big difference in your complexion. Limiting sugar and other refined carbohydrates reduces the sensitivity of your skin to inflammation and helps reduce pimples, nodules, and cysts.
  • More protein in your diet helps open pores, but only if you also consume healthy fats, like those in nuts, seeds, dairy products, avocados, and cold-water fish.
  • Sugar-sweetened soft drinks make your skin more likely to break out when you experience stress. So do energy drinks.
  • Vitamin A is important for skin health. If you are think or normal weight, your body can make vitamin A for your skin from beta-carotene. If you are overweight, you need vitamin A from food or supplements.
  • Vitamin C slightly increases oiliness of the skin.
  • Vitamin E in the form of alpha-tocopherol greatly increases skin oil production. Natural vitamin E supplements don’t cause this problem.
  • Men are more likely to break out after eating tomatoes than women.
  • Drinking as little as 1/2 cup (120 ml) additional water per day may be enough to hydrate dry skin.

The Problem with Sugar

Medical researchers have learned that a high-protein diet (in one study, 44% protein, 35% carbohydrate, and 21% fat) slows the conversion of testosterone into a form that stimulates oil production in the skin. A high-carbohydrate diet (in the same study, 10% protein, 70% carbohydrate, and 20% fat), has the opposite effect.

It only takes about two weeks for a high-protein diet to begin clearing the skin, but not everyone who has acne will benefit from this approach. Persons of European descent tend to develop acne after variations in stress hormones. If you have fair skin, chances are that sugar is not the major culprit behind your blemishes, although there are many other good reasons to limit the amount of sugar and high-carb foods you eat.

If you have dark brown or black skin, however, you probably tend to develop acne after changes in testosterone levels. Especially if you were acne-free during your teen years and you only developed acne as an adult, limiting sugar may be of great help in stopping blemishes, pimples, nodules, and cysts, especially limiting sugar-sweetened soft drinks.

The Problem with Soft Drinks.

Sugary soft drinks and energy drinks usually contain a combination of sugar and caffeine. The sugar makes the skin more sensitive to testosterone. This increases oil production.

The caffeine makes the skin more sensitive to a chemical called substance P. Substance P is a pain transmitter. Your body makes more of it when you are under stress, but also when you are hungry. If you fill your hunger with a sugar-sweetened caffeinated soft drink, your body just keeps making more substance P so you want more soda.

In the skin, substance P triggers the release of a hormone that makes the skin more vulnerable to inflammation. Even if you don’t have an overgrowth of acne bacteria, your skin can still break out when your drink sugar-sweetened soft drinks.

Diet soft drinks are not a whole lot better. Too many diet drinks interferes with digestion, and with the action of healthy bacteria in the colon that help reduce inflammation in the skin. The effect of all kinds of soft drinks on the skin is worse under conditions of stress.

Fats Have a Place in an Acne Diet

Fats, on the other hand, are not always bad for acne. Medical researchers in the Netherlands recruited 302 volunteers to have their faces measured with a device called a sebum meter. The volunteers also gave blood samples for measurement of common nutrients.

The Dutch researchers found that, when it comes to acne, there are good fats and bad fats. It is not surprising that at least a little fat in the diet actually reduces acne. The skin uses fats to stay moist and supple. Flexible skin allows sebum to drain out of pores. The more beneficial fats the skin contains, the less sebum appears in pores.

Although there are contradictory findings in another study of the effects of dark chocolate on acne, in general the fats in cocoa, avocados, nuts, seeds, and oily fish were found actually to reduce sebum production. These foods contain n-3 essential fatty acids that are toxic to acne bacteria. As healthy sebum breaks down, it releases these healthy fatty acids and reduces excess acne bacteria on the skin. When pores are clogged with the kinds of fats found in margarine and soybean oil, the same bacteria eat the irritating, n-6 essential fatty acids until just n-3 essential fatty acids are left.

The Dutch study found that the fat in most plant foods is healthy, while the fat in industrially processed oils is nearly always unhealthy. Even milk fat found in whole milk, butter, cream, and cheese seemed to protect the skin, although not as much as the monosaturated fats found in olives, nuts, seeds, and chocolate.

Protein Foods Help Hydrate the Skin

The skin uses the amino acids from high-protein foods to make collagen. Collagen absorbs water, and hydrates the skin. It does not do any good to put expensive collagen products on your skin. They absorb moisture from skin care products and make your skin look smoother until you rinse them off, and you have to start all over again.

Eating protein foods to increase collagen in your skin, however, helps keep pores open. However, the Dutch study found that reducing fat cancels out the benefits of eating protein. You have to have the beneficial fatty acids from healthy plant foods and fish in your skin for increased collagen production to make a difference. But vitamins and plant phytochemicals make a difference, too.

Vitamins Can Help or Hurt

The Dutch researchers found that some vitamins help reduce oil production in the skin, while others increase it.

  • Vitamin A and chemicals derived from it, including retinol, retinyl palmitate, and the retinoid drugs such Accutane and Retin-A are important in fighting acne. If you are normal weight or thin, your body can make all the vitamin A it needs from beta-carotene.
  • If you are overweight, you need to get vitamin A from supplements or food, because beta-carotene is stored in fat.
  • Vitamin C slightly increases oil production in the skin, and slightly dries it out. If you don’t take more than 250 mg of vitamin C a day, this should not make a difference in your skin.
  • Vitamin E in the form of alpha-tocopherol, the kind of vitamin E you get in industrially produced supplements, greatly increases sebum production in the skin. If you need to take vitamin E for some other health issue, be sure to take natural vitamin E, which includes other isomers of the vitamin, including gamma-tocopherol and tocotrienols. Most Americans get a great deal of vitamin E in their diets and are more likely to break out if they take vitamin E supplements. Most people in the rest of the world tend to be deficient in gamma-tocopherol and do not break out when they take natural vitamin E supplements.
  • Lycopene, the beneficial plant compound found in tomatoes, slightly increases oiliness of the skin. A slice of tomato on your salad or squirt of ketchup on sandwich will not cause problems, however.
  • Beta-cryptoxanthin and zeaxanthin, phytochemicals which are found in sweet corn and kale, increase hydration of the skin, but only in men, and increase oil production in the skin, but only in men.
  • Calcium from dairy products raises the pH of the skin and makes it less hospitable to acne bacteria, but only in men.

Water in the Acne Diet

Not to be overlooked in any-acne diet is drinking enough water, at least 1200 ml (5 cups) a day. Drinking tap water and mineral water raises the pH of the skin, just enough to fight acne bacteria. If you have dry skin, drinking just another one-half cup (120 ml) of water per day usually makes a noticeable difference. A single extra glass of water at some time during the day probably won’t make you have to race to the bathroom, but may add valuable moisture to your skin.

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