It comes as no surprise that our diet can affect the rest of our body in profound ways, so it would make sense for there to be foods that cause acne in one way or another, but you may be surprised at how difficult it is to prove it. Studies involving diet have a million obstacles such as cost, non-compliant participants, and countless confounding factors, and because of all of these issues, there have not been any truly reliable studies done on the correlation between diet and acne. Still, the research has been improving in recent years, and many diet changes that could help reduce acne are typically healthy changes to make for the rest of your body as well. So can food cause acne? There are no official foods that cause acne, but we do have a few foods you may want to avoid. But before you start any kind of crash diet for pimples, we have a few things to keep in mind.
The Dangers of “Common Sense” in Treating Acne
Diet clearly effects more than just our weight, so it might seem like common sense that there are some foods that cause acne and others that can help clear acne, but we advise you to be skeptical of “common sense” acne solutions. Many of them are old wives’ tales or skin care myths.
Myth: Acne scrubs can clean the dirt out of blackheads and prevent oil buildup.
One acne solution that just makes sense is acne scrubs. They get rid of blackheads because they scrub away the dirt that gets trapped in your pores, and they strip the skin of excess oil to prevent blackheads as well. That just makes sense…right? The truth is, there are several issues with this line of reasoning. First of all, blackheads are not formed by dirt trapped in a pore. Blackheads form when oil and dead skin cells get stuck in a pore that is still slightly open. The air oxidizes the oil, turning it a dark color, sort of like when you bite into an apple and leave it on the counter.
The second issue involved is the scrubbing part. Unfortunately, any kind of scrubbing is usually bad for acne. This is because acne is primarily an inflammatory condition. Bacteria and oil production also play important roles, but inflammation is at the heart of acne, and scrubbing always causes inflammation. Acne scrubs irritate the skin, especially if you have dry or sensitive skin, and to protect itself, the skin triggers the inflammation response. This causes pores to constrict, and oil and bacteria to get trapped beneath the surface of the skin where they can create blackheads, whiteheads, and pimples. In reality, acne scrubs may cause more acne than they cure.
Myth: If an acne product stings, it’s working.
Another piece of “common sense” acne advice is that an acne product is working if it tingles or stings. This myth likely came about because it burns when you apply rubbing alcohol to a minor cut, and everyone knows rubbing alcohol is good for small wounds. Except that it isn’t.
Burning or stinging sensations are clear messages from your skin that it is being harmed, which is never a good thing. Although rubbing alcohol can help kill bacteria in a wound, it also slows the healing process because it hurts the surrounding skin tissue. A similar issue arises with acne: products that tingle or sting cause minor damage to the skin cells, and they try to protect themselves through inflammation and additional oil production, which can easily lead to more acne. Unfortunately, acne products that sting may actually make acne worse.
Myth: Acne is caused by our modern diets.
There is a possibility that diet plays a role in pimples, but it is not the only factor. So many different things affect whether or not a person has acne: genetics, stress levels, air quality, sensitivity, and the list goes on. Diet may be one factor in this equation, but it is not the sole cause.
Some people cite the disparity between acne prevalence in Western societies compared to prevalence in indigenous or native cultures as proof that a Western diet is high in foods that cause acne, but beware of this oversimplification. This is one of those lines of logic that sounds like common sense, but can actually be misleading.
There are a huge number of differences between Western culture and most native cultures, not just diet. For instance, in most Western cultures, you are expected to be stressed all the time. Many people live in a constant state of mild to moderate stress because it is just part of the culture. Indigenous cultures also have plenty of stressors, but for many native cultures, you don’t have to be stressed all the time for society to acknowledge that you’re working hard. Unlike diet, research has found a clear link between stress and increased acne, so it may be more plausible to say that when Western culture invades native culture, it spreads stress which leads to acne. But then again, stress may not be the answer either. The point is that there could be any number of reasons for cultural disparities in acne, because there are a variety of factors that go into acne.
Foods That Cause Acne…Maybe
We are hesitant to say definitively that there are any foods that cause acne, because of the aforementioned issues about incomplete research and the intricate web of variables that lead to acne, but there are certain foods that you can try to avoid. Most of these foods are not overly good for the rest of our body anyway, so for most people it can’t hurt to reduce your intake, but even if you find certain foods that cause acne for you personally and decide to eat them less, dietary changes can’t clear acne completely.
The Dairy Debate
There has been much debate about whether or not dairy is related to acne. Some sources say yes, others say no, but the truth is that we aren’t sure. The research is inconclusive and inconsistent, but dairy does possess qualities that could lead to acne.
The main reason dairy comes under fire as one of the foods that cause acne is due to its high hormone levels. Milk contains all kinds of hormones from cows, including reproductive hormones, non-reproductive hormones, growth hormones, and more. Hormones aren’t necessarily a bad thing, we all need them to keep our bodies functioning regularly, but there’s a reason teenagers tend to have more acne than adults.
When hormones fluctuate, the body tends to produce more oil which leads to more clogged pores, so it would make sense if milk and other dairy products, which have high levels of hormones, caused an increase in acne. But remember that just because something makes sense doesn’t make it true. Some studies have found a correlation between milk and acne, but each of these are survey studies which ask participants about their dairy consumption habits and then compare the answers of participants with acne to those without acne. Some studies have found acne is more likely in participants who drank significantly more milk than other participants.
If you are looking to change up your diet to avoid foods that cause acne, dairy may be a good candidate to get rid of, but remember that correlation is not the same as causation, meaning that even though people with acne tended to drink more milk according to some studies, that doesn’t necessarily mean milk was causing any problem.
The Sugar Squabble
If you’ve ever gone on a candy binge and felt completely wired, only to crash half an hour later, you learned a hard-won lesson in glycemic index and glycemic load. Glycemic index measures how quickly certain foods cause a spike in blood sugar, and glycemic load measures how big that spike is. Foods with a high glycemic index spike blood sugar quickly. For instance, honey has a glycemic index of 55, so honey delivers sugar to your bloodstream pretty fast.
But glycemic load is the important number, because it measures how much a food raises your blood sugar. Some foods might seem incredibly sugary and bad for you because they have a high glycemic index, but remember, that number just tells you how quickly that food raises blood sugar. Some foods can affect blood sugar almost instantly, but they have a low glycemic load, meaning that “spike” in blood sugar is more like a nudge. For instance, honey has a moderate glycemic index of 55, but a low glycemic load of 9, so it wouldn’t affect your blood sugar very much.
All of this relates to acne because spikes in blood sugar lead to increased levels of insulin, the hormone your body produces to help regulate blood sugar. Insulin activates various hormones to keep blood sugar steady, and some researchers believe these hormones could promote acne because they increase production. Potato chips, rice, macaroni and cheese are all potential examples of foods that cause acne due to their high glycemic load.
The Chocolate Controversy
Does chocolate cause acne? In 1969, one study found that chocolate does not lead to more acne, and we all rejoiced, but now researchers are questioning whether chocolate is as harmless as we’d hoped. Sadly, chocolate combines both of the previous foods: dairy and foods with a high glycemic load, so chocolate may be one of the foods that cause acne, if an official link is found. There have been several studies on the effects of chocolate on acne in the last six or seven years, all of which found that chocolate leads to increased acne to some degree.
In 2016, some hopeful researchers decided to investigate dark chocolate specifically because dark chocolate is rich in antioxidants, which reduce inflammation in the body, and so might reduce acne as well. This study was different from the survey study that investigated the link between dairy and acne. These researchers gathered 25 young men and asked them to abstain from all chocolate for four weeks, then after that time, they asked each participant to eat 25 grams of dark chocolate, smaller than the size of a regular Hershey bar, every day for the next four weeks. The study found that their acne increased significantly while eating the chocolate.
Although this seems like the final nail in the coffin for chocolate and acne, it’s important to remember that acne is caused by many different factors, and even if you stop eating chocolate all together, acne needs a consistent skin care routine in order to really improve.
How to Make an Acne Diet Work for You
If your diet doesn’t seem to make any difference in your acne, try cutting out one food at a time instead of changing everything all at once. This way you might be able to identify which foods have an effect on your skin. Plus, cutting out several foods completely can be very stressful, and that added stress could be contributing to your acne. There is no miracle diet that will cure pimples, so give yourself a little wiggle room and breathe. You don’t need to stop drinking milk, and you will not instantly break out if you take one bite of a chocolate bar. Instead of restricting yourself completely, try to cut back a little on these foods that cause acne. This should also help decrease stress surrounding the dietary changes.
The best way to make your acne diet work for you is to keep up with your regular skin care as well. Try using a gentle, consistent skin care routine that incorporates scientific and natural ingredients to address as many potential causes of acne as possible. Exposed Skin Care is one of the only skin care companies out there that offers products that don’t try to scrub, sting, or burn your acne away. Our skin care kits range from low-maintenance to luxurious, so there are options for everyone.