If you’re a parent or a kid, you’ll know the conversations that start, ‘Better not eat that, or you’ll get pimples!’
That conversation has been around for years. But is it founded in science?
The answer is … maybe. But it’s not straightforward. Nutrition affects your physiology in more ways than just one. These various physiological changes in turn can affect each other. That makes scientific studies on food and acne difficult to do. Lowering your sugar intake, for example, does appear to associate with less acne. But so does lowering your body weight. So if you lower your sugar intake, and your acne clears, is it the lowered sugar that did it? Or is it the lowered body weight? Confusingly, there’s data to suggest that it could be both.
In a similar way, lifestyle habits also affect your physiology. That’s another intertwining variable problem.
And changes in your physiology in turn can affect how you eat. That’s another.
For reasons like these, in any long-term study of nutrition and health it can be very difficult to know exactly what’s causing what.
However, a lot of studies have been done, and in general they do point to at least a few reasonably safe things to say about the relationship between your diet and your acne.
Foods that raise your blood sugar do appear to associate with more acne. Sugar itself is one of them, but so are things like white bread, potato chips, pastries, and rice. These are called ‘high-glycemic’ foods. Switching to low-glycemic foods, like vegetables, fruit, beans, and oats, does seem to lower acne symptoms, as near as we can tell.1
Keep in mind the body mass index, though, which is to say, your weight. Lowering your BMI itself also clearly associates with less acne.2
There is no evidence that cheese or yoghurt can increase acne breakouts, but for some reason milk may indeed worsen acne symptoms.3 We don’t know why. One possibility is that milk can be responsible for a microscopic amount of inflammation that clogs your pores. More study is needed on this.
Some people worry that fun food, full of grease and salt, can make acne worsen. That has not been shown, though there are some interesting studies that are emerging. One of them notes that people with a lot of acne eat more salt than people without acne.4 That’s not proof that high sodium helps cause acne, but it certainly suggests that the supposed pizza connection is worth further study.
Does chocolate make your acne worse? This is a common belief, which until recently has been discounted by most dermatologists. That belief may turn out to have some substance. A recent study, in the International Journal of Dermatology, did find that dark chocolate appeared to exacerbate acne symptoms in a test group of 25 acne-prone adolescent boys.5 This is only one study, of a small, restricted sample population. It’s not conclusive proof of anything by itself. But it is interesting.
What really matters
Acne is actually a rather complex syndrome. No one thing necessarily causes it. Risk factors can include genetics, hormones, climate, skin irritation, using the wrong makeup, or infection, by bacteria or fungus. Some of these require help from a dermatologist.
Food? It probably does matter a bit, but not for direct reasons. What really matters is your overall health – and food does play its part in that. By all means, adjust your diet and see if any acne you have improves. But overall, it makes more sense to think about food and your acne in light of your whole health picture.
1Rouhani P, Berman B, et al. “Poster 706: Acne improves with a popular, low glycemic diet from South Beach.” J Am Acad Dermatol. 2009;60(3, suppl 1):AB14.
2Sas K, Reich A. Acta Dermatovenerol Croat.2019 Jun;27(2):81-85.
3Adebamowo CA, Spiegelman D, et al. “High school dietary dairy intake and teenage acne.” J Am Acad Dermatol. 2005;52(2):207-14.
4El Darouti MA, et al., J Cosmet Dermatol. 2016 Jun;15(2):145-9.
5Vongraviopap S, Asawononda P, Int J Dermatol. 2016 May;55(5):587-91.
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