Clearing up acne for good doesn’t have to mean eliminating your favorite foods forever. However, it may be worth experimenting with short-term eliminations to see if your acne reduces. Here we discuss the foods to avoid for acne-prone skin with multiple studies to back it up.
If you’re consuming foods that trigger inflammation or hormonal or digestive imbalance, you’ll be constantly fanning the flames of acne. You’ll be playing zit whack-a-mole, or whack-a-zit if you like, applying zit cream for years or even decades, without experiencing full and permanent clearance.
Some outspoken naysayers refute the fact that acne has A LOT to do with what you’re eating. They may or may not be trying to sell you an expensive skin cream or pharmaceutical but despite this, there is a growing body of research linking acne to certain foods that cause inflammation and imbalance.
The best part is, experimenting with your diet is absolutely free, and the changes you’d make on an acne-free diet are in line with a healthy diet overall. The side effects are only positive.
Foods To Avoid For Acne: Dairy
Dairy is one of the most important foods to avoid for acne-prone skin. Researchers have known of the dairy-acne connection since the 1940s.
- In 1949, an observational study published in the Southern Medical Journal which examined the food diaries of close to 2,000 subjects, researchers found a link between frequent milk consumption and severity of acne. The researchers recommended people with acne avoid high-fat dairy foods. (1)
- In 1998, Harvard researchers examined data retrospectively from the Nurses’ Health Study II to evaluate the relationship between dairy consumption and teenage acne. They examined the food diaries and acne diagnoses of 47,355 women.
The investigators found a positive association between milk consumption and teenage acne. Perhaps surprisingly, those who consumed skim milk had more severe acne. Instant breakfast drinks, sherbet, cottage cheese, and cream cheese were also positively associated with acne. (2)
- A meta-analysis published in 2018 in the journal Nutrients that pooled data from 14 studies which included 78,529 children, adolescents, and young adults between the ages of 7-30, concluded “Any dairy, such as milk, yogurt, and cheese was associated with an increased odds ratio for acne in individuals aged 7–30 years.” (3)
There are many other studies between 1949 and now that have found a positive association between dairy consumption and acne.
Why does dairy cause acne?
There are a few different theories behind the dairy-acne link.
When cows are pregnant – as they must be to produce milk, there are higher levels of hormones circulating in their body, and consequently, the milk they produce. Commercially available milk is rich in progesterone and precursors of dihydrotestosterone (DHT). These hormones stimulate the production of sebum and induce abnormally rapid shedding of skin cells. Both of these contribute to clogged pores and acne. (4)
Another issue is that milk consumption significantly increases insulin and insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) in the body. (5) Research shows that higher levels of IGF-1 stimulate the overproduction of sebum, (6) which leads to more clogged pores and blemishes.
We know that those with acne tend to have higher levels of IGF-1 in their blood. (7) The higher the concentration, the more severe the acne, particularly for adult women. (8)
Does dairy cause acne in everybody?
Dairy does not cause acne for everybody. However, if you have acne, and you consume dairy, it’s worth experimenting with a dairy elimination for at least 2 weeks to see if the acne reduces.
That said, removing dairy alone is not always enough to completely resolve acne. Acne is often the result of multiple underlying root causes. In order to fully clear acne, one needs to address all of their underlying root causes. These typically include a combination of malnutrition, inflammation, gut dysbiosis, hormonal imbalance, and/or stress.
The most common forms of dairy include milk, cream, butter, ice cream, whey protein, cheese, and yogurt. You will often find milk in packaged foods such as snack foods, chocolate, dressings, candy, and other processed foods.
Foods To Avoid For Acne: Sugar & Refined Carbs
Sugar and refined carbs are not healthy in general, but they’re especially problematic for acne-prone skin.
Sugar and refined carbohydrates such as white bread, pasta, cereal, flour, or any baked goods made from flour may contribute to the development of acne. They are digested quickly which causes a rapid peak in glucose levels. The pancreas reacts by producing higher levels of insulin. High levels of insulin are associated with high levels of IGF-1. As you know from our above discussion of dairy, increased IGF-1 levels increase sebum production and the odds of acne.
Additionally, they promote inflammation in the body, an underlying root cause of acne.
- A 2016 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found that of 86 patients (50 with acne) who kept food logs for 7 days, those with the most severe acne consumed a high glycemic diet. (9)
- A Turkish cross-sectional study that looked at the association between dietary habits and acne of 2,300 participants aged 13-18 years found that frequent intake of sugar, fat, pastries and cakes, or fast food was positively associated with acne. (10)
On the flip side, a low glycemic diet has been shown to reduce acne. Whole foods including vegetables, fruit, beans, lean protein, and healthy fats are all staples of a low glycemic diet.
- A small randomized controlled trial of 66 adults with either moderate or severe acne showed that following a low-glycemic diet for just two weeks was enough to significantly reduce IGF-1 levels. (11)
- A study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology examined the impact of the low glycemic South Beach diet on acne. Of the 2,995 participants with acne who followed the diet, 87% said they had less acne, and 91% said they needed less acne medication at the end of the 3-month period. (12)
- Another randomized controlled trial that included 43 males aged 15-25 with acne, found that at the end of 12 weeks, those who followed a low glycemic diet instead of a normal diet had significantly less acne. (13)
While some may be led to believe acne is an inevitability, it’s absent in populations consuming a low glycemic load diet free of refined sugars, grains, milk, and dairy products. (14)
Sugary foods and refined carbs are some of the most important foods to avoid for acne-prone skin.
The Link Between Meat & Acne
Unlike dairy and a high glycemic diet, the link between meat and acne is a bit more complicated.
You don’t have to avoid all meat to clear up acne. But, you do have to think about where it comes from and how much you’re consuming.
Know where your meat comes from
Conventional meat comes from factory farms, where the livestock are often given low doses of antibiotics to speed growth.
According to Dr. Pedre, a gut health expert, as well as Dr. Whitney Bowe, a Dermatologist, when you consume this meat, you’re likely to gain exposure to traces of these antibiotics. This can disrupt the delicate balance of bacteria in our own gut. Similarly, farmed fish are also subject to antibiotic use. (15, 16)
To avoid this, choose organic meat since organically raised livestock is not given antibiotics for growth. Also, look for labels that indicate what the animal ate. A more natural diet ensures the most nutritious meat. For red meat, look for organic and grass-fed. When choosing poultry, look for organic and pasture-raised or free-range. When buying seafood, choose wild-caught to avoid antibiotics (the organic label is not relevant for seafood).
Animals raised on their natural diet will have a more favorable omega-6:omega-3 profile than their farmed counterparts. This is significant because we know that omega-6 fatty acids promote a pro-inflammatory state in the body.
In an interview with Today’s Dietitian, Charles Benbrook, Ph.D., a scientist who has studied the impact of livestock feed on meat quality, has warned against consuming conventional meat, as grain and corn fed animals produce a less desirable, and even unhealthy omega-6:omega-3 ratio. He said:
“A number of studies have documented omega-6 to omega-3 ratios in grass-fed beef on the order of 1:1 to 3:1, whereas in animals that spend the last portion of their lives on feedlots, the ratios can be between 5:1 and 7:1. It really is a very substantial shift.” He went on to say, “It moves the nutritional quality of the fat from highly desirable, with a grass-fed animal, to not terribly beneficial.“ (17)
The ideal diet to prevent inflammation and chronic disease would have an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio somewhere between 1:1 to 3:1, (18) which is possible when consuming moderate quantities of grass-fed beef, but unlikely when consuming grain-fed beef.
Many Americans don’t consume enough omega-3s, to begin with. Since omega-3s and omega-6s compete with each other, over intake of omega-6 creates a pro-inflammatory state in the body. To fix this, one must not only consume more omega-3s but also reduce omega-6s.
Be mindful of how much meat you consume
Another concern with meat consumption is the amount. Greater consumption of red meat has been associated with higher inflammatory markers (19, 20) and IGF-1 levels, the growth hormone that increases sebum production and cell turnover, and the risk of acne.
An Oxford study that included 292 female participants between the ages of 20-70 found animal protein eaters to have IGF-1 levels that were 13% higher compared to those who abstained from all animal products. (21)
A German study has suggested an amino acid found in meat and poultry is to blame for the potential acne link. Excessive animal protein intake increases the amino acid leucine in the body. This increases androgen production, which then stimulates sebum production, resulting in acne. (22)
According to a Harvard study, a meat-heavy diet may cause a type of bacteria linked to inflammation to flourish. (23)
Most people consider meat the main dish with veggies as a side, but it should be the other way around. 75% of the plate should be vegetables and only 25% protein. A serving of meat or fish is 3-4 oz, which is about the size of a deck of cards.
Choose gentle cooking methods
How you cook meat makes a difference too.
During the cooking process, high-fat, high-protein animal foods like red meat develop advanced glycation end products (AGEs). AGEs contribute to inflammation and can lead to or worsen acne (not to mention more serious diseases). (24)
To minimize AGEs when cooking meat, cook it with rosemary, turmeric, garlic, or onion. Since higher temperatures increase AGEs, cook your meat longer at a lower temperature. Steaming, braising, boiling, or stewing are all good options.
Remember, even though meat is on this list of foods to avoid for acne-prone skin, we’re only talking about conventional meat. Organic and grass-fed meat, organic pastured poultry, and wild seafood have a place in a clear skin diet.
Foods To Avoid For Acne: Vegetable Oils
Vegetable oils are one of the top foods to avoid for acne-prone skin. Examples include corn, sunflower, safflower, soy, grapeseed, cottonseed, and vegetable oil. They are rich in omega-6 fats which may push the body into an inflammatory state and exacerbate acne. (29, 30)
The ideal omega-6:omega-3 ratio is about 1:1. The standard American diet provides a ratio of about 15:1 – 16.7:1. (31) That’s as much as 15-16 times more omega-6 than human beings traditionally ate.
In a review published in Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy, a researcher from The Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health in Washington DC, writes: “Excessive amounts of omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) and a very high omega-6/omega-3 ratio, as is found in today’s Western diets, promote the pathogenesis of many diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, whereas increased levels of omega-3 PUFA (a low omega-6/omega-3 ratio) exert suppressive effects.” (31)
Vegetable oils are the primary source of omega-6 fatty acids in the American diet. (32) That’s because they’re in just about everything. Even foods you may think are healthy.
For example, jars of olives are often packed in sunflower oil; nuts are often roasted in cottonseed oil; dressings are often made from grapeseed oil.
Most packaged foods, baked goods, and restaurant foods contain vegetable oils. You might even have them in your own kitchen! To clear acne naturally, switch to healthier, unrefined vegetable oils. Always read the ingredient list of packaged foods and choose those that don’t contain vegetable oil.
The Link Between Gluten & Acne
The link between gluten and acne is less direct and defined. Not everyone who eats gluten will break out. However, it seems to be problematic for those who consume a lot of it or have a sensitivity to it.
Firstly, gluten-containing foods tend to be high glycemic. Most people consume wheat and gluten in the form of processed foods or baked goods. For example, bread, cereal, pasta, muffins, cookies, crackers, pancakes, pretzels, and the like.
All refined carbohydrates are higher glycemic than their unrefined counterparts. A high glycemic diet is associated with acne. Eating refined carbohydrates once in a while as part of an overall low glycemic diet shouldn’t be problematic. But eating refined carbohydrates for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks, will be.
Secondly, eating too many refined carbohydrates has been linked to increased inflammation levels. (25, 26, 27) An inflamed body increases the chances of inflamed skin (acne).
Thirdly, in those who are sensitive to it, consuming gluten regularly can cause increased intestinal permeability or leaky gut. A leaky gut changes the gut microflora and sparks chronic inflammation while depleting your antioxidant reserves. This can indirectly cause problems with your skin. (28)
Acne Elimination Diet
While researchers may not fully understand the exact mechanisms behind the associations between food and acne, there is enough evidence to warrant dietary experimentation.
The Clear Skin Plan helps you figure out and understand your unique potential acne root causes, and how to painlessly remedy them with diet and lifestyle changes.
The plan contains dozens of delicious and satisfying recipes that flood your body with the nutrients needed for clear skin. Most people see a reduction in redness and bumps within as little as 3 days, with full clearance in 90 days or less.
After the elimination, experiment with adding these foods back into your diet. You can decide what foods and how much to add back in, after observing the effects they have on your skin.
Acne is already stressful, and The Clear Skin Plan makes it a little less so, by providing you with guidance, recipes, and resources to clear your skin from within.
If you’ve experimented with eliminating certain foods for acne, I’d love to hear your experience in the comments below. What worked? What didn’t?
Great article Maria, but I'm surprised you didn't mention Canola oil as one of the main oils to avoid??
Glad you found the article helpful. Thanks for pointing that out. The vegetable oils I've mentioned are just a few examples but not limited to the list. Canola oil definitely falls under the vegetable oil category and is best avoided (for additional reasons - it's typically GMO, can contain trans-fats, can contain traces of hexane). I've written a little more on canola oil here: https://mariamarlowe.com/blog/coconut-oil-bad/