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Do Certain Foods Cause Acne?

Dr. Nancy Shannon

Medically reviewed by Dr. Nancy Shannon, MD, PhD on June 9, 2021

It makes sense that the foods you eat should have an impact on your skin, but the relationship between diet and acne is a complicated one. Much of this comes down to the fact that no two people are exactly alike physiologically: foods that trigger acne breakouts for one person may have no effect whatsoever on another. 

Even so, certain foods do indeed correlate with the occurrence of acne. Here’s what you need to know: 

Acne and Diet

The most important thing to keep in mind when it comes to acne and food is that your body is yours alone. If you’re worried that certain foods may be causing or worsening your breakouts, don’t be afraid to experiment on yourself. Consider cutting certain “problem” foods out of your diet for a while to see if that has an impact. 

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Research on how individual foods impact acne is inconclusive, but a few clear trends have emerged. One of the most notable is a study that showed insulin-like growth factor 1, or IGF-1, to have an impact on acne formation. One of the primary causes of acne is sebum, the mixture of fats that can pool up on the skin and make it appear oily. Each of your pores contains sebum-producing sebaceous glands, and an increase in the amount of IGF-1 in the body has been shown to send the sebaceous glands into overdrive — clogging pores and causing breakouts. 

The levels of IGF-1 in the body are positively correlated with blood sugar spikes. This means that foods that cause sudden spikes in your blood sugar also cause your IGF-1 levels to go up, thus putting you at greater risk of acne formation. The easiest way to transition this insight into a how-to for your diet is by opting for foods with a low glycemic index. The glycemic index is a measure of how quickly and severely a certain food will impact blood sugar levels, making it useful for creating an acne-prevention diet. Avoiding foods with a high GI such as bread, pasta, and certain snack foods, can help keep breakouts to a minimum. 

Potential Acne-Causing Foods

Keep the GI of your diet as low as possible is a great place to start when it comes to using your diet to prevent acne, but there are a few other food groups to be aware of as well, such as:

  1. Dairy 

Milk consumption has been correlated with acne for a long time, but only recently has new light been shone on why this may be the case. Recent studies have found that cow’s milk actually contains a cocktail of amino acids that, when consumed, cause the liver to produce increased amounts of IGF-1 — causing the same effect that high GI foods do. 

The jury is still out, however, on the impact of non-milk dairy products such as cheese on acne. While some people report that they experience breakouts caused by cheese or yogurt, a definitive link has yet to be established through research. This may or may not be true for you, so pay attention to how your skin reacts to dairy to understand whether or not it impacts you.

  1. Refined and Processed Foods 

It’s time to address a big elephant in the room: chocolate. Chocolate is one of the most commonly-cited “acne causing” foods out there, but this reputation is undeserved. Cacao, the primary ingredient in chocolate, has no impact on acne whatsoever. What actually happens when people experience post-chocolate acne is the body’s reaction to refined sugars. Refined and processed foods almost universally have high GIs and cause sudden spikes in blood sugar, making them particularly risky for people who are prone to acne. 

  1. Fast and Greasy Foods

Not all fat is bad for you or causes acne. In fact, the omega-3 fats found in avocados, olive oil, fish, and certain nuts can have a positive impact on your health and skin. The fats found in fast and greasy foods, however, may have an opposit effect. Though ingesting the fat in these foods does not appear to cause acne, grease can collect on your face and fingers, increasing the likelihood that they’ll clog pores directly on contact. And greasy fast food is usually high in simple carbohydrates (think french fries and breaded, fried foods) so that may have a negative effect.

For some people, diet adjustments may not be enough to combat acne. If you’re wondering what other treatment options might be out there for you, get in touch with a member of our medical team today. 

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