Does Sugar Cause 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. But acne doesn't just plague teenagers - it can continue on well into adulthood.

And if you've struggled with chronic breakouts, you've probably wondered - does sugar cause acne? Could cutting out sugar help clear up my skin?

It's easy to blame breakouts on things like hormones, genetics, and fluctuating stress levels. But emerging research shows there could also be a surprising link between sugar and acne.

In this article, we'll dive into the science and uncover the truth about sugar and its impact on acne.

How Are Sugar and Acne Connected?

At first glance, sugary treats like cakes, candy, and ice cream seem unlikely acne culprits. But scientists are finding more and more evidence that sugar may directly promote breakouts. Here's what the research shows so far:

Sugar Raises Blood Sugar and Insulin Levels

When you eat foods high in sugar and refined carbs, they cause your blood sugar levels to spike. This triggers your pancreas to produce more insulin to lower blood sugar and shuttle glucose into cells.

Having chronically high blood sugar and insulin levels from a poor diet is associated with increased acne risk.

In one study, researchers found that higher glycemic load diets (which feature lots of refined carbs that spike blood sugar) are linked to greater acne risk in young adults. The participants who ate low glycemic load diets were less likely to struggle with breakouts.

Sugar May Increase Androgen Levels

Sugar influences acne by ramping up androgen hormone levels. Higher androgen levels trigger increased sebum (oil) production, which creates an ideal environment for p. acnes bacteria to thrive.

Multiple studies demonstrate a clear association between high sugar diets, elevated androgens, and greater acne severity. This may help explain why women often experience premenstrual acne flares when progesterone levels drop and androgens become more dominant.

Sugar Feeds Skin Bacteria

The bacteria that live on the skin (like p. acnes) feed on sugars and sebum to grow and multiply. This is why an overgrowth of p. acnes bacteria leads to blocked pores and inflammatory breakouts.

Eating lots of sugar essentially "fertilizes" the p. acnes, allowing it to flourish. Some emerging research even shows that acne-causing bacteria are able to sense and respond to sugar molecules on the skin's surface.

Sugar Causes Chronic Inflammation

Sugar promotes widespread inflammation in the body, and this can target the skin as well. Inflammation is a key driver of acne lesions and bumps.

High sugar diets are linked to higher inflammatory marker levels. The inflammation provoked by sugar overload damages skin cells and disrupts the normal skin renewal process.

Sugar Impairs Immune Function

Consuming excessive sugar can compromise immune system activity. A weakened immune system is unable to keep acne-causing bacteria in check.

Studies demonstrate that large amounts of sugar impair the neutrophils that act as bacterial warriors against p. acnes. Neutrophils exposed to high sugar levels show reduced phagocytic abilities (or less capacity to engulf foreign invaders).

Which Foods Are Most Likely To Cause Acne?

Clearly the science shows sugar wreaks havoc on breakout-prone skin. But not all sources of sugar are created equal when it comes to acne risk.

Here are the main foods and ingredients most likely to promote pimples:

Refined Sugars

Foods filled with refined sugars are at the top of the acne-risk list. Refined sugars are quickly absorbed into the bloodstream, leading to rapid spikes in blood glucose and insulin.

Watch out for high intakes of:

  • Table sugar (sucrose)
  • Corn syrup
  • Agave nectar
  • Maple syrup
  • Honey
  • Dextrose
  • Fructose
  • Any ingredient ending in "ose"

High Glycemic Index Carbs

Carbohydrate foods with a high glycemic index also cause blood sugar to rise quickly. These refined carbs mess with insulin, hormones, and bacteria growth.

Examples of high glycemic index foods include:

  • White bread
  • White rice
  • White potato
  • Sugar sweetened beverages
  • Packaged breakfast cereals
  • Pretzels
  • Doughnuts

Dairy Products

Dairy foods like milk, cheese, ice cream, and yogurt are common acne triggers. Dairy contains growth hormones, excess sugars, and inflammatory compounds that drive breakouts.

One study found adolescents who drank milk daily were 22% more likely to experience severe acne than their peers who avoided milk.


Chocolate deserves its own special mention. Though enjoyed as an occasional treat, regular chocolate consumption is linked with greater acne risk.

The cocoa in chocolate contains antioxidant flavonoids that benefit the skin. But chocolate also delivers sugar, dairy, and additional acne-aggravating ingredients like soy lecithin.

What Does The Research Say About Sugar And Acne?

Numerous scientific studies have delved into the relationship between sugar, diet, and acne:

  • A systematic review in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics analyzed the findings of 21 studies on diet and acne. It concluded that higher glycemic load diets are "significantly associated" with acne risk.
  • The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a study of over 4,000 boys aged 15-19 years old. Boys who consumed candy and ice cream frequently had the highest acne prevalence.
  • In a Turkish study, acne patients were randomized to either a low glycemic load diet or control group. After 10 weeks, the low GL diet group experienced a significant reduction in total pimple lesions compared to controls.
  • Australian researchers discovered that when male acne patients cut back on sugar and refined carbs, they experienced improvements in insulin sensitivity and reductions in skin inflammation.
  • Multiple reports reveal that certain remote non-Westernized societies that follow traditional whole foods diets are virtually acne-free. But when introduced to a Western diet high in sugar and refined carbs, they develop acne at rates similar to industrialized countries.

How Much Sugar Causes Acne?

At this point, the message is clear - a high sugar diet and acne go hand-in-hand. But how much sugar is too much when it comes to acne?

According to the American Heart Association, adult women should limit added sugar intake to 25 grams or 6 teaspoons per day. For men, the recommended cap is 36 grams or 9 teaspoons per day.

But some experts suggest far lower limits of just 15 grams per day for clear acne-free skin. Track your intake from sugar-sweetened beverages, candies, cakes, desserts, etc. And minimize high glycemic index carb sources that act just like sugar in the body.

Focusing on low glycemic foods that won't destabilize blood sugar is key. Think fiber-rich whole grains, starchy veggies, nuts, seeds, legumes, lean proteins, and healthy fats from avocado and olive oil.

What About Natural Sugars From Fruit?

Lots of fruits contain fructose and glucose, but are they problematic for acne?

While candy and soda pack in refined sugars devoid of nutrition, fruit comes with a package of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber.

The fiber content means the natural sugars in fruit aren't absorbed as rapidly. This prevents dangerous spikes in blood glucose and insulin compared to refined sugar sources.

Eating low to moderate fruit servings per day as part of an overall healthy diet is unlikely to promote breakouts. But fruit juice, dried fruit, and excess fructose may be more problematic due to their highly concentrated sugars.

Will Cutting Out Sugar Completely Clear Up My Acne?

At this point, you may be ready to quit sugar cold turkey if it means finally getting rid of your acne. But experts don't recommend going to extremes.

Cutting out all sugar 100% of the time is difficult to maintain long-term for most people. Moderation and balance is key.

Rather than demonizing specific foods, focus on crowding out refined sugar and carbs by filling your diet with nourishing whole foods. Be mindful of sneaky sugar sources like condiments, sauces, and packaged snacks. And satisfy cravings for sweets with small amounts of high quality dark chocolate.

Adopting an anti-inflammatory diet pattern centered around vegetables, fruits, lean proteins, and healthy fats can get to the root of acne without needing to ban sugar entirely.

5 Tips To Break Up With Sugar For Clearer Skin

Ready to break the cycle of sugar highs and acne lows? Here are 5 tips to get started:

1. Quit Sugar-Sweetened Beverages

Skip the sugary sodas, juices, sports drinks, and the daily frappuccinos. Hydrate with plain or sparkling water instead to slash your sugar intake dramatically. Herbal tea is another excellent sugar-free choice.

2. Watch Out For Hidden Sugars

Read food labels carefully and avoid anything with sugar in the first few ingredients. Salad dressings, marinades, ketchups, breads, cereals, granola bars, and "low-fat" items often secretly contain added sugars.

3. Choose Whole Food Carbs

Trade out refined carbs from the likes of white bread and pasta for energizing whole food sources such as quinoa, brown rice, oats, buckwheat, legumes, starchy vegetables, and tubers. They provide steady energy without the blood sugar rollercoaster.

4. Eat More Protein and Healthy Fats

Increase your intake of eggs, fatty fish, nuts, seeds, avocado, and extra virgin olive oil. Protein and fats help stabilize blood sugar levels. They also curb hunger and sweet cravings.

5. Satisfy Your Sweet Tooth Smarter

When a candy or dessert craving strikes, choose a 1-2 ounce high cocoa dark chocolate bar sweetened only with coconut sugar or maple syrup. The fiber, antioxidants, magnesium and prebiotic compounds make this a smarter choice than milk chocolate.

The Bottom Line: Enjoy Sugar In Moderation As Part Of An Overall Healthy Diet

At the end of the day, occasional indulgences like birthday cake at a party or apple pie on Thanksgiving aren't going to derail your skin health. The problems emerge when sugar becomes a daily dietary staple.

Focus on crowdng out refined and added sugar by filling your diet with fiber-rich fruits and vegetables, high quality proteins and fats, and slower burning whole food carbs. Limit sugary treats to just once in awhile for the best acne-fighting effect.

With some mindful adjustments to your eating habits, you can absolutely achieve clear skin without having to quit sugar forever. Patience and consistency with a nourishing anti-inflammatory diet, as well as smart stress management, will get you there.

Frequently Asked Questions About Sugar and Acne

Does sugar directly cause acne?

While sugar alone does not directly cause acne, there is strong evidence that excessive sugar intake can worsen and prolong breakouts. Eating a diet high in added and refined sugars triggers processes like inflammation, insulin resistance, and hormonal changes that create an environment conducive to acne formation.

How does sugar consumption promote inflammation?

Consuming large amounts of added sugars, especially fructose, can increase inflammatory compounds in the body called advanced glycation end products (AGES). High AGES are linked to more severe acne since inflammation plays a key role in the development of pimples and cysts.

Do artificial sweeteners like aspartame affect acne?

Artificial sweeteners like aspartame, saccharin and sucralose may promote acne in certain individuals by altering gut bacteria ratios and interfering with healthy metabolism and insulin levels. For some, artificial sweeteners cause higher insulin spikes than regular sugar. However, research is limited and effects can vary person to person.

Is a low-carb, high protein diet effective for clearing acne?

Diets very low in carbs and high in protein can help balance blood sugar and insulin, reducing acne triggers. However, these diets may not work well long-term for some people. Focus on whole food sources of carbs with a low glycemic load. Lean proteins and healthy fats are encouraged.

Are there any vitamins, minerals or supplements that can help fight acne?

Certain supplements may reduce acne by decreasing inflammation and hormonal fluctuations. Helpful options include omega-3 fish oils, zinc, vitamin D, selenium, chromium, probiotics, and green tea extract. Work with a healthcare practitioner to determine which supplements are right for your needs.

How does cutting out dairy help acne?

Dairy, especially milk, contains hormones and bioactive molecules that can overstimulate oil glands and exacerbate acne. Lactose sugar in dairy may also worsen breakouts. Avoiding dairy reduces hormonal and inflammatory acne triggers for many people. Focus on unsweetened, plant-based milks if eliminating dairy.

Will eliminating gluten clear up my acne?

For those with gluten sensitivity, celiac disease or a wheat allergy, avoiding gluten can lessen inflammation and gut issues contributing to acne. However, there is little evidence that gluten triggers acne in people who do not have a medical reason to avoid it. Many refined grain products that contain gluten also feature high glycemic loads that may be the real culprit.

How long will it take for my skin to improve after cutting out sugar?

Patience is needed, as it can take up to 6-12 weeks for acne to respond after making dietary changes like reducing sugar intake. Consistency is key, as one-off "cheat days" may delay progress. Keep track of triggers and work closely with a dermatologist and registered dietitian to find the right acne-fighting diet for your needs.

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