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The Clear Skin Diet: What to Eat to Keep Your Skin Healthy and Blemish-Free

Kristin Hall

Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 9/19/2020

You take the time to select your beauty products carefully, making sure that they are the right choice for your skin type and that they don’t contain any harmful ingredients. After all, it matters what you put on your face.

If you suffer from acne, you have to be even more careful as even the slightest mistake could trigger a breakout.

What you may not realize is that what you put in your body is just as important as what you put on your face—at least when it comes to skin health. Certain foods are likely to trigger breakouts while others can actually improve your skin health and condition.

So, how do you know which foods will support clear, healthy skin and which ones don’t?

Fortunately, the secret to clear skin isn’t some complicated ritual or recipe. It simply involves nourishing your body (and your skin) with healthy nutrients that fight inflammation and reduce acne.

Let’s take a closer look at the underlying causes of acne and the different foods that can help reduce and prevent breakouts for healthy, blemish-free skin.

Inflammation, Oxidative Stress and Adult Acne

Generally speaking, acne is a chronic, inflammatory condition that causes pimples and other blemishes to form on the skin, most frequently on the face, shoulders, back, neck and chest. It is commonly caused by excess oil production, clogged pores, fluctuating hormones and bacteria.

For decades, the conventional clinical perspective of acne held that acne-causing bacteria (primarily Propionibacterium acnes) enters the sebaceous gland, triggering an immune response which causes an existing noninflammatory comedone or blackhead to progress into an inflammatory papule. 

More recently, however, clinical studies suggest that inflammation is present at all stages of acne development. In fact, a study published in the Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology suggests that the nomenclature used to describe acne—typically noninflammatory versus inflammatory—may be entirely incorrect.

The new clinical perspective on acne is that oxidative stress triggered by chronic inflammation plays a key role in driving the acne process. The results of a study published in the journal Mediators of Inflammation support this theory.

This study, published in 2005, measured the effects of oxidative stress on acne vulgaris in 43 acne patients versus 46 controls. By measuring parameters of oxidative stress and comparing them with the severity and distribution of acne, researchers determined that oxidative stress exists at higher levels in acne patients.

They also determined that supplementary antioxidants may be effective in combination with other acne treatments.

What causes inflammation and how does it lead to oxidative stress?

Oxidative stress is an imbalance between the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS), a type of free radical, and the elimination of said molecules by antioxidants in the body.

To put it simply, free radicals are oxygen-containing molecules that cause damage to healthy cells in the body, setting off a chain reaction which leads to chronic inflammation and oxidative stress. Antioxidants are molecules which stabilize free radicals, stopping the chain of damage.

It makes sense, then, that increasing your intake of antioxidants can help tip the scales in the proper direction to reduce oxidative stress and, in doing so, reduce acne.

Increase Antioxidant Levels to Fight Inflammation

Antioxidants can be found naturally in certain plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, green tea, red wine and dark chocolate, to name a few . There are several different types of antioxidants, most of which can be divided into two categories: direct antioxidants and indirect antioxidants.

Here is an overview of these two types of antioxidants:

  • Direct Antioxidants – These are simply antioxidants derived from whole foods in the form of vitamins and minerals. Some examples include vitamin C, vitamin E, selenium, beta-carotene and anthocyanins.

  • Indirect Antioxidants – These are substances which stimulate the body to produce its own store of antioxidants – they also activate and recycle the body’s detoxification enzymes. Some examples of indirect antioxidants include sulforaphane, resveratrol and glutathione.

In common usage, the word antioxidant typically refers to direct antioxidants that come from whole foods. It is important to note, however, that indirect antioxidants are actually more powerful, as they help the body kill free radicals for hours after consumption and they are highly effective in ridding the body of heavy metals.

In contrast, direct antioxidants are used up after extinguishing a free radical.

So, how do you increase your antioxidant levels? Start by making healthy changes to your diet. If you don’t know where to start, there are numerous blogs that can give you healthy recipes and inspiration for making healthier food choices.

When it comes to food, the unit of measurement for antioxidant capacity is Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC). The higher the ORAC, the stronger the antioxidant capacity. By including foods with high ORAC ratings in your diet, you can fight oxidative stress and reduce inflammation.

Here are some of the highest ORAC foods you should include in your clear skin diet:

  • Leafy Greens – Dark leafy greens like collards, spinach and kale contain numerous antioxidants, including carotenoids, lutein and zeaxanthin.

  • Cruciferous Vegetables – Vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and turnips are rich in antioxidants and a variety of other phytonutrients.

  • Orange/Yellow Foods – Foods that are orange or yellow in color like carrots, mangoes, sweet potatoes and apricots contain carotenoids which offer antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting benefits.

  • Red Foods – Red pigmented foods like tomatoes, watermelon, papaya and pink grapefruit are rich in lycopene, an antioxidant which fights cancer and heart disease as well as general inflammation.

  • Blue/Purple Foods – Foods like blueberries, red cabbage, beets and plums contain pigments called anthocyanin which, in addition to their antioxidant benefits, also protect against heart disease and the harmful effects of carcinogens.

  • Green Tea – Both green and white tea are rich in polyphenols that fight inflammation. In fact, green tea contains roughly 30% polyphenols by weight and also includes a type of natural antioxidant called catechins which prevent cell damage and reduce inflammation.

  • Dark Cacao – While it may not be wise to fill your diet with sugar-laden milk chocolate, chocolate with high cocoa content is also high in antioxidants. Look for raw cacao or dark chocolate with at least 70 percent cacao content for the best benefit.

  • Red Wine – Red grapes and red wine contain high levels of polyphenols which provide a number of health benefits, particularly for heart health. Flavonoids are the most active polyphenols in red wine and they offer powerful antioxidant benefits.

Reducing inflammation to fight acne is just one component of the clear skin diet. Keep reading to learn more about reducing acne and improving skin health through simple dietary changes.

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The Foundations of a Clear Skin Diet

Acne is an inflammatory skin condition so, by reducing inflammation throughout the body, you can ease your acne symptoms. Foods rich in antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids are the foundation of an anti-inflammatory diet and the first step in creating a clear skin diet.

Step 1: Decrease Inflammation

In addition to the antioxidant-rich foods listed in the previous section, you should include some of these omega-3-rich foods in your diet as well:

  • Salmon

  • Mackerel

  • Tuna

  • Herring

  • Sardines

  • Anchovies

  • Cod liver oil

  • Oysters

  • Flaxseed

  • Chia seeds

  • Walnuts

  • Flaxseed oil

  • Soybean oil

  • Canola oil

  • Eggs

  • Fortified yogurt

  • Fortified milk

  • Fortified soy milk

While increasing your intake of omega-3s is important to fight acne, you also need to balance your intake with omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-6 fatty acids are pro-inflammatory while omega-3s are anti-inflammatory. Research suggests, however, that a balance of both is the key to reducing inflammation. The best diet to fight inflammation is rich in omega-3s and low in omega-6s.

The best sources of omega-6 fatty acids to include in your diet are as follows:

  • Flaxseed

  • Flaxseed oil

  • Hemp seeds

  • Hempseed oil

  • Safflower oil

  • Pumpkin seeds

  • Sunflower seeds

Plant oils like corn oil, safflower oil, soybean oil, sunflower seed oil and cottonseed oil are also rich in omega-6 fatty acids but they also tend to be processed or refined which may limit their nutritional value.

Step 2: Detoxify Your Body

Increasing your intake of antioxidants and balancing your intake of essential fatty acids is the first step in cultivating a clear skin diet. The next step is to cleanse your diet of toxins and foods that are harming your skin and making your acne worse.

Here are some of the toxins and harmful foods you’ll want to reduce or eliminate from your diet:

  • Caffeine

  • Sugar

  • Alcohol

  • Soda

  • Processed foods

  • Food additives

  • Refined carbs

  • Dairy products

  • Red meat

  • Processed meat

  • Fried food

  • Fast food

Your skin is the largest organ in your body and it plays a key role in your body’s natural detoxification system. If you’re filling your body with toxic and harmful foods, it’s going to show up in your skin. By removing these substances from your diet, you can cleanse your body and get your detoxification system back on track.

In addition to avoiding the foods on the list above, you should make an effort to drink plenty of water. Your liver is already working hard to eliminate toxins from your body and it needs water to flush them out. Increasing your intake of high-fiber foods like complex carbohydrates, leafy greens and fresh fruits can support healthy digestion and detoxification as well.

Step 3: Restore Balance

As you may already know, hormone fluctuations are one of the biggest contributing factors to acne. So, the third step in cultivating a clear skin diet is to restore balance in your body.

Hormones are chemical messengers produced in the endocrine glands. They control most of your body’s major functions including hunger, reproduction and mood. Different glands produce different hormones and they all work in balance to maintain your health and wellbeing.

The five  primary hormones in women include the following:

  • Estrogen – The primary female sex hormone, estrogen regulates female development as well as the menstrual cycle and reproductive system.

  • Progesterone – This hormone must be in balance with estrogen to control fertility and menstruation.

  • Cortisol – Also known as the stress hormone, cortisol triggers the body’s “fight or flight” response and high levels of this hormone may contribute to inflammation, lack of focus, fatigue and mood disturbances.

  • Testosterone – The primary male sex hormone, testosterone plays a role in muscle definition, bone strength and energy in women.

  • Thyroid – Thyroid hormones regulate the body’s metabolic rate as well as digestive and cardiovascular function.

Another hormone you may be familiar with is insulin. Insulin is produced by the pancreas in response to rising blood sugar levels and excess insulin has been shown to trigger inflammation. Research also shows that impaired insulin response (also known as insulin resistance) may trigger or worsen acne.

The key to balancing your hormones is to eat a balanced diet.

A healthy diet for hormone balance includes plenty of healthy fats (primarily polyunsaturated fats like omega-3s and omega-6s), lean proteins, whole grains and other complex carbohydrates. You should also reduce your intake of caffeine, alcohol and sugar while increasing your activity level and making sleep a priority. Certain supplements like magnesium, vitamin D, fiber and green tea may help as well.

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Other Foods That Support Clear and Healthy Skin

By now you are well-versed in the best foods to fight acne, but reducing breakouts is only half the battle. You also need to fill your diet with skin-supporting nutrients to get that natural glow.

Here are some of the top foods for clear and healthy skin:

  • Citrus Fruits – Rich in vitamin C, citrus fruits like oranges, lemons, limes and grapefruit boost collagen production for firmer, smoother skin. By building collagen beneath the surface of skin, these foods help keep the top layer of skin smooth and wrinkle-free.

  • Sunflower Seeds – Loaded with vitamin E, sunflower seeds help protect your skin against free radicals and other damaging agents like the sun’s UV rays. This nutrient helps keep the top layer of skin cells healthy and strong to form a protective barrier.

  • Orange and Red Veggies – In addition to their antioxidant content, dark orange and red veggies (like bell peppers, sweet potato and squash) support cell production and turnover to keep your skin looking young and healthy.

  • Lean Meats – Poultry and other lean meats are rich in essential minerals like iron and zinc which support cell production, cell sloughing and circulation to give your skin a youthful glow.

  • Greek Yogurt – Not only is Greek yogurt beneficial for healthy digestion, but it is rich in skin-supporting nutrients like protein, zinc, calcium and B vitamins. These nutrients help to nourish and rejuvenate skin for a flawless, moisturized complexion.

  • Whole Grains – Low-glycemic foods like whole grains help regulate insulin and blood sugar levels, keeping your hormones in balance to reduce acne breakouts for clearer skin.

  • Wild Salmon – Rich in omega-3 fatty acids, wild salmon fights inflammation and supports healthy, younger looking skin with fewer wrinkles.

  • Oysters – These shellfish are rich in zinc, a trace mineral which works as an antioxidant and helps heal and rejuvenate skin for a fresh and youthful look. It also reduces inflammation and promotes new cell production.

  • Strawberries – In addition to being rich in antioxidants, strawberries are a natural source of vitamin C, folic acid and dietary fiber. Fiber helps eliminate toxins from the body while folic acid supports cell regeneration to keep your skin looking young and fresh.

The good news is that you don’t have to obsess about getting a certain amount of these foods in your diet. By building your clear skin diet around lean proteins (especially cold-water fish), whole grains, fresh fruits and veggies, nuts, seeds and legumes you can improve and protect your skin.

The secret to reducing acne and improving your skin can be found in a healthy diet. A diet for clear skin is rich in anti-inflammatory and antioxidant nutrients, healthy omega fatty acids and hormone-balancing ingredients.

Taking steps to reduce or eliminate toxins, processed carbs and refined sugars from your diet while improving your overall nutrition won’t just improve your skin; it will improve your health overall, and that’s all you can really ask for.

If you think you've tried everything and your skin still isn't clearing up, it may be time to speak to a dermatologist or healthcare provider about your options. Looking for more tips on how to keep your skin clear and healthy? Check out these 13 Common But Inaccurate Acne Myths

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. Learn more about our editorial standards here.