Many years ago, an aesthetician who shall remain nameless took one look at my ruddy skin and broken-out chin and said: "Let me guess. You eat yogurt for breakfast?"
The link between diet and acne is the stuff of old wive's tales: Don't eat chocolate. Actually, don't eat chocolate and then touch your face. Don't drink alcohol. Stay away from potato chips and oily foods. Thankfully, a new study published in JAMA Dermatology aims to put some scientific facts behind all the old parables about how your nutritional habits do or don't affect your skin.
Titled "Association Between Adult Acne and Dietary Behaviors," the study looked at the food intake of 24,452 participants who classified themselves as one of three acne statuses — never acne, past acne, or current acne. The researchers looked at the participants' dietary behavior and acne status during a period of eight months. Dietary behavior was defined as "food intake, nutrient intake, and the dietary pattern derived from a principal component analysis," and the researchers adjusted for potential confounding variables like age, educational level, and physical activity.
The study found a "significant association between current acne and the consumption of fatty and sugary products." Sugary beverages, milk, and an "energy-dense dietary pattern" (aka high levels of fatty and sugary products) was associated with current acne reported by participants.
"We know that our diet has a significant impact on our health in general," Joshua Zeichner, a director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, tells Allure. As he points out, diet impacts our heart function, blood pressure, endocrine system, and more — so perhaps it's not so surprising that what we eat can show up on our skin as well.
"I always counsel my patients that diet is a possible trigger for acne, including high sugar foods and dairy products," Y. Claire Chang, a board-certified dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology in New York City, tells Allure. "It is important to remember that not everyone's skin is the same. Some patients may have dietary triggers and others may not. If my patients find that a specific food is a trigger for their acne, I recommend avoiding these foods."
Diet can be a factor in acne, but according to Chang, "most of the time, diet is not the only reason why someone has acne." Stress, lifestyle factors, and the clear skin genetic lottery can also play a role in acne. Zeichner breaks it down as a combination of genetics and environmental factors. "A poor diet can trigger acne in people who are genetically predisposed," he says. "Changing your diet can minimize the risk of acne breakouts, but it will not change your genetics."
Even though dermatologists have long been working with an understanding of some link between diet and acne, Patricia Wexler, a board-certified dermatologist at Wexler Dermatology in New York City, points out some "flaws in the methodology" of this specific study. "There is a lack of information regarding medications, stress conditions, traveling, topical products, alcohol and tobacco use, and other contributing factors [to acne]," she says. In addition, the study relies on self-reporting in lieu of an examination by a doctor.
The cure for your acne may be as simple as a diet change…or it may not be. "Some people may experience complete clearing of the skin by eliminating surgary foods and cow's milk," says Zeichner. "However, it is not a miracle cure for everyone, and most people still need to treat their skin with acne medications to get it as clear as they would like."
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Originally Appeared on Allure