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Foods that can aggravate your acne

The link between acne and diet is currently still being investigated, but it does appear from several studies that certain foods can spike blood sugar levels, influence hormone levels, increase inflammation, and lead to excess oil production – all causes of acne.

As studies are still ongoing in this regard, it cannot be said with absolute certainty that the foods mentioned below play a role in the development of acne, or in the severity of an outbreak, but researchers do seem to think that, on the whole, there just may be a strong link. It can do you no harm to cut these foods out, and see if it makes a difference.

The culprits here fall into a few main groups: foods that have a high glycaemic index (such as sugar and unrefined carbohydrates) over-processed and pre-prepared foods (such as ready-made frozen meals, fast foods, certain cheeses and smoked meats), and certain dairy products.

Every person’s skin reacts differently to various foods – what causes an acne breakout in one person might have no effect at all on someone else. 

For decades chocolate was thought to be the main culprit in causing acne, but it turns out it’s not that simple. There are many more foods that have the same effects, and studies are ongoing on whether there is a direct link between what you eat and whether you get acne or not. 

But until researchers come to some conclusions, there are a few general principles to follow. A healthy diet enables your immune system to function properly, and to fight inflammation, and keeps your hormone levels steady, two things which lie at the cause of acne. High levels of certain hormones can also lead to excess oil production, another cause of acne.

While a change in diet is unlikely to treat a severe case of acne, it does appear that there are certain foods that do make it worse. Preventing these can do no harm, and it might reduce the severity of an acne breakout, or, if you are lucky, prevent it in its entirety.

Foods to avoid

White bread, sweets, cakes, biscuits, chocolates, cocoa, pastries, white flour. These foods are not only tasty and tempting, but they are everywhere, and difficult to avoid. They all contained refined carbohydrates, which tends to spike your blood sugar levels.

The effect of these foods on your skin.  When blood sugar levels rise quickly, your insulin levels rise. Your pancreas releases insulin in order to regulate blood sugar levels. But when this happens regularly, because of the regular eating of foods that spike your blood sugar levels, the high insulin levels cause you to produce androgen hormones, which leads to an increase in oil production in your skin. The more oily your skin, the greater the chance of pores becoming clogged, and the greater the chance of an acne breakout. A spike in your blood sugar levels can decrease your body’s ability to fight inflammation – another contributory factor to acne.

Fast foods, such as hamburgers, hot dogs, pies, chips, deep fried foods, readymade meals. 

The effect of these foods on your skin. Many of these foods are laden with sugar, salt, and artificial flavouring. They are often also served on refined carbohydrates (think of a hamburger bun, for example).  Studies are still being conducted on exactly why fast food increases your acne risk, but researchers suspect it has to do not just with blood sugar spikes, but can also cause a shift in certain hormone levels, which can exacerbate acne. No clear link has been established between the eating of greasy food, and increased oil production in the skin. These foods mentioned above are all high in omega-6 fatty acids (saturated fats), high levels of which can increase levels of inflammation in the body.

Dairy products, including milk, yoghurt and cheese. As with the other foods mentioned above, studies are still ongoing, but it would seem that skim milk seems to be a bigger contributory factor to acne than full cream milk or other dairy products. 

The effect of these foods on your skin. Researchers are not sure exactly why a high consumption of dairy products is linked to an increase in acne, but one theory suggests that the hormones contained in cow’s milk encourage the oil production in your skin. It is difficult to avoid dairy, as it is found in so many foods. Also the calcium from dairy is needed for bone strength. So the solution seems to be to avoid skim milk, and to lower your consumption of dairy in as far as you can. Yoghurt and cheese appear to have less of an effect on your skin health than milk, especially skim milk, does.


National Institutes of Health

British Association of Dermatologists



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