How Does Diet Affect Acne?


Acne is one of the most common skin conditions, affecting around 85% of people at some point between the ages of 12 and 24. While acne is most prevalent among teenagers, it can persist into adulthood as well.

How Does Diet Affect Acne

Acne forms when hair follicles become clogged with excess oil and dead skin cells. This allows bacteria to build up inside the follicles, leading to inflammation and breakouts. There are many factors that contribute to acne, including genetics, hormones, and stress. However, diet also plays an important role.

In this article, we’ll explore the ways diet can impact acne, and how making dietary changes may help improve breakouts.

How Does Diet Affect Acne?

The relationship between diet and acne has been heavily studied. Research shows that certain dietary factors can influence acne in a number of ways:

  • By affecting hormone levels
  • By increasing inflammation
  • By altering gut health

Additionally, diet affects blood sugar and insulin levels, which can also exacerbate acne.

Hormonal Effects

Androgens like testosterone increase sebum production, which can lead to clogged pores and acne. Studies show that certain foods like dairy products contain hormones that also stimulate sebum production and worsen breakouts.

Foods with high glycemic loads also cause spikes in blood sugar and insulin levels. This triggers increased androgen secretion and sebum production.


Acne is an inflammatory condition. Certain dietary triggers can set off inflammatory pathways in the body and worsen acne. These include:

  • Refined carbohydrates
  • Trans fats
  • Excess omega-6 fatty acids

Meanwhile, anti-inflammatory foods like fatty fish and greens may help reduce redness and swelling from breakouts.

Gut Health

Emerging research shows a clear link between gut health and skin health. An unhealthy gut microbiome promotes inflammation that can manifest as acne.

Foods that disrupt gut health include:

  • Sugar
  • Refined grains
  • Processed foods

Eating more fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, and kefir may help improve gut health and acne.

Foods That Worsen Acne

Knowing which foods can aggravate acne is an important first step in clearing up skin from the inside out. Here are some of the top dietary culprits that may contribute to breakouts:


Multiple studies demonstrate a link between dairy consumption and acne. Milk contains hormones like insulin growth factor-1 (IGF-1), androgen precursors, and progesterone that can stimulate oil production and clogged pores.

Some researchers believe whey protein in particular may be the main culprit. Whey contains amino acids like leucine, valine and isoleucine that promote increased sebum production.

Cutting out milk, yogurt, cheese, whey protein, and other dairy products may help improve acne, especially in those with an underlying dairy sensitivity.

High Glycemic Foods

Foods with a high glycemic index cause rapid spikes in blood sugar. This triggers a hormonal cascade that increases insulin and androgen levels, promoting acne.

High glycemic foods to avoid include:

  • Processed grains like white bread, crackers, cereals
  • Sweets like cookies, candy, ice cream
  • Starchy vegetables like potatoes, corn, squash
  • Sugary drinks like soda, fruit juice, sports drinks

Refined Carbs

Refined carbohydrates have been stripped of nutrients like fiber that help slow digestion. Refined carbs are quickly broken down into sugar, wreaking havoc on blood sugar levels.

They also lack antioxidants and phytochemicals that combat inflammation. Studies link diets high in refined carbs to increased acne risk.

Specific refined carbs linked to acne include:

  • White bread, bagels, muffins, rolls, pasta
  • White rice
  • Chips, pretzels, crackers
  • Box cereals, granola cereals
  • Baked goods like cakes, cookies, pastries

Fast Food

Fast food is the perfect storm when it comes to acne-provoking eats. Burgers, fries, chicken nuggets, and milkshakes are loaded with refined carbs, unhealthy fats, hormones, and additives.

One study of over 5,000 Chinese adults and teenagers found frequent fast food consumption was associated with a nearly 40% increased risk of acne. Steering clear of fast food may significantly improve skin health.


Devastating news for chocolate lovers - chocolate has been implicated in breakouts. It contains sugar, dairy, and cocoa that can all drive acne.

However, dark chocolate has a lower glycemic index than milk chocolate. Eating moderate amounts of dark chocolate in place of other sweets may be an acceptable workaround.

Trans Fats

Found in fried foods, packaged baked goods, margarine, and shortening, trans fats are created through a process called hydrogenation. This turns healthy unsaturated fats into saturated fats.

Beyond heart health concerns, trans fats are highly inflammatory. Studies link higher trans fat intake to increased risk of acne. Avoiding trans fats can help control breakouts.

Omega-6 Fatty Acids

While omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties, omega-6 fatty acids have the opposite effect and can promote acne.

Unfortunately, the Western diet contains far more omega-6s than omega-3s. Fried foods, vegetable oils, mayonnaise, salad dressings, snack foods, and processed meals are all high in pro-inflammatory omega-6s.

Minimizing intake of foods cooked in vegetable oils can help rebalance fatty acid intake.

Foods That May Improve Acne

Just as some foods exacerbate acne, others contain beneficial nutrients that may reduce it. Adding more of these acne-fighting foods into your diet can help clear up skin.

Fatty Fish

Fatty varieties like salmon, mackerel, sardines, and herring are loaded with anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s help counteract acne-causing inflammation.

Increasing omega-3 intake while limiting omega-6s may help control breakouts. Aim for 2-3 servings of fatty fish per week.

Green Tea

Brimming with antioxidants, green tea is renowned for its anti-inflammatory effects. Drinking 2-3 cups of green tea daily provides a megadose of acne-combatting polyphenols.

One study found participants who drank green tea had a 22% reduction in acne lesions in just 6 weeks. The antioxidants in green tea calm inflammation that leads to breakouts.


This bright orange spice contains the compound curcumin which has been shown to reduce acne. It modulates inflammatory pathways involved in acne and decreases pore-clogging sebum production.

Adding turmeric to meals or drinking turmeric tea can help target acne from the inside. Curcumin supplements are another option for reaping anti-acne benefits.


All types of berries are great for acne-prone skin. They’re low glycemic, high in antioxidants, and contain anti-inflammatory polyphenols called flavonoids.

Studies demonstrate blueberries and strawberries inhibit growth of acne-causing bacteria like Propionibacterium acnes. Enjoy berries daily as a snack, dessert, or mixed into smoothies.

Nuts and Seeds

Rich in skin-healthy fats and antioxidants, nuts and seeds are smart acne-fighting snacks. They provide nutrients like zinc and vitamin E that are often deficient in those with acne.

Brazil nuts, cashews, and pumpkin seeds are particularly great choices. Enjoy a small handful daily as a snack between meals.


Ginger has been used for centuries to treat inflammatory conditions. The gingerols in ginger have antimicrobial effects that suppress bacteria involved in acne.

One study found a topical ginger gel was as effective as benzoyl peroxide for reducing acne lesions. Add fresh ginger to meals, steep ginger tea, or take supplements.

Probiotic Foods

Promoting a healthy gut microbiome is key for reducing systemic inflammation that drives acne. Probiotic foods introduce good bacteria to the gut and have been shown to improve skin health.

Try adding probiotic yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha and other fermented foods to your diet. A daily probiotic supplement can provide an added boost.

Tips for an Acne-Fighting Diet

Optimizing your diet by avoiding acne triggers while increasing anti-inflammatory foods can significantly improve breakouts. Here are some top tips for eating an acne-busting diet:

  • Cut out dairy - this is one of the most beneficial changes for clearing acne
  • Reduce refined carbs - limit bread, cereals, crackers, baked goods
  • Avoid added sugars - sweets, sodas, juices, sports drinks with added sugar
  • Limit fast food and fried foods - reduces trans fats, vegetable oils, grease
  • Moderate chocolate intake - small amounts of dark chocolate preferred
  • Increase omega-3 intake from fatty fish, walnuts, flax
  • Load up on fruits and veggies - eat the rainbow, focus on low glycemic choices
  • Drink green tea 2-3 cups per day provides a power dose of antioxidants
  • Eat anti-inflammatory spices like turmeric, ginger, cinnamon
  • Include probiotic and prebiotic foods - yogurt, kefir, fermented foods, fiber-rich choices

Making even small, gradual steps toward a diet based on whole, unprocessed foods can help reduce factors that trigger acne development and promote clearer skin.


Diet absolutely influences acne, through its effects on hormones, inflammation, blood sugar regulation, and gut health. While no diet can cure acne, eliminating acne-provoking foods while increasing intake of nourishing whole foods can help control breakouts.

Key takeaways include:

  • Limit dairy, refined carbs, sugar, fast food, trans fats - these worsen acne
  • Eat more produce, healthy fats, anti-inflammatory foods - these improve acne
  • Support gut health with fiber, probiotics, fermented foods
  • Stay hydrated, limit alcohol
  • Manage stress with exercise, meditation, sleep - stress worsens acne

There is no “magic” acne diet, but following an overall balanced diet focused on whole, unprocessed foods can significantly improve skin health and prevent breakouts. Dietary changes take consistency and time to show effects, but are well worth the effort for clearer skin.

Frequently Asked Questions on Diet and Acne

What foods should I avoid for acne?

The main foods to avoid for acne are:

  • Dairy products like milk, cheese, yogurt, whey protein
  • Refined carbohydrates like white bread, pasta, cereals
  • Added sugars including sodas, juice, candy, ice cream
  • High glycemic index foods like white potatoes, corn, white rice
  • Fast food, fried foods, trans fats
  • Excess omega-6 fatty acids from vegetable oils
  • Chocolate and cocoa products

These foods can worsen acne by increasing inflammation, upsetting hormone balance, spiking blood sugar, and disrupting gut health. Limiting or removing them from your diet may significantly improve acne.

What foods can help clear up acne?

Some foods that may help improve acne include:

  • Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel - provide anti-inflammatory omega-3s
  • Green tea - powerful antioxidant that reduces inflammation
  • Turmeric - contains curcumin which decreases acne lesions
  • Berries - have antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory benefits
  • Nuts and seeds - great source of skin-healthy fats and nutrients
  • Ginger - has antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory effects
  • Probiotic foods like yogurt, kefir, kimchi - support gut health
  • Fruits and vegetables - provide antioxidants, fiber, nutrients for health

Focusing on including more of these nourishing whole foods can help combat acne from the inside out.

How quickly will my acne improve with dietary changes?

It takes time to see results when addressing acne through diet. While some minor improvements may occur within a few weeks, more significant clearing will likely take 1-2 months.

It’s important to stick with dietary changes consistently for at least 8-12 weeks before assessing effects on skin. The longer you maintain a healthy diet, the better results you’re likely to see. Patience and persistence are key.

Should I cut out all dairy to help acne?

Multiple studies link dairy consumption to increased acne, especially for those with sensitivities. Cutting out all milk, cheese, yogurt, whey, and other dairy products for a trial period of 6-8 weeks can reveal if dairy is a contributing trigger for your breakouts.

You may choose to completely eliminate dairy long-term if you see significant improvements. However, small amounts of yogurt or hard cheeses may be tolerated fine by some acne sufferers.

Will drinking more water clear up my acne?

Staying properly hydrated is important for overall health and may help acne marginally. However, simply drinking more water is unlikely to significantly improve breakouts on its own.

Focus more on limiting beverages that can worsen acne like milk, sugary sodas and juices, alcohol, and high-caffeine drinks. Drink plenty of pure water, herbal tea, and add hydrating foods like cucumbers and berries to your diet.

Can probiotics supplements help acne?

Emerging research shows a strong gut-skin connection. Taking a high-quality probiotic supplement may potentially benefit acne by reducing gut inflammation, improving microbial balance, and decreasing hormones and cytokines that provoke acne.

Look for a probiotic with a diversity of strains like Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. Combine with prebiotic foods to feed good gut bacteria. Probiotic foods can optimize gut health as well.

How else can I improve my acne through lifestyle?

Dietary changes are a great start, but other lifestyle factors impact acne too. Here are some additional tips:

  • Manage stress with exercise, meditation, yoga, sleep
  • Practice gentle skin care and avoid excessive washing
  • Avoid picking/popping pimples to prevent scarring
  • Take targeted supplements like zinc, omega-3s, vitamin D
  • Consider probiotic skin care and spot treatments
  • Know your triggers - like hormones, medications, fabrics, hair products
  • See a dermatologist if acne is severe or not improving

Addressing acne holistically through a healthy lifestyle, skin care routine, and targeted treatments yields the best results long-term.

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