When searching for foods that help acne, it’s important to remember that many things have a direct impact on acne, like stress, genetics, or bacteria, to name a few. Diet, on the other hand, does not have any rock-solid evidence linking it to acne. This doesn’t mean there’s not a connection though. Studies that investigate how our diet affects anything can be very tricky—not to mention expensive. Many of the current studies looking for foods that help acne are surveys, meaning the researchers observe the participants’ acne and ask them questions about their diet, and try to find correlations. This is not an overly reliable form of research, so there are still a lot of questions about how food affects acne.
There may not be any official foods that help acne, but based on how certain foods affect the rest of the body, we have a few guesses. It’s important to remember something though: changing your diet will not get rid of acne completely. Some people have seen mild to moderate improvement, but the best acne treatment is a gentle, consistent skin care routine. But more on that later. First let’s review some of the changes you could make to your diet to supplement that skin care routine.
Carbs Aren’t All Bad—You Just Have to Find the Right Ones
Many fad diets focus on cutting out any and all carbs, but did you know that complex carbohydrates are one group of foods that help acne? But complex carbs are very different from their cousin, simple carbs.
Simple carbs typically have a high glycemic index, which means they release their sugars into the body very quickly. Simple carbs also tend to have a high glycemic load, and that’s where the real problem arises. A high glycemic load indicates that a food releases a lot of sugar very quickly. It is possible for a food to have a high glycemic index but a low glycemic load.
For instance, a donut has a glycemic index of 76, which is high. It also has a glycemic load of 17, which is moderate-high. So donuts release a decent amount of sugar into the blood stream very quickly and can cause a sudden increase in blood sugar. Watermelon also has a glycemic index of 76, but it only has a glycemic load of 8. This means that watermelon releases sugar into the blood stream right away, but it isn’t much sugar so it doesn’t cause much of a spike.
Simple carbs (like a donut) cause large leaps in blood sugar levels, so your body has to produce more insulin to regulate all that sugar. This is where acne comes in. Insulin can trigger increased inflammation and oil production, two of the three main causes of acne. Switching to complex carbs, like spinach, whole grains, and legumes (beans, chickpeas, certain nuts, etc.) can prevent these sudden spikes, because complex carbs, while also high in sugar, usually release those sugars more steadily. Without all the blood sugar spikes, your body will have to make less insulin, which could help keep inflammation and oil production down.
Get Your Daily Dose of Zinc
Unlike many studies which investigate the connections between certain foods and acne, there are actually quite a few reliable ones indicating that zinc can help reduce acne. Some people apply zinc creams directly to their skin, while others take daily zinc supplements, but if you’re looking for foods that help acne, there are several foods high in zinc that could be beneficial.
Most meat has a significant amount of zinc, including fish. Fish also have lots of omega-3 fats, but we’ll get to that in the next section. Spinach, nuts, and legumes are also excellent sources of zinc, so you can get complex carbs and zinc from the same place. Dairy is also known for its elevated zinc levels, but there is some debate in the acne community on whether or not dairy is good for your skin. Some sources say that all of the hormones in dairy contribute to oil production, which is very possible, but dairy also contains a wide variety of vitamins and minerals, like zinc. This is an example of why it’s so difficult to find out if there are really any foods that help acne. It’s hard to isolate which ingredient is helping and which might be hurting, and how all of it evens out.
But why can zinc help anyway? Zinc reduces inflammation by suppressing your immune system slightly. Acne-causing bacteria, AKA, p. acnes, work by releasing a chemical which binds to the skin cells to make them seem like bacterial cells to your immune system. This leads to your immune system attacking your own body, which increases inflammation significantly. Zinc works by suppressing the immune system slightly so that inflammation doesn’t get out of control and cause even bigger issues, like painful pimples or cystic acne.
Omega-3 Fats Are Good for Your Heart and Your Skin
Like carbs, fats are not as bad as some fad diets make them out to be. Studies show that many different kinds of fats can be good for your heart, brain, and as it turns out, your skin.
Omega-3 fats come in three different varieties: alpha-linoleic acid (AHA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). All three provide essential nutrients, but EPA and DHA fats are most easily absorbed by the body, so they typically provide the best health benefits. Much of a Western diet involves omega-6 fats, which are commonly found in more processed food, so if you’re looking for foods that help acne, you may want to switch out some of your omega-6 fats for omega-3s.
Some of the most popular foods containing EPA and DHA omega-3 fats are fish, including salmon, trout, tuna, and almost every other fish you can think of. But be careful, many types of fish also contain excess mercury, which can cause a toxic reaction if you absorb too much. Luckily, there are other ways to get omega-3 fats, if you’re worried about mercury toxicity. There are also omega-3 supplements you can take which have all three kinds of omega-3, or if you’re vegetarian you can try sources of ALA omega-3 fat, like vegetable oils, broccoli, or dark, leafy greens like spinach.
No matter where you get your omega-3s, the reason they have so many health benefits is because they decrease inflammation all throughout the body. This can keep both arteries and pores from clogging. Similar to the situation with complex carbs and zinc, there is no definitive proof that fish, spinach, and broccoli are foods that help acne, but decreasing inflammation is always a good thing when it comes to skin care.
The Power of Antioxidants
While we’re on the topic of foods that decrease inflammation, we should mention antioxidants. Antioxidants neutralize chemicals called “free radicals” in the body. These free radicals harm cells on the molecular level, which often leads to premature cell decay, but it can also send signals to increase inflammation.
When the skin is inflamed, the pores constrict and trap oil, dead skin cells, and sometimes bacteria beneath the surface. This leads to the formation of blackheads and whiteheads, and if bacteria also get trapped, then pimples or cysts could result. Recent research has found that, even though acne has many interrelated causes, it is primarily an inflammatory disease. This means if we can decrease inflammation, we stand a much better chance at clear skin.
Because of that, foods with antioxidants are some of the best foods that help acne. Fruits and veggies are some of the best sources of antioxidants, especially berries and leafy greens, but you may have heard of another food rich in antioxidants—dark chocolate. Fruits and veggies can be delicious, but finally we can recommend a food that can satisfy your sweet tooth and clear your acne at the same time! Sort of.
Even though studies involving diet are difficult to perform and interpret, there have been several studies since 2011 that suggest that chocolate could contribute to acne. One study even looked at dark chocolate specifically, and still found that it could increase acne. Just like with foods that help acne, there’s no definitive list of foods that cause acne, and chocolate proves that even if a food has some properties that might be good for acne, it could still have others that may be bad for acne.
Where to Get Vitamin A and Vitamin E
The last food group we want to recommend are those with lots of vitamin A or vitamin E—bonus points if they have both! Foods with these vitamins may qualify as foods that help acne for the same reason that foods rich in zinc could help acne: some studies show that people with acne, especially severe acne, tend to have vitamin A and vitamin E deficiencies. So increasing your vitamin A and vitamin E intake could reduce the severity of your acne.
If you have more pimples than blackheads, or even if you have cystic acne, we recommend boosting your vitamin A. It has antibacterial properties, so it could help limit the number of p. acnes bacteria living on your skin or getting trapped in your pores. Unlike many other foods on this list, which focus on dark, leafy greens, most foods with a good amount of vitamin A in them are orange. Carrots, sweet potatoes, squash, cantaloupe, apricots—all orange! Kale, spinach, and collard greens are also excellent sources of vitamin A too, so there are still plenty of greens involved. Vitamin A can also be found in a variety of spices, from cayenne pepper to paprika.
Vitamin E could also fall into the previous category of antioxidants. Studies show that it is very good at destroying free radicals and protecting your body from premature cell decay and inflammation. To get more vitamin E, you can look for a few leafy greens, like spinach (for those of you counting, spinach falls into all 6 categories!), but you can also find vitamin E in more colorful foods, like bell peppers, asparagus, and sunflower seeds.
The Best Acne Treatment
Some studies suggest that there are foods that help acne, but like we said at the beginning: diet studies are often less reliable than other forms of research, and even if you do find foods that help your own acne, they won’t clear it completely. For that, you need a skin care system that takes care of your skin while fighting acne. Unfortunately, many acne products can actually cause more acne than they treat because they cause inflammation, which we now know is a big acne issue. Lots of acne products want to provide immediate results, so they use ingredients that are too harsh. Acne goes away quickly, but then it returns worse than before.
Exposed Skin Care is different because we believe in long-term acne treatment. No one wants clear skin for just a few weeks. We want clear skin for life. The best way to accomplish that is through gentle, consistent care. The Exposed 3-stem system combines natural and scientific ingredients that are designed to keep your skin healthy while they fight acne. Our Basic Kit uses scientific ingredients like benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid, and natural ingredients like tea tree oil and aloe vera. Benzoyl peroxide and tea tree oil are both known as effective ingredients for killing p. acnes bacteria, salicylic acid is an excellent exfoliating agent, and aloe vera protects the skin from damage and inflammation.
If you want to alter your diet to include more vitamins, antioxidants, and healthy omega-3 fats, you might see some mild improvement in your acne, and if you combine your new diet with the Exposed Skin Care system, you could see completely clear skin.