6 things to know about diet and acne




photo: Donna P Feldman

photo: Donna P Feldman

As noted previously, research on the connection between diet and acne has been sparse and not always well structured.  Studies from the mid-20th century blamed carbohydrates, milk, fats and saturated fats.  One study claimed a low sodium diet helped.  But other studies found no connection between sugar intake and acne, glucose tolerance and acne or chocolate and acne.  Today, we aren’t much closer to identifying a connection, but we do have some key pieces of information:

  1. Acne depends on several biological factors, not just one:  excess sebum production, inflammation, over-population of P. acnes bacteria and blockage of hair follicles in the skin.  Sebum production is exacerbated by hormones.  All of these factors could have one or more diet or nutrition connections.
  2. People living in rural, less developed areas, eating traditional diets don’t tend to have acne.  But when they migrate to developed areas and take up more processed diets, they are more likely to develop acne.
  3. In a 12-week study of young men with acne, a lower carb diet changed the composition of sebum and was linked to a decrease in acne compared to subjects consuming a typical diet. The subjects ate a 45% carb diet, which emphasized whole grains, fruit and vegetables over processed simple carbs.
  4. Do simple carbs set you up for acne?  Or is a processed diet missing key nutrients that would help prevent acne?  Other studies suggest high intake of fish is linked to less acne.  One small study suggested that omega-3 fats helped with acne.  Another study linked acne to low intake of vegetables.
  5. Milk has been linked to acne in several studies, although most of these studies depended on subjects remembering what their diet was years in the past.  Strangely, low fat and skim milk were linked to acne more often than whole milk or cheese.  Keep in mind, no clinical intervention studies comparing milk or dairy foods and acne lesions have been done.  So while there may be a link, milk or dairy foods may simply be markers for a type of diet that increases acne.
  6. Acne has been linked to the type of bacteria that predominates on skin.  Bacteria populations on your skin could be affected by numerous external factors, like soaps, water quality, lotions and cosmetics, hair care products, or how clean your hands are.  Diet and nutrition could also affect which bacteria live on your skin, by affecting sebum composition.

If you have acne, should you try to change your diet?  Considering that the diets that appear to help are already known to be healthy, switching to a low sugar, less processed diet, full of whole grains, legumes, vegetables and fruit can’t hurt.  A Mediterranean style diet would fit that description.  But don’t expect instant miracles.  Skin grows from the inside out, and improvements in complexion might take weeks.  The good news is that this type of diet has lifelong health benefits, not just for your skin.


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