The Best and Worst Foods for Your Acne Diet

Jeff Hautala
By Jeff Hautala, Co-Founder of Exposed Skincare

There are countless rumors about the perfect acne diet, but can you distinguish the real research from the old wives tales? We’re here to help you sort through it all, but be warned: there is no such thing as a perfect acne diet. Sources that claim to know every good and bad food for acne are either scams or sorely misinformed, because the truth is, we just don’t know enough about how diet affects acne to come up with an ideal acne diet yet. Someday it might be possible, but right now the best we can do is combine common sense with the limited research we have. This post is meant to be a guideline rather than a strict set of rules, which is perfect because studies show that we’re more likely to stick to diets when we have a little wiggle room. For more detailed information, check out our other posts on foods that help with acne and foods that make acne worse. But remember, even if there’s a food that might make acne worse, that doesn’t mean you need to cut it out completely, just cut back.

Even though there’s no specific acne diet, there may be certain foods that can help or hurt your skin.

Why The Perfect Acne Diet Is So Elusive

There are several reasons we haven’t developed the perfect acne diet yet, but they can basically be split into two camps: first, different people can have very different reactions to the same foods, and second, diet is incredibly hard to study.

Researchers have tried to study the effects of diet on acne, but the results have to be taken with a grain of salt due to the nature of diet studies. When we try to study diet to determine whether a certain food, like chocolate, causes acne, it can be very difficult to isolate chocolate as the determining factor because our regular diet can vary widely from day to day. If the chocolate study found that the participants who ate chocolate every day had worse acne, it would be hard to tell if it was because of the chocolate or because of other foods they had consumed. Finally, diet studies are also difficult because they rely on participant compliance and honesty, because the researcher can’t watch the participants all day long to make sure they don’t sneak some extra chocolate or commit some other violation of the study.

The other problem with acne diet studies is the differences among people. Some people are more sensitive to different foods, while others can eat almost anything without it affecting them. Given a big enough sample size, these differences can be minimized in research, but very few large-scale diet studies have been conducted, let alone large-scale acne diet studies. Because of this, it’s impossible to say that any particular food is officially “good” or “bad” for acne, but we can make some educated guesses.

5 Foods That Help With Acne

1. Water for Acne: Does Drinking Water Help Acne?

When it comes to creating a good diet for acne, one of the first questions people ask is, does drinking water help acne? The answer isn’t as simple as “yes” or “no,” but water can play a role in improving acne.

Drinking water won’t cure your acne, but it may help reduce it, especially if you aren’t getting enough water at the moment. Water is essential for all of our cells to run smoothly, including our skin cells, and when we don’t get enough water, we get dehydrated and so do our cells. This can cause premature skin cell death, cell damage, or a general slowing down of various skin cell processes, and all of these effects can be bad for acne. When skin cells die quicker than new ones are being made, the dead skin cells can clog pores, leading to blackheads and whiteheads, and when skin cells are damaged, our body might trigger the inflammation response to try and repair the damage. Acne is primarily an inflammatory condition, so inflammation is almost always a problem. When the skin is inflamed, the pores constrict, trapping oil, dead skin cells, and bacteria inside where they form blackheads, whiteheads, pimples, or cysts.

Drinking enough water can prevent dehydration and the acne-causing effects that go with it, but if you’re already getting enough water, drinking more won’t have a huge effect on your skin. So how much water is really enough? You may have heard that you should drink eight 8-ounce glasses per day, but it turns out that isn’t a hard and fast rule. For instance, if you exercise or live in a particularly humid or high-altitude climate, you may actually need more water.

2. Garlic for Acne: Does Garlic Help With Acne?

You can use garlic to give a boost of flavor to almost any meal, but you may not realize that you can also use garlic for acne. A few studies have been conducted on how garlic affects general health, and some dermatologists believe those health effects could make a difference in acne treatment.

Garlic may be able to help acne in one main way: reducing inflammation. Some studies have found that garlic improves blood circulation to the skin, and good blood flow keeps the skin cells provided with all the oxygen and nutrients they need to function and helps prevent cell damage, which helps prevent inflammation. But the main reason many people are trying garlic for acne is because of its antioxidant properties. Antioxidants help prevent cell damage and reduce inflammation by fighting off free radicals, which are oxygen cells that are missing an electron. Free radicals often damage cells in their search for another electron, but antioxidants lend free radicals an electron in order to stabilize them.

Garlic on a table.
Antioxidants are the main reason we recommend garlic for acne, because they can reduce various kinds of inflammation that could spark breakouts.

It might sound like garlic is a wonder food, but we want to add two important notes. First, not all garlic is created equal. Studies show that aged garlic extract is the most effective form of garlic for acne, which means simply adding garlic powder, or even fresh garlic, to your meals won’t necessarily clear your skin. Second, some studies show that garlic can boost the immune system, which sounds like a good thing, but this may actually make inflammatory acne like pimples or cysts worse. When our immune system tries to fight off acne-causing bacteria, called p. acnes, it also causes a lot of inflammation which ultimately makes acne worse. Many acne treatments actually aim to suppress the immune system, so the fact that garlic boosts it may be a point against it.

3. Fish Oil for Acne: The Power of Omega-3 Fats

The main reason some people recommend fish oil for acne is because it is made up of several compounds that can help reduce inflammation. You may have noticed, the main way diet can help reduce acne is through reducing inflammation. P. acnes bacteria only live on the surface of the skin, so our diet doesn’t have a profound effect on them, and there aren’t many foods that can affect the third main cause of acne, oil production, though there are some that we’ll get into in a moment. For now, how exactly does fish oil reduce inflammation?

First, it contains several vitamins, including vitamin A and vitamin D, two potentially powerful vitamins for acne. Vitamin A has been shown to regulate skin cell turnover to help prevent clogged pores, and vitamin D is a powerful antioxidant, which we know helps reduce inflammation. The other acne-fighting ingredient in fish oil is omega-3, a particular type of fat that suppresses the production of various enzymes and proteins that cause inflammation.

You can get your daily dose of fish oil for acne through actual fish like herring, tuna, or cod, but if you aren’t much of a seafood lover, fish oil supplements are also widely popular and available at most drug stores. As with all the foods in this post, the research on the connection between acne and fish oil is very limited, but there is some research confirming its anti-inflammatory properties, and according to what we know about acne, that could be a huge help.

4. Tea for Acne: Steeping and Sipping Your Way to Clear Skin

One of the best foods for acne isn’t actually food, it’s tea. There’s no one specific tea for acne, because there are several that work to reduce acne in a variety of ways. We like to recommend green tea and spearmint tea.

Green tea for acne primarily works by reducing inflammation with antioxidants and suppressing inflammatory proteins and enzymes. Specifically, green tea contains a particular type of polyphenol called Epigallocatechin Gallate (EGCG). Polyphenols are nutrients commonly found in plants, and EGCG is a particularly powerful one. It is an antioxidant, but it can also help suppress inflammatory agents. Combined, these properties make green tea an excellent addition to your diet if you’re trying to prevent and reduce acne. If green isn’t your cup of tea, spearmint is another good option, especially if your acne seems to be affected by your hormones.

Spearmint tea fights acne in a different way. Most acne diet foods focus on reducing inflammation, which can definitely help prevent a lot of acne, but spearmint tea fights acne by reducing the level of androgens, like testosterone, because androgens are the hormones most commonly associated with excess oil production. When our androgen levels spike, it triggers our oil production glands to go into overdrive, and we start producing far too much oil. This excess causes clogged pores, which can lead to blackheads and whiteheads, but oil is p. acnes main food source, so excess oil can also increase pimples and cysts. The current most popular treatments for an overabundance of androgens are combined oral contraceptives or spironolactone, both of which have a large number of side effects attached. Spearmint tea, on the other hand has several studies suggesting it can help suppress androgens, though more research is needed to confirm its effectiveness in treating acne.

A cup of tea place on top of a blanket.
Tea can be a powerful part of an acne diet, but like all other foods on this list, it can’t cure acne on its own.

5. Spirulina for Acne: The Dangers and Benefits of Algae

Some sources adamantly recommend that you try spirulina for acne, but we aren’t so convinced. While spirulina contains many compounds that could help fight acne, it could also contain compounds that make acne worse.

First, what is spirulina? It’s a blue-green algae containing many nutrients, minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants. It’s most commonly sold in powder or supplement form, and although it grows naturally, today it is most often grown in a lab. The main benefit of incorporating spirulina for acne into your diet is its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, which it gets primarily from phycocyanin, a protein it produces that also functions as a powerful antioxidant and can suppress inflammatory proteins. However, as we’ve seen, several other food on this list can do the same thing, and given the potential dangers of spirulina, we hesitate to recommend it as the number one acne diet supplement.

As we said, most spirulina is grown in labs nowadays, but some natural spirulina is still used. All-natural sounds like a good thing, but when it comes to algae, there are some major potential drawbacks. Natural algae can easily absorb the pollutants, toxins, and heavy metals in the water around it, which would give it the opposite properties than the ones it normally has. Toxic, polluted algae would only serve to cause inflammation and infection, and the trouble with supplements is that they aren’t regulated by the FDA until after they’re already being sold in stores or online. The FDA might catch a bad batch of spirulina and pull it off the shelves, but there’s always a chance you’ll buy it before they find a problem.

3 Foods That May Make Acne Worse

1. Sugar and Acne: Could Your Sweet Tooth Be Causing Your Breakouts?

Researchers have been trying to nail down the relationship between sugar and acne for years, and while we’ve learned a lot, it’s still not completely clear. We do know this: large, fast increases in blood sugar can lead to increased breakouts, but sugar alone does not cause acne.

To explain how sugar can lead to increased breakouts, we need to understand glycemic index and glycemic load, because merely looking at a food’s sugar content isn’t enough to know whether or not it could contribute to a breakout. Glycemic index is a measurement from 0 to 100 that indicates how quickly a certain food causes a spike in blood sugar. For example, honey has a relatively high glycemic index at 55. Glycemic load is generally considered the more important number though, because glycemic load measures how much of a boost any give food gives your blood sugar. Going back to our honey example, even though honey has a glycemic index of 55, its glycemic load is only 9. So even though honey leads to an increase in blood sugar pretty quickly, that increase is not very large.

So what does all this have to do with acne? Well, our body breaks down sugars using insulin, which activates a wide variety of hormones, many of which cause an increase in oil production. The faster and more drastically our blood sugar spikes, the more insulin is required to break the sugars down, resulting in the release of more hormones and the production of more oil. Because of this, many dermatologists believe that foods with a high glycemic index and a high glycemic load could contribute to breakouts. However, it’s important to note that sugar alone does not cause acne, and eating zero sugar is both unrealistic for a healthy relationship with food and unlikely to get rid of acne entirely.

2. Gluten and Acne: Does Gluten-Free Mean Acne-Free?

In a word, no. A lot of factors go into why gluten could contribute to acne, but generally speaking, adopting a gluten-free diet is very unlikely to improve most people’s acne.

The biggest reason some people see an improvement in acne after going gluten-free is because of celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity. If you have celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity, then eating gluten can cause a whole host of issues for your body, including systemic inflammation. Inflammation plays a vital role in acne formation, so when people who are negatively affected by gluten stop eating it, the inflammation stops too, which could cause a serious improvement in acne and other inflammatory symptoms.

The second reason some people see an improvement in acne after switching to a gluten-free diet is because of what we just discussed: sugar. Many gluten products such as grains, oats, and processed meats and cheeses, have very high glycemic indexes and moderate glycemic loads, which can result in increased oil production and more acne. If you eat a fairly low-sugar diet, even with gluten products, a gluten-free diet is very unlikely to help you reduce acne. In fact, some people could see their acne get worse after switching to gluten-free, if they start replacing foods with gluten with foods with a high glycemic index and load.

3. Milk and Acne: Dairy Dos and Don’ts

Nutrition experts go back and forth frequently on whether milk is good for us, bad for us, or neither, but what about milk and acne specifically? The dominant theory is that dairy can cause acne due to all the hormones typically present in milk and other dairy products. But the question is, is it true?

Unfortunately, we aren’t sure yet. There have been a few studies that show a correlation between increased milk intake and increased acne, but these studies have been relatively small and survey-based, which make them far less reliable than large double-blind experiments, and of course these studies run into the same problems that afflict all diet studies. Still, theoretically, we should consider whether it makes sense that milk and acne could go together due to hormones. It’s true that acne tends to result any time our hormones fluctuate significantly because hormonal fluctuations generally cause a spike in oil production. Increasing our intake of various hormones, including bovine growth hormone (BGH) and insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1), could potentially cause a disruption in our normal hormonal balance, leading to increased oil production and increased acne.

Cows in a grass-field background.
Due to the hormones that most dairy cows are injected with, some people are concerned that milk and acne don’t mix well.

However, this is far from a sure thing. The FDA has deemed milk containing these hormones to be safe for human consumption, and many sources claim that most of the hormones are removed during pasteurization. What little remains are then supposed to be broken down through digestion and never absorbed in the bloodstream. If this is the case, then the hormones in milk should cause no acne disturbances, but some sources aren’t sure that all of this is true. Some say that the FDA was too hasty with their approval of these added hormones, and that milk containing BGH and IGF-1 may not be as safe as it sounds.

Does Exercise Help Acne?

Exercise often goes hand-in-hand with diet, so when people are trying to develop the best acne diet, they often ask, does exercise help acne too? It definitely can, but it could also cause acne, so it’s important to take precautions when exercising.

Exercise can be great for acne because it increases circulation and cuts down on stress. Better circulation means better blood flow to your skin, which means better skin cell turnover due to larger amounts of oxygen being delivered through your blood. It’s important to continuously get rid of old skin cells and replace them with new, healthy ones because when old skin cells hang on too long, they can clog pores and contribute to blackheads and whiteheads. Stress reduction is another big way exercise can help reduce acne. When we’re stressed, our body releases stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. Unlike androgens and insulin, stress hormones don’t lead to increased oil production, but when they’re in our system too often, they can still cause acne. Usually, stress hormones actually reduce one main acne-causing factor: inflammation. However, when we have chronic stress, our bodies get overexposed to our stress hormones, and inflammation can actually increase. One of the best defenses against chronic stress is exercise, so in that way, exercise could help reduce acne.

Despite all these positive effects, exercise could also make acne worse, mostly due to friction and bacteria. Exercise can cause a particular type of acne called acne mechanica which is caused by friction. When tight exercise clothes rub against our skin, it can cause irritation, which leads to inflammation and excess oil production, which then leads to acne. Similarly, exercise clothes are the ideal breeding ground for bacteria, including p. acnes, so if we don’t wash our exercise gear regularly, breakouts can ensue. Wearing loose clothes and washing them regularly can help prevent the increased risk of acne.

The Best Way to Reduce Acne is A Gentle, Consistent Skin Care Routine

The perfect acne diet doesn’t exist, and research on the correlation between acne and diet is shaky and uncertain, which means watching what you eat is far from the best acne treatment. Because the beauty and skin care industry profit off of our insecurities, we receive constant subtle and not-so-subtle messaging that acne is bad, dirty, and shameful. This leads to increased anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem in those of us with acne, and adding diet-shaming to the mix could be the perfect recipe for an eating disorder as well. It’s important to remember that food is meant to be eaten and enjoyed, and that no single food causes or cures acne.

It’s also important to remember that acne is not a bad or unusual thing. Over 80% of people between ages 11 and 30 experience acne, and dirt or poor hygiene have nothing to do with it. It’s simply a human experience that most of us go through. Still, it can be hard to ignore all the societal pressure to get rid of our acne, but if you’re going to treat your acne, it’s best to do so gently. Many acne products contain harsh ingredients that strip our skin of the oil it needs to protect itself from irritation, and this only makes acne worse. It’s far better to gently exfoliate the skin, kill p. acnes bacteria, and moisturize, which is what our Exposed Skin Care Expanded Kit is designed to do.

The Expanded Kit contains a Facial Cleanser, Clearing Tonic, Acne Treatment Serum, Clear Pore Serum, and Moisture Complex. We combine natural ingredients like tea tree oil, aloe vera, and green tea extract with scientific ingredients like glycerin, benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid to give you clear skin without causing acne-causing irritation.

Exposed products
Our Expanded Kit contains gentle products that can help get rid of acne more consistently than any acne diet.