5 Foods to Eat—and 5 Not To Eat—to Reduce Acne Outbreaks

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In 2010, researchers surprised some people when they reported that diet could indeed, affect acne outbreaks. That year, an article in the scientific journal Skin Therapy Letter reported the results of a 27-study analysis—21 observational studies and 6 clinical trials. Scientists found that cow’s milk intake increased acne prevalence and severity, and also found an association between a high-glycemic load diet and acne risk.

Foods that reduce breakouts

An earlier study published in 2007 showed similar results—Australian researchers found that young men between the ages of 15 and 25 with mild-to-moderate acne experienced dramatic improvement when they switched from eating the typical American diet (with white bread and highly processed breakfast cereals) to a healthier diet of whole grains, lean meat, and fruits and vegetables.

“The acne of the boys on the higher-protein, low-glycemic index diet improved dramatically,” said senior author Neil Mann, associate professor at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia, “by more than 50 percent, which is more than what you see with topical acne solutions.”

Some people have long believed that diet affects acne, but only recently have researchers started to find evidence that this is true. If you’d like to try changing your eating habits to enjoy clearer skin, we’d encourage you to try it….you have nothing to lose!

What Not to Eat

Studies so far have focused mostly on the foods that make acne worse. Here are the five that come up most often as culprits in increasing breakouts. Avoid these for about a week, and see if you notice a difference.

Cow’s milk

The 2010 study found an association between cow’s milk and acne. Scientists aren’t yet sure why this may be, but there are several theories. Cow’s milk spikes blood sugar, which can increase inflammation (leading to pimples). It also increases insulin levels, which encourage the production of skin oils (sebum). A lot of the commercial milk we buy comes from pregnant cows, and thus contains other hormones that can trigger the production of sebum.

Milk also has growth hormones that can encourage the overgrowth of skin cells, potentially blocking pores. In 2005, researchers studied data from the famous Nurses Health Study II, and found that participants who drank more milk as teens had much higher rates of severe acne than those who had little or no milk as teens.

Sugar

You may have already suspected that sugar is related to breakouts. Some studies now suggest that there may be a link. This doesn’t mean that if you eat a cookie you’re going to get a pimple. It comes down to how much sugar you’re eating in a day—particularly at any one time.

If you consume a soda and a candy bar, for example, you’re likely spiking your blood sugar levels, and you could break out hours later. If you suspect sugar could be a culprit for you, try to cut back even by one sugary drink a day to notice a difference.

High-glycemic foods

These are foods that break down quickly in the body, triggering an insulin spike and raising blood sugar levels. They trigger hormonal fluctuations and inflammation—both of which encourage acne. We’re talking foods like white bread, processed breakfast cereals, white rice, pretzels, potato chips, cookies and cakes, etc. Choose low glycemic-index foods instead, like vegetables, whole grains, sweet potatoes, and most fruits.

Junk food

For the same reasons stated above (hormonal fluctuations, blood sugar levels), junk foods are on the list to avoid if you’re trying to clear up your skin. Drinking lots of water and healthier food choices for a hormonal acne diet will help your body stay balanced.

Fast food

Greasy fast food creates inflammation in the body. Studies have already linked fast food to conditions like childhood asthma, strictly because of its ability to raise overall inflammation in the body. Inflammation leads to pimples, so if you’re going to a fast-food restaurant, choose the salad or the yogurt.

What About Chocolate?

Long suspected to trigger acne, chocolate has received a pass until just recently. One small study from the Netherlands published in 2013 found a connection between chocolate and skin changes leading to acne. For the study, the scientists collected blood from seven healthy people before and after they ate 1.7 ounces of chocolate, each day, for four days.

Researchers then exposed the blood cells to bacteria called Propionibacterium acnes—which contribute to acne when they grow inside clogged pores—and to Staphylococcus aureus, another skin bacteria than can aggravate acne.

After eating the chocolate, the participants’ blood cells produced more interleukin-1b, which is a marker of inflammation, when exposed to Propionibacterium acnes. Eating chocolate also increased production of another immune system factor called interleukin 10 after exposure to Staphylococcus aureus. Interleukin 10 is thought to lower the body’s defenses against microorganisms, so higher levels could allow bacteria to infect pimples and worsen them.

This suggests that chocolate could increase inflammation and encourage bacterial infection, making acne worse. This was an extremely small study, however, and more research is needed. Dark chocolate has health-promoting antioxidants, so depending on how much you eat per day, you may want to wait for more evidence. In the meantime, to see if you may be sensitive to chocolate, try eliminating it for a week, by itself, and see if you notice a change in your skin.

What to Eat

Just cutting out the damaging foods listed above will likely lead to clearer skin—especially if you were regularly consuming them before. But what if you’re already eating healthy? Are there certain foods that could give you the edge against acne? Research is in its earliest stages, but we do have some knowledge of particular foods that may help. Here are five of them:

Fish or flaxseed

The typical Western diet contains too many omega-6 fatty acids, which are tied to inflammation. Eating more omega-3 fatty acids, such as those found in fatty fish, walnuts, flaxseed, and the like, can help tame inflammation and improve acne breakouts.

Green tea

Green tea is filled the antioxidants that can protect from environmental stressors. Drink more green tea throughout the day.

Oysters

Several studies have indicated that the mineral zinc may reduce the effects of acne. It’s best to get zinc from your food, however, as too much in supplements (more than 100 mg a day) can result in side effects.

Eat more oysters, toasted wheat germ (sprinkled on salads and steamed veggies), veal liver, roast beef, roasted pumpkin and squash seeds, and dried watermelon seeds.

Juicing

Eating more fruits and vegetables can naturally help clear up acne, and juicing is a great way to do so. Many contain beta-carotenes, which naturally help reduce skin oils, and all are naturally anti-inflammatory. Dark, leafy greens also help clear impurities from the body, which can encourage acne. Dark-colored berries contain phytonutrients good for skin when eaten.

Probiotics

These have been found to reduce inflammation in the gut, which may help reduce acne. According to a 2011 study, intestinal microflora may affect inflammation throughout the body, which in turn, can affect acne breakouts. Since pre and probiotics can reduce inflammation and oxidative stress, scientists believe they may help reduce acne breakouts.

“There appears to be more than enough supportive evidence to suggest that gut microbes, and the integrity of the gastrointestinal tract itself, are contributing factors in the acne process,” the scientists wrote. To get more probiotics in your diet, try yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, dark chocolate, microalgae, miso soup, pickles, tempeh, kimchi, and kombucha tea.

Of course, there are many factors that contribute to acne, and diet is just one of them. Along with eating cleanly and avoiding acne triggers, there are many other factors that can contribute to your situation.

Have you cleared up your acne with dietary changes? Please share your story in the comments.

 

Sources
Ferdowsian Hr, Levin S, “Does diet really affect acne?” Skin Therapy Lett, 2010 Mar;15(3):1-2,5, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20361171.

Adebamowo CA, et al., “High school dietary dairy intake and teenage acne,” J Am Acad Dermatol, 2005 Feb;52(2):207-14, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15692464.

Myung Im, et al., “Epigallocatechin-3-Gallate Suppresses IGF-I-Induced Lipogenesis and Cytokine Expression in SZ95 Sebocytes,” Journal of Investigative Dermatology December 2012; 132:2700-2708, http://www.nature.com/jid/journal/v132/n12/full/jid2012202a.html.

Yoon JY, et al., “Epigallocatechin-3-gallate improves acne in humans by modulating intracellular molecular targets and inhibiting P. acnes,” J Invest Dermatol. 2013 Feb;133(2):429-40, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23096708?dopt=Abstract.

“Acne,” University of Maryland Medical Center, http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/condition/acne.

Whitney P Bowe and Alan C Logan, “Acne vulgaris, probiotics and the gut-brain-skin axis—back to the future?” Gut Pathog, January 31, 2011; 3(1): http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3038963/.

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  1. Claudia says

    A few weeks ago, I made a drastic change to my diet to see if it would affect my acne. I replaced all my beverages with water or natural green-tea (no sugar!), I cut out ALL junk food and sugary foods, I went gluten-free and dairy-free, I included more fruits and veggies, and I ate low-glycemic foods. I was also taking zinc supplements, so you should research the effects of zinc for acne if you are looking to try a new remedy. With all of these combined, my [severe, cystic] acne cleared up in 2-3 weeks. Unfortunately, I had to stop because I had exams coming up and could not maintain the strict lifestyle. I truly believe acne can be cured by diet; the over-the-counter products can definitely help to reduce acne, but I do not think it will get rid of it forever. To everyone who is still struggling, including myself for the time being, please give this a try.

    • says

      Claudia – I agree. Thank God for Google! After much research – I avoid gluten, nightshades, dairy, & sweets as much as I can + I eat alot of greek yogurt – this got rid of my severe cystic acne in 2 months.
      Pls. – everyone needs to pass this great tip along!!! Unfortunately – some Dermatologists dont have a clue.

      • Patrick says

        No they do not. I cut out diary and it helped me. Particularly Whey protein.
        Derms i talked to either said it’s all in my head or “yes diet can help but not likely to help”

      • Julia says

        Hi Claudia,

        What do you mean by Greek yogurt? Does that not count as dairy? And why do you think did it help you?
        Best wishes,
        Julia

    • Alice says

      Two weeks ago I too replaced all my beverages with unsweetened fizzy waters and tea. I also have been dairy free and my face has looked better than it ever has!

    • Amy Miller says

      I had the same problem with severe cystic acne. I cut gluten out of my diet at my doctor’s recommendation for another condition and at the same time cut out almost all dairy, processed foods including processed sugars and started juicing organic vegetables and fruits. My acne went away. I fell of the wagon for a few days because of stressors in my life and my acne came right back. I don’t know which one was the culprit (or maybe it was a combination) but it was definitely diet related. I hope you’re able do go back to the diet that was working for you!

  2. Victoria says

    Honestly, I’ve only had almost-perfect skin when I was using a harsh prescription cream (would never do that again), and at times when I have been overall healthy (mind, diet, lifestyle habits). Meaning, I have never noticed a significant difference related to products or food. I went on an elimination diet a few years ago, and was eating so cleanly– no processed foods whatsoever, no gluten, no refined sugars, no meat/dairy. This lasted 3 weeks, and I did not notice much of a difference with my face. Obviously everyone is different, and I’ve realized my main problem is stress. I mean, it could be a lot worse if I ate horribly (I am vegan– not that I noticed much of a difference when I changed my diet– not that it was that bad before), but unfortunately I am one of those people that can’t get an easy fix. Fixing your state of mind, and how you respond to stress, is probably the hardest thing to do. But I’m working on it.

    • Danny says

      Hey Victoria so happy I saw this. I don’t have severe acne, but recently have been breaking out on my cheeks. All I drink is water and if I want a little fizz I drink La Croix. I stoped drinking milk, and drink almond milk completely stoped eating cheese and yogurt. Haven’t gotten rid of these pesky pimples that pop up on my cheeks. I’ve even drank fish oil pills to help, but no change and I finished a 200 count bottle. I see a lot of people are talking about taking zinc to help reduce breakouts thinking about trying that.

    • Roma says

      It’s really important to eat a low GI diet and make sure you are getting adequate amount of zinc and magnesium. A low GI diet and high protein has been showed to have a massive impact. Maybe you need to increase your protein percentages daily to ensure adequate levels.

  3. Labradorite says

    I usually break out with dairy/milk consumption. I recently heard about A2 milk which lacks the A1 protein that is suspected to cause inflammation. I drank a liter over a few days and was relieved that my acne didn’t flare up. Just wondering if anyone else has heard of this and what they’ve experienced.

    • Nathan says

      I’m the same way. I drank milk all the time when I was a kid, but around my teenage years decided to stop as I eventually linked it to acne. The only time I drink milk now is in the occasional latte if I’m really craving one, and like clockwork I’ll break-out about 4 hours later. I can’t say much for alternatives to milk, but I’d recommend just giving it up. Cheese has a milder effect on my acne, but I’ve just decided to deal with that and moderate my intake. If you cut out all dairy from your diet, you’ll most likely see an improvement.

    • Halli says

      I’ve heard of A2 milk solving many problems of A1, but have no idea where to get it in general. Where were you able to find it?

  4. Nicole says

    I’d anyone out there feels hopeless about their skin—please look into a high carb low fat vegan diet. I suffered from puberty until fairly recently with deep cystic and painful acne.
    My skin and my life have never been as vibrant as they are now.

    • Theresa says

      My daughter (12) eats a vegan diet and has acne that is getting worse by the day. Dermatology visits aren’t helping at all. What foods helped you clear up?

      • Sidharth Bansal says

        Hey
        Like Nicole mentioned, a high carb low fat diet is really a good idea to fight acne. I myself is following a high carb low fat diet and majorly eating fruits whole day.

        I wonder if she has tried high carb low fat diet yet.

      • Elle says

        Try cruciferous veggies (broccoli, cauliflower etc.) and foods with bright orange/red colors to get Vitamin A. Also, flax seeds and walnuts are good for omega-3’s.

      • says

        “Vegan” does not necessarily mean healthy. There are plenty of pre-packaged processed “vegan” food items: Oreos, Twizzlers, Fritos, Boca burgers, those “un-chicken” patties, etc. are all vegan AND total crap.

        “Whole food plant-based” is a much better way to think about it.

        If you want to eliminate your acne, you must eliminate all the pre-packaged, processed CRAP (Caffeine, Refined Sugar, Alcohol, Processed foods (which includes all oils!)

        After 25 years with chronic cystic acne, a WFPB+oil-free diet has been my saving grace. <3

  5. Ayesha says

    What about fruits like banana, apple because they are high in sugar ? And what other food to avoid for harmonal acne because I have tried to eliminate make food from my diet but I end of breaking out I would really appreciate if some could help me please;-)

    • Cami S. says

      they’re actually natural sugar called fructose. Its really the one sugar we should be processing in our bodies. I think many people still break out after diet changes due to inflammation in your body, which causes breakouts sometimes or headaches. Its our body’s way of telling us that we are still doing something wrong. Stay away fro GMOs too.

  6. Camryn says

    hi
    my acne is not bad but I get breakouts on my chin and below my nose above my lips. I am allergic to peroxide and have tried multiple natural remedies but they have not worked. I cannot bring myself to go vegan like many Youtube clips have stated and changing my diet is a big thing for me as I find it hard to resist the temptation of sugar, etc. is there anything else I could try??

    • Jared Foster says

      Chin acne is most likely due to hormonal fluctuations; Dairy is a huge culprit of hormone related acne, and I highly suggest eliminating this from your diet if possible as well as drinking 4 to 6 glasses of distilled water DAILY. Also considering how often you touch your own chin and upper lip area as these parts of the face are extremely susceptible to being clogged by hand-to-face contact bacteria. Be persistent!

    • Kristina says

      I have acne in the exact same areas as you, and also was super hesitant to cut out my favorite temptations from my diet. But I needed to try changing my eating habits because literally nothing else was working. For the past 2 weeks, I have drastically changed my diet, and WOW, my skin has never been this clear. I cut out milk, sweets, and I make my own detox green smoothie every morning for breakfast. My skin is clearing up so much, and I would highly recommend turning down those tasty sweets because the reward is such a good feeling!

  7. Hazzina says

    Hii,
    My skin was almost clear, but suddenly since last six months I’m getting acne regularly during my fertile days and period days.. two acnes monthly?.. nothing is working.. any home remedies for that??

    • Sam says

      Yes, of course. The most beautiful girl I went on a date with recently drank lots of mint tea. Her skin was superb (and she knew it).

  8. Sue says

    I suffered with chronic cystic acne for most of my adult life. One day, after eating a wheel of brie with my husband the night before, I grew a huge cyst in the middle of my forehead…like a third eye. Then it struck me – dairy. Gave up dairy, and just like that, clear skin.
    Humans are meant to drink milk until we stop breast feeding. Cows milk is meant for calves, not humans, though many can tolerate it (or maybe some other issue will come up down the road, like the colon cancer my father died from….he really loved dairy and meat).
    I’m sure there are other triggers, but I think the first culprit to rule out is dairy.

  9. Leah says

    I eliminated dairy, soy, refined sugars, gluten, processed foods, and all junk food. I drink plenty of water infused with mint tea and kombucha every day, Iam eating only grass fed, organic, pasture raised, wild caught etc. type of foods (whole foods only). Raw honey or stevia as my sweetener (which is rare). eating berries, seeds and sprouted nuts, seeds, regularly taking cod liver oil, magnesium, zinc, bone broth, collagen powder, probiotics and prebiotics. After over a month, I finally saw a bit of results. But still breaking out regularly, My face is still full of pimples. I’m nearly 40 years old and my face is still inflamed! This is depressing. Hearing about a lot of people seeing results from same diet as me and here I am still so frustrated. All the research I’ve done shows that all that I am doing is right. I’m going to keep on having faith as I do feel better, sleep better and my digestive system is functioning much better – no bloat or constipation, plenty of energy, etc. but I may have to resort to accutane which is so disheartening 🙁

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