Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 10/30/2018
When you think of the most common diseases in the world, things like heart disease and cancer probably come to mind. You may be surprised to learn that acne makes the list of the most prevalent diseases, affecting nearly 10 percent of the global population.
Affecting approximately 9.4 percent of the world’s population, acne is the eighth most prevalent disease worldwide.
While it most commonly affects post-pubescent teens and young adults, adult acne is still frighteningly common. In fact, the International Dermal Institute claims that as many as 54 percent of women over the age of 25 have some degree of facial acne.
In puberty, acne is typically triggered by changing hormones, though additional factors such as genetics, medications and use of cosmetics may contribute as well. In adulthood, inflammation and stress appear to be major influences.
Let’s take a closer look at the inflammatory causes of adult acne and how you can prevent it by avoiding certain acne-causing foods.
Not everyone is interested in effective acne treatments like tretinoin cream, and that’s okay. If you’re looking for more natural ways to fight your acne, it’s important to understand lifestyle factors and how they may contribute.
In this vein, let’s take a closer look at the inflammatory causes of adult acne and how you can prevent it by avoiding certain acne-causing foods.
Many teenagers struggling with acne find hope in the fact that their problems will go away once they reach adulthood. Sadly, this is not always the case. Clinical studies show that as much as 55 percent of the adult population is affected by low-grade, persistent acne.
More shockingly, adult acne seems to be on the rise. But what are the causes of adult acne?
In the same way that changing hormones cause acne during puberty, hormone fluctuations in adulthood can trigger breakouts as well. This is most commonly linked to predictable factors like the menstrual cycle, though taking oral contraceptives and other medications can affect your hormones as well.
Poor facial hygiene is another factor that influences adult acne. Over-washing your face can dry out your skin, causing it to produce excess sebum which clogs your pores and triggers breakouts. Using the wrong skincare products for your skin type may also be a factor, as can exposure to pollution and other environmental toxins.
Perhaps the one of the most common causes of adult acne, however, is stress.
An article published by The International Dermal Institute suggests that chronic, continual stress triggers inflammation and hormone fluctuations which affect sebum production. The article also suggests that rising stress levels in women can partially be attributed to changing gender roles and increased pressure to work outside the home while also caring for a family.
What about a link between the sun and acne? Well, sun induces a form of stress in the body (oxidative) but for acne, the sun is not as common of a cause (nor is it a cure as some like to believe!).
Workplace stress combined with familial obligations, sleep deprivation and unhealthy diet are all factors in triggering adult acne in women. Let’s take a closer look at how stress in particular contributes to adult acne in women.
Your skin is covered in tiny hairs called follicles. Individual hair follicles are nourished by sebaceous glands in the skin which excrete an oily substance called sebum that conditions and protects the follicle. When the sebaceous gland produces too much sebum, it can clog the pore and lead to the formation of acne blemishes such as whiteheads, blackheads and pimples.
Each hair follicle is wrapped in sensory nerve fibers, which act as touch receptors that respond to outside stimuli. There is also evidence to suggest that hair follicles contain stress receptors which may be linked to sebum production.
It stands to reason, then, that increased stress levels might increase sebum production and trigger acne.
In a 2007 study published in the journal Acta Dermato-Venereologica, researchers tested the link between psychological stress and acne vulgaris.
A total of 94 secondary school students were tested for sebum production in both a high-stress condition (mid-year exams) and a low-stress condition (summer holiday).
The results showed a statistically significant positive correlation between stress levels and acne severity. Basically, the more psychologically stressed the students became, the worse their acne.
However, it’s worth noting that researchers didn’t find a direct correlation with sebum quantity and stress levels.
There are many factors which contribute to psychological stress. Common examples include significant life changes, heavy workload, familial obligations, relationship problems, financial difficulties and more. Simply being too busy is also a major contributing factor for stress.
Another factor that you may not think of being related to stress is diet.
Research suggests that stress and diet form a two-way link. Chronic stress leads to unhealthy eating patterns and unhealthy eating patterns can lead to increased levels of stress. The longer the problem persists, the more likely you are to develop chronic health problems such as acne.
Unhealthy eating habits linked to stress include drinking too much coffee, eating too much junk food, skipping meals, emotional eating, eating fast food and going on crash diets. In addition to adding to the cycle of stress, unhealthy eating habits also contribute to inflammation—inflammation that may trigger or worsen acne breakouts.
Now that you have a better understanding of how your diet impacts your levels of stress and chronic inflammation, let’s delve a little deeper into the specific foods that are most likely to trigger a breakout.
By now you know that the foods most likely to trigger acne breakouts are foods that cause inflammation and stress. Cutting inflammatory foods out of your diet for a week or two may be all that you need to clear up your most recent breakout and, if you continue to avoid them, you can prevent future breakouts from happening.
So, what are the top foods that trigger acne breakouts? Here’s a quick list:
Dairy Products – Numerous studies have shown a link between acne and the consumption of dairy products, though it remains unclear exactly what causes this correlation.
Some research suggests that dairy products increase insulin levels, which can worsen acne by stimulating the production of IGF-1 which has been linked to acne in women. Many people are also lactose intolerant which can contribute to inflammation.
Refined Grains – Refined carbohydrates (like bread, pasta, crackers and baked goods) are absorbed quickly into the bloodstream which causes a sudden spike in blood sugar levels. As your blood sugar rises, your body produces more insulin which can impact your hormones and trigger acne.
A study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics showed that acne was more common in people who consume more refined carbohydrates.
Added Sugar – The average American consumes over 150 pounds of sugar per year, primarily through added sugars. Sweetened beverages and baked goods are the most common culprits and, like refined grains, they impact both your blood sugar and insulin levels, contributing to inflammation.
High-Glycemic Foods – The glycemic load of a given food is simply a measure of its impact on your blood sugar levels. High-glycemic foods hit the bloodstream quickly, causing a spike in blood sugar and a rapid rise in insulin levels. Low-glycemic foods are absorbed more slowly and are less likely to trigger inflammation caused by high blood sugar and insulin levels.
One study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that a low-glycemic diet was correlated with improvements to acne vulgaris symptoms as well as weight loss.
Fast Food – Not only is fast food high in calories and low in nutrients, but it is a highly inflammatory food as well. Common fast food items include things like burgers, chicken nuggets, French fries, sodas and milkshakes, all of which are high-glycemic foods and likely to contain added sugars.
Vegetable Oils – Certain vegetables oils like corn and soy oils contain high levels of omega-6 fatty acids. While the body needs some omega-6s, an imbalance between omega-6s and omega-3s can trigger inflammation and acne. Other foods high in omega-6s include canola oil, safflower oil, flaxseed oil and sunflower seeds.
Processed Meats – Factory-farmed meats like beef and pork frequently contain artificial hormones, antibiotics and high levels of omega-6 fatty acids. Processed meats are also likely to contain nitrites and preservatives, all of which can contribute to inflammation and acne.
This is supported by the results of a 2017 study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition which showed that high intake of red and processed meat was correlated with increased markers of adiposity and inflammation.
Food Additives – Artificial food additives like colors, flavors, emulsifiers, sweeteners and preservatives are becoming increasingly more common in manufactured foods. Reactions to these additives are also becoming more common, particularly for things like nitrates, MSG, sulfites and certain coloring agents.
The next time you head to the grocery store, keep an eye out for these inflammatory foods. If you pay attention, you may notice that most of them are found in the inner aisles. Whole foods like fresh produce, meat and seafood are typically found around the perimeter of the store. The best way to shop for acne-fighting foods is to stick to the outsides, venturing into the interior of the store only for staples and other necessities.
Generally speaking, whole foods are the best foods to fight acne. Unfortunately, your body may not respond well to certain whole foods. This is typically referred to as a food intolerance or sensitivity. You can also develop an allergy to certain foods.
According to the Food Allergy Research and Education organization, food allergies affect up to 32 million Americans. An allergy occurs when the immune system overreacts to one of the proteins in an otherwise harmless food.
The top eight most common food allergens are milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fin fish and shellfish.
A food allergy is a life-threatening condition which may cause symptoms such as hives, swelling of the lips or tongue, wheezing, diarrhea, vomiting, dizziness and anaphylaxis.
A food intolerance or sensitivity may produce similar symptoms to a food allergy, but they are not life-threatening—the body simply has difficulty digesting the offending ingredient. The foods most likely to cause intolerance or sensitivity include dairy products, grains, beans and raw foods that cause gas. Some food intolerances are caused by a lack of a specific enzyme.
Food allergies, intolerances and sensitivities can all cause inflammation that leads to breakouts.
Food sensitivities are also known as delayed hypersensitivity reactions and they are complex reactions that involve both the innate and adaptive immune pathways.
Simply put, certain foods trigger mechanisms in the body that lead to the production of proinflammatory mediators like cytokines and prostaglandins. The resulting inflammation may contribute to a variety of conditions including acne.
If you have a food allergy, sensitivity or intolerance, you should add the offending ingredient(s) to your list of acne-causing foods to avoid.
After reviewing the list of acne-causing foods above, you may realize that many of them are staples in your diet. If this is the case, you may start taking steps to improve your diet. Doing so may help lower inflammation, combat stress and reduce your acne.
As always, if you have questions about your diet, please contact your healthcare provider.