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Helping People Achieve Clear Skin Since 2007

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Superfoods For Acne: How Changing Your Diet Could Improve Your Skin

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

If you have been in the natural products and natural foods industry for a while, you have probably seen a lot of “superfoods” come and go.

Generally, the peddlers of superfoods want to convince everyone who has money left on their credits cards that their superfood is the one and only natural treatment for any and all health concerns, including cancer and acne. And while none of these superfoods is quite as super as its marketers would have us believe, some of the really are useful as part of a diet for keeping acne under control. One of the first of the superfoods was wheatgrass.

Superfood for Acne Pomegranate
There is some evidence that pomegranate extract applied directly to the skin can help repair sun damage.


Back when a new superfood might have been described as “groovy,” wheatgrass was the choice of natural healers all over the United States. Wheatgrass is both wheat and a grass, consisting of the green shoots of freshly sprouted wheat berries. Enzymes released as the wheat berry sprouts activate the minerals in the wheatgerm into readily absorbed forms. These enzymes work for the good of the wheat grass, of course, but the minerals are also readily absorbed by the human body.

There is no reason to believe that wheatgrass alone would cure acne or anything else, but there is every reason to believe that wheatgrass is a great addition to the diet for getting your zinc, selenium, and copper. There are not enough nutrients in wheatgrass to act medicinally but there are enough nutrients in wheatgrass to prevent mineral deficiency.

Barley Greens

Barley greens were popularized in the United States in the 1980’s and 1990’s, but they have been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for at least 2000 years. Known as mai ya, barley shoots are dried for use as a tea to stop excessive lactation. (The term can also refer to wheat shoots, but Chinese herbalists use barley instead of wheat.) The way barley greens stops excessive lactation in women is by lowering the body’s levels of prolactin—a hormone that is elevated when acne breaks out.

The barley greens you can get at health food store are just a refined version of the mai ya you can get from a Chinese herbalist. Women who have premenstrual acne are the most likely to benefit from barley greens, as are men who get acne after they take supplemental testosterone. Both men and women may get similar benefits from drinking beer, but the hops in beer can cause estrogen-like effects, increasing breast size in both men and women who drink it.


Pomegranates have been cultivated throughout the Middle East and the drier parts of India, China, and Southeast Asia for centuries. In Ayurvedic and Unani medicine, pomegranates are used to treat diseases caused excessive consumption of sweets.

There have been at least 10 studies of pomegranate extract as a treatment for sun damaged skin. There is good evidence that pomegranate peel contains antioxidants that slow down the production of enzymes known as matrix metalloproteinases that break down collagen after the skin has been injured by the sun. These extracts of pomegranate peel, however, have to be applied directly to the skin to work. Drinking pomegranate juice and taking pomegranate extract pills and capsules won’t hurt, but won’t help either. Just about the only products that contain pomegranate that are useful for people who have acne are Jane Iredell Amazing Base Loose Minerals SPF 20 and Paula’s Choice Hydralight Moisture Infusing Lotion—but don’t buy them just because they contain pomegranate. Buy them if you use powder and need sun protection or if you need a moisturizer.


The mangosteen is an evergreen tree native to Indonesia that bears a purplish red fruit that is nearly totally inedible, except a tiny amount of soft flesh around its seeds known as an aril. The edible aril of mangosteen is white and bland, but mangosteen juice makers add the inedible rinds to the mix to add antioxidant polyphenols and to give the resulting juice a puckery taste.

Mangosteen is a traditional remedy for acne, especially for its strong antibacterial effect. It is anti-fibrotic, slowing down the formation of blood clots through the body, and reducing purple veins caused by rosacea. The only product for acne skin care that contains mangosteen, MyChelle Dermaceuticals Apple Brightening Mist, unfortunately also causes witch hazel, which can cause as much irritation as mangosteen can prevent. Any mangosteens imported into the United States, incidentally, have been sterilized with radiation to kill Asian fruit flies.

Acai Berry

The most recent superfoods craze centers around the acai berry. Popularized through the tireless efforts of Amazon ethnobotanist Chris Kilham, one of the claims to fame for acai berry is that it is sustainably and ethically harvested. Natives of the Amazon jungle collect the plant in the wild and are paid fair prices for their 50-kilo (110 pound) baskets of berries delivered to the processing plant in Manaus, Brazil.

Acai is supposed to be good for everything, but most of the scientific study of acai is on the lines of “Açai palm fruit (Euterpe oleracea Mart.) pulp improves survival of flies on a high fat diet” (published in Experimental Gerontology in March 2010). This is fine if you are a fly with a weight problem, but there is just no scientific evidence that acai berry could help acne in either flies or humans.

This fact does not keep marketers from trying to sell acai as an acne remedy, however. Oddly enough, the Alba Botanica Rainforest, Brazilian Peel, and Perricone MD Cosmeceuticals acne products that contain acai actually do work—just not because they contain acai.

Coconut Water

Coconut water is the thin “juice” inside a fresh coconut. (Coconut milk is made by heating coconut meat.) It’s rich in electrolytes, especially potassium that is packed with health benefits, and it contains cytokinins that promote cell growth—inside the coconut, not in your skin.

Seaweed Chips

Seaweed chips, made from dried seaweed with no added oil, have been a favorite Japanese and Korean and snack food for decades. They are just now becoming more of a mainstream food in the United States. If you have rosacea or sensitive skin allergies, however, you should avoid them because they contain too much iodine.

And The Next Superfood Is?

Whey protein, from the clear fluid left behind in the making of cheese, has been used in muscle building powders for over 50 years. It is only in the last two years, however, that companies have been advertising whey powder as a treatment for acne.

Scientists at Kyung Hee University in Korea asked volunteers with acne to take a daily dose of a yogurt drink fortified with whey powder that was especially rich in the protein lactoferrin. They also gave a control group a daily dose of a yogurt drink that did not have the additional whey. Volunteers were asked not to use any other methods to treat their acne.

At the end of 12 weeks, acne in the control group was unchanged. The group that had been consuming the whey-fortified yogurt drink, however, showed 39% fewer pimples and 20% fewer whiteheads and blackheads.

There will probably be an anti-acne yogurt beverage on the market in the United States in 2013. In the meantime, you can probably get comparable benefits from eating Greek yogurt with live cultures, such as the Oikos brand by Stonyfield Farms.

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