What Foods Cause Acne? The Top 9 Acne-Triggering Foods


Are you struggling with acne, and wondering if certain foods in your diet may be to blame? You're not alone. Many people find that certain foods seem to make their acne worse.

The relationship between diet and acne is complicated. While research in this area is still emerging, we do know that some foods seem to trigger breakouts more than others.

In this article, we’ll look at the top 9 acne-triggering foods, why they may cause flare-ups, and what you can eat instead to help clear your skin. We will also look at the science behind the diet-acne connection.

What Foods Cause Acne The Top 9 Acne-Triggering Foods

How Does Diet Impact Acne?

Before jumping into the specific foods, let's first understand how diet can influence acne.

There are a few ways that the foods you eat may worsen acne:

  • Inflammation - Certain foods may trigger inflammation in the body, which can worsen acne.
  • Hormonal fluctuations - Some foods cause spikes and dips in hormones like insulin, which can increase oil production and clog pores.
  • High glycemic load - Foods high on the glycemic index cause blood sugar spikes, which can exacerbate acne.
  • Food sensitivities - Being sensitive to certain foods like dairy may trigger inflammatory reactions.
  • Gut health - An imbalanced gut microbiome may influence skin health and acne.

With this context, let’s now dive into the top 9 foods that commonly cause acne flares.

9 Foods That Can Trigger Acne Breakouts

1. Dairy Products

Dairy products like milk, cheese, yogurt, and ice cream are among the biggest dietary acne triggers.

Multiple studies have found a link between dairy and acne:

  • In one study of 47,335 women, those who consumed milk as teens had a higher risk of severe acne later in life [1].
  • Another study found school-age children had higher rates of acne if they consumed dairy versus those who did not [2].

There are a few reasons dairy may contribute to acne:

Hormones: Dairy contains hormones like insulin growth factor (IGF-1) that may stimulate oil production and clogged pores [3].

Inflammation: As many as 60% of adults are sensitive to dairy’s A1 casein proteins, which may trigger inflammation [4].

Androgens: Milk contains androgens and bioactive molecules that boost androgen levels, contributing to acne [5].

The takeaway? Cutting back on dairy, especially milk, may help control acne-prone skin. Opt for plant-based milks like almond or oat milk.

2. High Glycemic Index Foods

Foods high on the glycemic index cause your blood sugar levels to spike rapidly. These blood sugar swings can exacerbate acne.

High glycemic foods include:

  • White bread, pasta, pastries
  • Packaged breakfast cereals
  • Rice, potatoes
  • Soda, fruit juice, sports drinks

These refined carbs are digested quickly and flood the bloodstream with glucose. This triggers your body to produce more insulin, which can increase oil production and inflammation [6].

By cutting back on high glycemic index foods, you can level out your blood sugar, reduce insulin spikes, and potentially improve acne.

3. Sweets and Desserts

Sugary foods like cakes, cookies, candy, and ice cream can worsen acne by spiking your blood sugar and insulin levels.

A study from Malaysia found acne patients consumed higher amounts of ice cream, milk, and sodium compared to the control group [7].

Another study found patients with acne consumed 2 times more refined carbs and sugar compared to those without acne [8].

Sweets also have a high glycemic load. As we discussed earlier, this leads to surges in blood sugar and insulin, which influences skin health.

By reducing your intake of sugary treats like desserts, candy, and soda, you may notice clearer skin. Be sure to also cut back on “hidden sugars” in processed foods.

4. Fast Food

Fast food like burgers, fries, chicken nuggets, and shakes tend to be highly processed and packed with sodium, grease, and refined carbs.

One study linked eating fast food to increased insulin resistance and a greater risk for acne [9].

Another trial found patients with acne were more likely to eat fast food like hamburgers and pizza [10].

Fast foods contribute to acne by:

  • Spiking blood sugar levels
  • Increasing inflammation
  • Containing dairy, grease, and hormones that clog pores.

Limit your intake of fast food and fried items to control acne-causing inflammation.

5. Whey Protein Powder

While protein is essential for health, some high-protein foods like whey may worsen acne.

Whey protein powder and supplements contain amino acids that stimulate insulin and IGF-1 production. This can fuel increased oil production and clogged pores.

One study found acne patients had higher levels of whey-specific IgG antibodies, indicating a whey sensitivity [11].

If you suspect whey protein worsens your acne, limit supplements and choose plant-based protein powders instead. Soy, pea, rice, and hemp proteins are good whey-free alternatives.

6. Omega-6 Rich Oils

Vegetable oils high in omega-6 fatty acids, like soybean, corn, cottonseed, sunflower, and safflower oils, are ubiquitous in processed foods.

While omega-6s are essential fatty acids, most modern diets contain too much omega-6 and not enough omega-3 fats.

This imbalance can contribute to inflammation in the body and worsen inflammatory acne lesions [12].

Limit intake of processed snack foods cooked in high omega-6 oils, and use healthier fats like olive oil and avocado oil for cooking instead.

7. Alcohol

Drinking alcohol, especially in excess, is linked to acne flare-ups.

One study found patients with acne drank more alcohol per week compared to those with clear skin [13]. Other research shows those with moderate to severe acne are more likely to regularly consume alcohol [14].

Alcohol contributes to acne by:

  • Spiking blood sugar and insulin
  • Increasing inflammation
  • Dehydrating the skin and body

Drinking alcohol in moderation, or avoiding it altogether, can help prevent acne caused by alcohol consumption.

8. Caffeine

For some acne-prone people, caffeine appears to aggravate breakouts. There are a few potential reasons:

  • Caffeine causes blood pressure and stress hormone spikes, which can worsen inflammatory acne [15].
  • Withdrawal from caffeine can also trigger acne flares [16].

However, research on diet and acne has not found a significant link between caffeine and breakouts [17]. The effects seem to vary by individual.

If you suspect caffeine exacerbates your acne, try cutting back on coffee, tea, soda, and energy drinks to see if your skin improves.

9. Chocolate

While many people assume chocolate causes acne, research does not show a significant correlation between chocolate consumption and breakouts [18].

However, some studies suggest patients with acne may crave and consume more chocolate and sweets in general [19].

Dark chocolate with a high cacao content has anti-inflammatory benefits that may benefit acne. Milk chocolate, on the other hand, contains dairy and sugar that may negatively affect skin.

Overall, chocolate does not appear to be a direct acne cause, though quality matters for overall skin health.

Should You Follow a “No Acne Diet”?

After learning which foods can trigger breakouts, you may wonder: should you follow a restrictive “no acne diet”?

Cutting out entire food groups is not necessarily optimal or realistic long-term. However, being aware of your acne triggers is helpful.

Here are some tips on managing diet to control acne:

  • Pinpoint your triggers - Notice which foods seem to worsen your acne, and avoid them. Common culprits include dairy, high-glycemic carbs and sugar.
  • Keep a food diary - Recording what you eat and how your skin reacts can reveal your personal acne triggers.
  • Eat an anti-inflammatory diet - Focus on whole, unprocessed foods like fruits, veggies, lean proteins, nuts and anti-inflammatory fats.
  • Stay hydrated - Drink plenty of water to flush out toxins and keep skin hydrated.
  • Supplement wisely - Supplements like zinc, omega-3s, probiotics and vitamins can support clear skin.

While diet alone won’t cure acne, avoiding your specific trigger foods can go a long way in keeping breakouts at bay.

The Bottom Line

The foods you eat can influence acne flare-ups, especially refined carbs, dairy, fast food, sweets and unhealthy fats. By pinpointing your acne triggers, you can adjust your diet to control breakouts while still eating a balanced, enjoyable diet.

Focus on whole, unprocessed anti-inflammatory foods rich in antioxidants and healthy fats for the best acne defense. Stay hydrated, manage stress, and use targeted skincare products to keep skin clear.

With some diet tweaks and skin care savvy, you can send pesky acne packing and embrace a confident, glowing complexion. What changes will you make to bid farewell to breakouts?

Frequently Asked Questions About Foods That Cause Acne

What foods commonly cause acne?

Some of the top foods that can worsen acne include:

  • Dairy products like milk, cheese, ice cream
  • Refined grains - white bread, pasta, cereals
  • Sugary foods - candy, desserts, soda
  • Fast food like burgers and fries
  • Foods with high glycemic index - potatoes, white rice
  • Vegetable oils high in omega-6 fatty acids
  • Whey protein powder
  • Excessive alcohol

These foods tend to spike blood sugar, insulin, and inflammation levels which can stimulate oil production and exacerbate acne.

How does diet affect acne?

Research shows there are several ways diet can influence acne:

  • Spiking blood sugar and insulin levels - High glycemic foods cause surges in blood sugar and insulin, which increases oil production and inflammation.
  • Inflammation - Certain foods trigger inflammatory responses in the body, worsening inflammatory acne lesions.
  • Hormonal fluctuations - Some foods alter hormones like insulin, IGF-1, and androgens, leading to increased oil production and clogged pores.
  • Food sensitivities - Being sensitive to foods like dairy can trigger inflammatory reactions and acne flares in some people.

Is chocolate bad for acne?

Despite the common belief that chocolate causes acne, most research has not found a significant link between chocolate and breakouts. Dark chocolate with a high cocoa content may even have anti-inflammatory benefits. However, dairy-based milk chocolate could negatively affect acne. Overall, chocolate does not seem to directly cause acne, but quality matters.

Do bananas cause acne?

No, there is no evidence that bananas cause or worsen acne. Bananas have a medium glycemic index, and are not significantly linked to increased breakouts. Bananas contain vitamins and minerals that support skin health, like vitamin C, vitamin B6, and potassium. As with any food, some people may have individual sensitivities. But bananas are generally considered safe for acne.

Does caffeine cause acne?

The effects of caffeine on acne appear mixed. Some research has linked caffeine intake to increased stress hormones and blood pressure, potentially worsening acne. Caffeine withdrawal may also trigger flares in some people. However, studies have not found a statistically strong correlation between caffeine and acne. For those sensitive to caffeine, limiting intake may help control breakouts.

How can I cure acne naturally?

In addition to avoiding acne dietary triggers, here are some natural remedies that may help treat acne:

  • Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated and flush out toxins
  • Take targeted supplements like zinc, omega-3s, and probiotics
  • Apply tea tree essential oil, green tea extract, and other herbal remedies
  • Try anti-inflammatory foods like fatty fish, turmeric, greens, berries
  • Manage stress through yoga, meditation, journaling
  • Use natural face masks with ingredients like honey, apple cider vinegar, oatmeal

While natural remedies may help, severe acne often requires medical treatment. See a dermatologist if over-the-counter methods are ineffective.

What should I eat to clear acne?

To clear acne through diet, focus on unprocessed whole foods with anti-inflammatory benefits:

  • Non-dairy milks like almond, coconut, oat milk
  • Lean proteins like fish, skinless chicken, turkey, eggs
  • Colorful fruits and vegetables, especially leafy greens
  • Healthy fats like avocados, olive oil, nuts, seeds
  • Complex carbs - whole grains, quinoa, sweet potatoes
  • Legumes like beans, lentils, chickpeas
  • Herbs and spices - turmeric, ginger, cinnamon
  • Green tea, herbal tea
  • Probiotic foods like yogurt, kefir, fermented foods

A healthy balanced diet rich in nutrients can support clear, glowing skin.

Does dairy cause acne?

Yes, research strongly indicates dairy consumption, especially milk, contributes to acne flares. Dairy contains hormones and bioactive molecules that stimulate oil production. It also triggers inflammation from sensitivities to milk proteins like casein and whey. Limiting dairy intake, and opting for plant-based milks, may significantly improve acne symptoms.

Do nuts cause acne?

Most nuts are not considered acne-triggering, and can be part of a healthy, anti-inflammatory diet. However, some people may be sensitive to the high omega-6 content in nuts. Limit portions to 1-2 handfuls per day, and avoid heavily roasted or salted nuts. Almonds, walnuts, Brazil nuts, and pecans have skin-clearing benefits. Those with severe acne may want to limit regular nut consumption.

Does gluten cause acne?

There is not strong evidence showing gluten directly causes acne. However, some people with gluten sensitivities report acne improvement after going gluten-free. For those with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, a gluten-free diet may help control skin inflammation. But gluten avoidance is unlikely to affect acne in those not sensitive.

Should I avoid all carbs for clear skin?

Avoiding all carbs is not necessary for clear skin. However, limiting refined carbohydrates like sugar, white flour, white rice can control blood sugar spikes. Focus on getting carbs from complex, whole food sources like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, sweet potatoes. Maintain a balanced diet, as cutting out all carbs can negatively impact hormones, energy levels, and skin.

Does eating greasy foods cause acne?

Greasy, fatty foods like burgers, fries, and pizza are not inherently acne-causing. However, these foods are often highly processed and high glycemic, which can worsen acne. Greasy fast food may also contain dairy, hormones, and additives that clog pores. Overall, fatty foods are fine in moderation as part of a healthy diet, but eat fried and processed foods sparingly.

Should I take supplements to treat acne?

Certain supplements may help fight acne when used alongside diet and lifestyle measures, including:

  • Zinc: This mineral supports wound healing and reduces inflammation. Take 30-45 mg per day.
  • Omega-3s: Omega-3 fatty acids like fish oil fight inflammation. Take 1,000 - 2,000 mg EPA/DHA daily.
  • Probiotics: Probiotics support gut health and a balanced microbiome. Look for strains like Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.
  • Vitamins A, D, E: These fat-soluble vitamins bolster skin immunity and health.
  • Vitamin C: Vitamin C promotes collagen production. Look for an esterified form for best absorption.

Always consult a dermatologist or nutritionist before starting supplements, especially if you have any medical condition. While supplements can help control acne, they work best alongside dietary and lifestyle measures for holistic treatment.

What foods are good for acne prone skin?

Some of the best foods to eat for clear, acne-free skin include:

  • Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines
  • Leafy greens like spinach, kale, lettuce
  • Bright colored fruits and vegetables
  • Whole grains like oatmeal, brown rice, quinoa
  • Legumes including lentils, chickpeas, beans
  • Nuts like almonds, walnuts, Brazil nuts
  • Seeds such as chia, flax, pumpkin, sunflower
  • Turmeric and ginger
  • Green tea
  • Dark chocolate (70% cocoa or more)
  • Garlic
  • Eggs
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Greek yogurt

Focus on getting a variety of unprocessed, anti-inflammatory foods. A healthy, balanced diet helps control acne while providing essential vitamins, minerals, and nutrients for your best skin.

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