Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 1/22/2021
We all have breakouts at inconvenient times—okay, is there ever a convenient time—and when skin disaster strikes, it’s easy to look for somewhere to place blame. Does my pillowcase need washing? Did I sweat too much at the gym—or not enough? Was it that extra slice of pizza this weekend?
We’re quick to remind ourselves that things like cheat days and indulgences are healthy, and that punishing ourselves for them is unhealthy. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t some connection between “one more slice” and one more pimple.
Believe it or not, that slice of pizza could have more to do with your post-junk-food pimple sighting than you think.
It makes sense to most people that diet and health are innately linked. The whole “you are what you eat” concept is a great reminder that when you put nutrients and healthy food into your body, you become healthier, and when you put fast food and processed foods in, well, they’re not as good for you.
Your skin’s healthy function is the result of balance between oils, hormones, hydration, keratin levels and a variety of other factors, and your skin’s dysfunction is likewise the product of imbalances in these things as well.
It’s maybe surprising then that not everyone recognizes the same link between diet and the health of your skin.
It should come as no surprise, after all, as your skin is the biggest organ on your body. Of course it’s going to be intimately affected by what you’re consuming.
But diet and acne isn’t the simple math of “oil in, oil out” that tells you to stay away from fried foods if you want clear, glowing skin: there are more factors to take into effect, like sugar and high glycemic foods, hormones, nutrient loads, and irritants.
In fact, increased oil (or sebum) production on the skin might have little to do with greasy foods in your diet, and instead be your body’s response to the buildup of dry skin in its pores.
Point being: just because you’re not eating fried chicken for three meals a day, doesn’t mean your diet isn’t actively contributing to a breakout on your face, chest, or other areas of skin.
In fact, it might be the result of hormones, antibiotics, or other things in the chicken itself giving you a breakout.
Acne vulgaris is caused by a combination of factors, but essentially a pimple or acne breakout is the result of bacteria thriving in an excess of oil. Oil buildup is created when the skin’s natural rhythm of shedding dead cells and discarding them is thrown off.
To better help you understand what various foods can do to your skin, we’ve compiled a list of the foods that may cause acne. These food items are the pillars of a diet that could lead to bad skin, and so if you’re consuming a lot of these foods, it may be time to reduce and moderate your intake.
A 2017 study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition showed a correlation between high intake of red and processed meat and increased markers of adiposity (obesity) and inflammation in the skin.
While those things can be markers for potential cancer risk, they’re also the settings for some serious skin issues, and can make your skin a breeding ground for bacteria.
Skin inflammation — and specifically inflammation of the sebaceous gland — is one of the major conditions required for the acne vulgaris bacteria to flourish.
And obesity carries with it a host of problems, including poor skin quality.
So limiting your read meat intake is part of the strategy for keeping your skin healthy, and preventing bacteria from setting up shop.
Acne and dairy product consumption have been linked in numerous studies, but scientists are still unclear on what’s actually going on.
One theory suggests that dairy products can increase insulin levels, which can stimulate the production of a particular hormone that may cause acne, according to research.
Bread, pasta, crackers, baked goods: food products made from these things can lead to sudden blood sugar spikes, which can also lead to that same insulin spike and increased levels of certain hormones.
And there’s science to backup this mechanism as a cause of 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.
Colors, sweeteners, preservatives, emulsifiers and flavors: if they’re artificial, they can pose irritation and inflammation risk.
Though there’s no direct link to acne, intolerance to these products is on the rise, and with it comes symptoms like inflammation that, you guessed it, can set the stage for breakouts in your skin.
While there’s little research on additives with regards to acne, there are questions about the effects these products can have on conditions like obesity and inflammation, even if they are considered generally safe.
Americans consume a lot of sugar, mostly in the form of added sugar.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, the typical American consumes as much as 150 lbs a year, mostly in the form of added sugars in baked goods, soft drinks and things like table sugar, as well as cereal, candy, desserts and fruit drinks.
Like refined grains, sugars impact both your blood sugar and insulin levels, which as we’ve mentioned, contributes to inflammation.
One source of sugar intake is hidden in high glycemic foods. High-glycemic foods (foods that have a high impact on blood sugar) cause a blood sugar spike and raise insulin levels rapidly. Low-glycemic foods such as vegetables, beans, etc., where sugar is absorbed more slowly — are less likely to trigger inflammation.
A small study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that studied 43 male acne patients found that low-glycemic diets were correlated with improvements to acne vulgaris symptoms. They also had the added benefit of contributing to weight loss.
Whether they’re a cooking medium or part of a recipe, oils — vegetable oils, in particular — can be a major source of acne triggers.
Processed oils (canola, safflower, flaxseed, sunflower) enter the bloodstream rapidly much like high glycemic load foods, but they also contain high levels of fatty acids like omega-6, which we need only sparingly. When you create an imbalance with other fatty acids like omega-3, you’re asking for trouble in the form of inflammation.
We’ve mentioned processed meats, refined grains, added sugars, and additives already in this list, so it’s probably no surprise that as a group, fast foods belong on the list too. For starters, they contain many of these very things, making them potential super acne vulgaris machines.
But beyond their low nutrient loads and other negative states, they can also cause inflammation. Burgers, fries, milkshakes, chicken nuggets: they may all be delicious, but they’re a delicious risk if you’re trying to keep your skin clear and clean.
If you’re reading this story in the first place, you’re probably struggling with occasional or frequent acne breakout issues. We hope this list has made you think about the complexities of diet and how they might be related to your skin health.
But as a reminder, the mechanism of acne is complicated, and no two people have the same sensitivities. You and your best friend might eat the same foods, and yet only one of you might see acne-related consequences.
Similarly, you might be eating junk food all the time, and the underlying cause of your acne turns out to be stress, hormones, or another factor.
Even if that’s the case, taking a look at your diet might be a smart and easy solution for reducing the symptoms, or preventing them altogether. If you have questions about your diet and how it might affect your skin, please contact a healthcare provider.