If you’re one of the 50 million Americans with acne, you’ve likely wandered through drug store aisles in search of the perfect serum that could fix everything. Tired of reading lists of incomprehensible ingredients? Another option is to try changing what you eat.
The move may help in more ways than one. “Following a healthy diet and avoiding high intakes of sugar and processed foods is consistent with promoting health in more ways than dermatologically,” says Linda Van Horn, a professor at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine and a registered dietician nutritionist. Here are a few recommendations to get started.
Meet Your New Friends
Some dermatologists believe that consuming more ofthe following foods could improve your skin.
Fish, walnuts and flaxseed contain omega-3 fatty acids — essential fats that may reduce inflammation. A study in 2014 showed that supplementing omega-3 acids reduced acne counts.
Olive oil and other healthy oils help in the same way. “People often think if they eat greasy foods, that will make their skin greasier,” says Rajani Katta, professor of dermatology at the University of Texas Health’s McGovern Medical School and a member of the American Academy of Dermatology. “And we’ve actually not seen that.” On the other hand, french fries and potato chips may cause breakouts because they’re high in refined carbohydrates that spike blood sugar, increasing acne-triggering hormones.
Fruits, vegetables and tea are all high in a group of naturally occurring vitamins and minerals called antioxidants. “If you do develop inflammation during acne, foods rich in antioxidants may be able to help,” says Katta.
Oral probiotics may be helpful as well, according to recent research that suggests the healthy bacteria aid both skin and general health imbalances. In a 2016 study, people who drank liquid probiotic supplements experienced less breakouts. While drug stores sell many variants of probiotic supplements, you can also find them in enriched or fermented foods such as yogurt and kimchi.
Try These “Villains” Out
People usually label these foods as the wrongdoers, but they could be less harmful than you think.
Rest assured, oat milk and soy milk lovers. Only studies of cow’s milk show worsening acne conditions, says Julia Mhlaba, an assistant professor in dermatology at Northwestern Medicine. And the effect varies depending on the person and the amount of milkfat: “Many studies have shown that skim milk has a higher likelihood to contribute to acne,” explains Northwestern Medicine dermatology professor Roopal Kundu. But research results offer no definitive evidence; if you’ve been an avid dairy consumer, cutting back could offer a pleasant surprise. Derivatives of milk, like yogurt and cheese, however, do not worsen breakouts.
Cocoa consumption is known to drive an increase in acne lesions. Furthermore, a 2020 study associated the intake of dark chocolate with worsening acne. But a review from last year noted that more research needs to be conducted — since it’s unclear from previous studies whether chocolate directly causes more acne, or if the increased presence of acne leads to bad moods, and therefore more consumption of chocolate.
Watch Out for the Unexpected
This is about more than just junk food. Believe it or not, even foods widely regarded as “healthy” could potentially worsen acne.
You’d be forgiven if you’d never heard of high glycemic index foods. Scientists assign higher index values to foods — including white bread, white rice, potato chips and pastries — that increase your blood sugar levels within two hours of consumption. “We’ve found any food with a high GI to be associated with the worsening of acne,” says Mhlaba. But the list contains a few surprising candidates: watermelon, cooked celery roots, parsnips, turnips. Check out Harvard Health’s list of food GI values to learn if your favorite foods could be behind your breakouts.
If you work out, you might find whey protein on the ingredient list of your protein shake or blend. But whey protein can also prompt breakouts by causing the body to produce too much testosterone. “Some people have developed really severe and treatment-resistant acne,” says Katta. “And their acne only got better when they stopped taking whey protein supplements.”
Of course, changing up your diet is rarely a cure-all solution. “The biggest misconception is that it’s all diet. I have many patients who eat well but still suffer from acne,” says Peter Lio, a dermatologist at the Medical Dermatology Associates of Chicago and Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Acne is often the result of a combination of things, including hormones and genetics — so, in addition to cutting out dairy or protein powder, consider discussing persisting concerns with a doctor or dermatologist.