Acne can be caused by a wide, wide, wide variety of factors. Your skincare routine could need a revamp, your hormones could be out of whack, your pillowcase could be dirty—the reason for your clogged pores and underground pimples are plentiful. And while it’s not always the case, it is possible that your diet could be aggravating the situation. There are a handful of foods that have been proven to have a correlation to acne. The usual suspects? Dairy, sugar, and unrefined carbs. But there’s not a cut-and-dry list of what to avoid—it really depends on how your body reacts to particular foods.
“Guidelines are good, but it’s important to really understand how your skin changes as your diet evolves,” says board-certified dermatologist and founder of Hudson Dermatology and Laser Surgery Dr. Dhaval Bhansuali. “Anything sudden, like going keto or fully vegan, can certainly lead to skin changes as your body tries to adjust to the new normal.” That’s why you should keep a food diary, track your breakouts, and of course, work with a board-certified dermatologist.
But if you want to get an idea of common triggers, scroll ahead. Top doctors are breaking down the most common foods that cause acne. (For more information on how to treat acne, check out our favorite spot treatments or read up on our guide to hormonal acne.)
Does Food *Really* Cause Acne?
Think of food like a piece of the puzzle. It’s certainly not the sole cause of breakouts, but it can certainly contribute—especially when dealing with adult female acne. “We are really in the midst of an epidemic of adult acne. The reasons for this are varied, but it’s likely a combination of hormonal dysregulation, stress, genetics, unadapted cosmetics, dysregulated microbiome, and more,” says board-certified dermatologist Dr. Evan Rieder. “Diet is part of the picture, but for most people, not the primary culprit.”
Foods That Cause Acne
I’m just as sad about this as you are, but candies, cakes, cookies, and desserts in general are kind of the enemy for clear skin. Reason being: “High glycemic index foods tend to be associated with breakouts,” says Dr. Bhanusali. These types of food will increase insulin and insulin-like growth factor 1, which in turn is going to heighten oil production and make your skin cells stickier. “This sequence of events causes occlusion of hair follicles and blackhead and whitehead formation,” adds Dr. Rieder.
The bread basket is tempting, no doubt about it. Unfortunately processed foods and unrefined carbohydrates like white bread, white pasta, pizza, and even potato chips are “especially bad for acne,” says board-certified dermatologist Dr. Kenneth Howe. Similar to sugar, processed foods and starches have a high glycemic index. “That causes our body to release more insulin and those high insulin levels set off a cascade of hormonal releases that eventuate in acne breakouts.” You’re better off substituting these foods for brown rice or 100 percent whole grain breads.
Let’s start off with the good news. Cheese, aka the best item in the dairy family, might not break you out. A half win is a win, right? “While dairy consumption in general has been associated with acne, studies show conflicting results, making it difficult to draw clear conclusions. Cheese is exonerated by some studies, while other studies include it,” says Dr. Howe.
Milk however, particularly skim milk, seems to be the main acne culprit. “Skim milk actually showed a stronger acne association than whole milk. The reason for that is skim milk consumption is correlated with higher blood levels of insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1), and IGF-1 stimulates greater oil production in the skin,” explains Dr. Howe. “No one knows why skim milk has worse acne effects, but the study authors speculated that it might be due to the processing skim milk undergoes."
“This is a new phenomenon and we are seeing it more and more often,” says Dr. Bhanusali. “There were reports of whey protein causing increased acne in patients.” That said, it’s also worth noting that those consuming whey protein might already be the target group for hormonal acne. “Protein powders are often consumed in large quantities by teenagers and young adults who are already susceptible to acne,” says Dr. Rieder. “This can be a recipe for a flare.” Thankfully, the fix is easy; switch to a plant-based protein option.
What Foods are Good for Acne-Prone Skin?
In the same way the sugary, starchy, and dairy-filled foods can contribute to acne, there are certain foods that can actually help minimize acne. “A diet rich in foods with a low glycemic index and that is anti-inflammatory can be good for conditions like acne,” says Dr. Rieder. “This includes foods like fresh vegetables, beans, and some types of fresh fruit.”
You might also want to seek out food rich in Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, such as fish, vegetable oils, nuts, flax seeds, sweet potatoes, and leafy greens. Dr. Howe explains that these types of foods “might” help acne by reducing inflammation.