Helping People Achieve Clear Skin Since 2007

Helping People Achieve Clear Skin Since 2007

Sugar and Acne: Don’t Worry, You Don’t Need to Go Sugar-Free to Get Clear Skin

By Dr. Jaggi Rao, MD, FRCPC, Double board-certified dermatologist

Sugar and acne can be related, but because acne is influenced by so many factors, unfortunately cutting sugar out of your diet won’t suddenly give you clear skin. In this article, we’ll go over the most up-to-date information about diet and acne, especially sugar and acne, and give you some tips that really can help reduce your acne.

Fake fats combined with sugar can make skin inflammation worse.


  • Excessive consumption of sugar is bad for health for many reasons, but sugar’s effects on acne are indirect.
  • Sugar by itself does not have a major effect on acne. Sugar in combination with certain kinds of fats increases acne inflammation.
  • The kinds of fats that work with sugar to make inflammation worse are the “fake fats” used to make shortening and margarine.
  • Having enough fat and the right kind of fat in the diet partially cancel out the skin-damaging effects of sugar, and cutting out sugar without consuming the right fats will not do any good.
  • Diet never is the only cause or cure of acne. A consistent, effective skincare routine must be part of your acne treatment in order to see results. Click here to see the acne routine we recommend the most.

Acne and Inflammation

Acne blemishes are the result of clogged pores. Sometimes the clogged pores are not inflamed, as is the case with whiteheads and blackheads. Sometimes the clogged pores are inflamed, as happens with pimples, pustules, papules, nodules, and cysts.

Pimples contain acne bacteria, but the bacteria themselves do not cause the bulk of inflammation. The human immune system generates inflammation to kill the bacteria, but the bacteria defend themselves by releasing their own chemicals that redirect the inflammation to the skin itself. The immune system kills most of the bacteria, but a few escape when a pimple ruptures or is popped.

The amount of sugar in the diet makes a difference in the amount of inflammation generated by the immune system, but only in relationship with various kinds of healthy fat.

Certain essential fatty acids known as n-6 essential fatty acids become the chemical building blocks of hormones that cause inflammation. These are fatty acids found in most plant oils, especially soybean and canola oil.

Other essential fatty acids known as n-3 essential fatty acids become the chemical building blocks of hormones that regulate inflammation. These fatty acids are most abundant in cod liver oil, fatty cold-water fish, nuts, seeds, and flaxseed.

When there are too many n-6’s and not enough n-3’s in the diet, and this is almost always the case, the body makes more inflammatory hormones than regulatory hormones. Even when there are more n-3 essential fatty acids in the diet, too much sugar can shift the balance of hormone formation so that more inflammation results.

What’s the Relationship Between Sugar and Acne?

If you eat fewer of the “bad” fats and more of the “good,” at least as far as skin inflammation is concerned, your body can tolerate a little more sugar. If you have a typical Western diet with lots of canola and soybean oil but very little oil from nuts, seeds, flaxseed, and fish, sugar can make the effects of a bad diet worse. It is always a combination of foods that improves or worsens inflammation.

Certain foods, however, are especially detrimental to the skin when consumed with sugar. You’ll want to avoid foods high in a fatty acid called arachidonic acid, which is especially abundant in duck eggs, chicken eggs, liver, kidney, and, in much lower concentrations, other cuts of meat. Arachidonic acid is not bad on its own, and it is essential for breaking down muscle so it can be rebuilt after exercise. But when arachidonic acid is consumed with sugars like those found in bread, it causes a cascade of reactions that create more and more inflammatory chemicals.

Inflammation, as mentioned earlier, is only relevant in inflammatory acne that causes pimples, papules, pustules, nodules, and cysts. Blackheads and whiteheads are not caused by inflammation. So, only pimples can be inflamed and irritated as the indirect result of additional sugar in the diet. Now we know there is an indirect link between sugar and acne, but what does that mean?

Sugar-Free Does Not Equal Acne-Free

From time to time researchers attempt to prove that sugar causes acne, so they look at the amounts of sugar consumed by teens and adults who have acne compared to the amounts of sugar consumed by teens and adults who do not. Studies consistently find that skin conditions caused by fungus infections actually are worse in people who consume more sugar, but consuming more or less sugar has no effect in and of itself on acne. The microorganisms that cause acne are not fungal.

Eating foods that are low on the glycemic index does not seem to help either. The glycemic index is a general measure of how fast the body is able to digest glucose from foods containing carbohydrates. The higher the glycemic index, the faster the sugar is released from the food.

Researchers at Australia’s RMIT University found that volunteers who ate low-glycemic index foods had more sebum production and more blemishes than volunteers who ate a variety of foods.

The study found that the volunteers who ate a combination of sugary desserts and low-glycemic index fruit and vegetables actually had fewer pimples and less sebum production.

Diet Tips for Acne

If you still want to make some dietary changes to help your acne, follow these tips:

1. A teaspoon of cod liver oil a day is good for acne. Cod liver oil contains copious amounts of vitamin A—so much, in fact, that you really should not take more than 1 teaspoon (4-5 ml) three times a day. The human body can make vitamin A out of beta-carotene, but when it does, it has to take the beta-carotene out of stored fat. This causes increased oil production in the skin. Getting natural vitamin A from cod liver oil or high-fat dairy products bypasses this effect. Among plant foods, only a few kinds of mushrooms contain vitamin A.

2. Keep an eye on your vitamin C intake. Vitamin C in supplements and fruit slightly increases sebum production and dries out the skin. Don’t take megadoses (more than 2,000 mg a day) of vitamin C. These can cause as many problems as they treat. High-dose vitamin C for up a week to fight a cold is OK.

3. Eating more dairy products could help men reduce acne. A Dutch study found that calcium from dairy products, but not from other foods or supplements, raised the pH of the skin in a way that kills acne bacteria. The Dutch study did not find this effect in women.

How To Treat Acne And See Results

Diet is just one small part of acne treatment. Cleansing, moisturizing, and exfoliation are also essential. Changing your diet alone will do nothing if you don’t follow a consistent and repeatable skincare routine. That’s why we recommend Exposed Skin Care, a simple acne treatment system with a money-back guarantee.

Start with the Basic Kit, which gives you a 3-step morning routine and 3-step evening routine. The system is proven to clear skin within 30 days (or, like we said, you get your money back—seriously!).

Morning Routine:

  • Step 1: Facial Cleanser
  • Step 2: Clearing Tonic
  • Step 3: Acne Treatment Serum

Evening Routine:

  • Step 1: Facial Cleanser
  • Step 2: Clearing Tonic
  • Step 3: Clear Pore Serum

Dietary Supplement To Help Acne

If you are interested in making dietary changes in combination with stepping up your skincare routine, then we recommend taking the daily Probiotic Complex. This supplement works with your body to balance and nourish your skin and overall health using probiotics, vitamins and minerals. Bonus points—it’s vegan!

You can order the Probiotic Complex on its own, or as part of the Exposed Skincare Ultimate Kit, which also adds the oil-free Moisture Complex, Microderm Scrub and Clarifying Mask.

Results of using Exposed Skincare. The routine is proven to work in 30 days, or you can get your money back.
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lola perker Reply

What diet would you suggest?

October 12, 2014 at 4:08 am Reply
Helen Reply

I have had acne for 25 years. I always ate a 'healthy' diet, low fat, no junk food. 2 years ago I gave up sugar, which left my skin noticeably less greasy, but didn't rid me of daily spots. A month ago I adopted a high fat low carb (less than 20g per day) diet. This saw my breakfast change from porridge to sausages (gluten-free) bacon, mushrooms and eggs.... fried in butter.... which I'd avoided for years, when I was eating my 'healthy' diet! My diet now consists of eggs, meat (including the fat) cheese and full-fat, sugar-free yoghurt, butter, cream, spinach, broccoli and asparagus. My acne disappeared within a week or so of this diet change. I had spots every day for 25 years and now they are gone. Very happy. I know some people find dairy gives them acne, but for me the link was sugar AND starch (both affect you if you have insulin sensitivity) and processed foods. I now feel happier (sugar makes me depressed too), more awake and grease-free.

May 2, 2015 at 7:20 am Reply
Dan Reply

Interestingly, I have just started researching insulin resistance and decided to try low GI diet. I have always had acne and am now 29. However, since cutting out sugar my skin is sooo much clearer. Not prefect, but I have only just started the diet. Hopefully one day i will be able to stop taking the antibiotics... I have always had a healthy diet, but quite interested in what you have written. Much appreciated. :) Dan

May 12, 2016 at 12:04 pm Reply
Hannah Reply

I have had acne since I was 19 and am now 22. Never had teenage spots so was a shock when I first got them at 19. My biggest reactor for a breakout I fruit :( have always eaten it and now I can't - added strawberries and banana to my porridge for a week and bought my out straight away. Since having my acne I also now have a constant fungus infection on my chest and neck. Is there anything I can do...

June 13, 2017 at 2:02 pm Reply