What Food Causes Acne?

What Food Causes Acne?

Is that a zit you see? Did it pop up the day after you ate a hamburger or wolfed down a milkshake?

No, it’s not just your bad luck. Chances are your skin is trying to tell you something: when it comes to acne causes food we eat ranks right up there.

To find out what you should and shouldn’t be eating for healthy skin, you’ve come to the right place.

Food that May Cause Acne

Before we delve in, it’s important to note that food on its own is not directly to blame for acne breakouts. Doctors are still divided on the direct correlation between certain foods and their effect on acne-prone skin. 

Studies done on test groups, for example, rely on participants tracking their own consumption and tracking their findings over a given length of time.

But if you do have oily skin or are prone to breakouts every now and then, it could be a sign of a larger health issue at play. 

Everything from a hormonal imbalance and poor gut health to oily hair care products and too little sleep could make you more susceptible to developing acne. Couple these with the following food choices and you could have yourself a recipe for acne breakouts:



Top of the list is sugar, particularly of the refined white variety as found in soda, premade sauces, cereals and milk chocolate, to name just a few. This type of sugar has been highly processed to make it super sweet but, as a result, has lost almost all of its nutrients. 

When it enters your bloodstream, your body metabolizes it extremely quickly causing a sudden spike in insulin and glucose levels. No guesses for how this insulin spike shows up on your skin? That’s right – acne.

Fast Food

fast food

There’s a good reason it’s referred to as “junk food”. Hamburgers, pizza and most fried food from fast food restaurants are typically laden with excess fat and oil to ramp up the flavour of the food. 

A study of more than 5000 teenagers and young adults in China found a 43% higher risk of developing acne in those who consumed a high-fat diet. 

While the exact reason behind this is largely still unknown, some experts suggest that fast food may affect the expression of genes and change hormone levels so that acne is promoted within your skin. 

Eating foods high in saturated fats increases the level of Arachidonic acid within your body, causing more oil to be produced in your sebum glands further contributing to acne.

Dairy Products

dairy products

A 2016 study found that teenagers who consumed skimmed and low-fat milk regularly had more frequent bouts of acne than those who didn’t. 

It’s thought to come down to the growth hormones present in cow’s milk which could lead to inflammation, as scientists discovered in a study of over 78 000 children, teenagers and young adults.

 It makes sense then that ice cream and milkshakes are two of the leading offenders at the top of acne causes food lists. 

High in both sugar and dairy, you’re serving your skin a double helping of acne culprits. 

While the exact correlation between dairy and acne still remains unknown, if you notice a change in your skin after eating yoghurt and cheese or drinking milk, it’s best to avoid it wherever possible.



This one comes with a slight caveat –as in, yes chocolate may contribute to acne but not quite as much as you may think. 

As mentioned before, it all comes down to the sugar content. Due to its high fat content, the sugars in chocolate are actually processed at a much slower rate than in other more sugar-dense foods like donuts and ice cream. 

This means a more gradual release of insulin into your bloodstream and a far lower glycaemic index. Yep, that means less risk of causing an acne breakout. Who would’ve thought?!

Omega- 6 Fats in Foods

omega 6

Not to be mistaken with Omega-3 fats found in fish and nuts which actually benefit your skin; Omega-6 fats are like the wayward black sheep of the family. 

Present in corn, grapeseed, safflower, soybean oil and sunflower oil, studies have found that an abundance of these fats in your diet can trigger an inflammatory response in your cells and lead to an acne breakout. 

For this reason, it helps to take note of the oil in which your favourite snacks have been fried. Did you know, for example, that potato chips are most often fried in oils heavy in Omega-6 fatty acids? 

While these food products don’t need to be avoided completely, balancing them out with Omega-3 fats will help to keep inflammation in check. 

Looking for a healthier alternative? A great ingredient to keep stocked in your pantry is coconut oil.

As it’s antimicrobial and antibacterial, coconut oil is able to trap water in your skin and repair a damaged skin barrier while further lessening any inflammation already present.

Refined Carbohydrates


Hands up all the bread lovers out there! 

It’s bad news, we’re afraid. 

Bread, cereals, pastries and pasta... in fact, all foods made of refined white flour are all huge culprits when it comes to raising blood sugar levels due to a high glycaemic index. 

In an effort to give the bread that soft, lightweight feel, these products go through an extensive refinement process. 

All vitamins, minerals and dietary fibre are stripped down basically to zero. 

The outcome when you eat these foods is a massive spike in insulin levels which further stimulates your androgen hormones. This results in faster-growing cells and increased oil production which all lead to acne.

Certain Meat Proteins


It all comes down to an amino acid called leucine. 

Found in certain types of beef and chicken, a study on this amino acid found it to be instrumental in setting off a chain reaction within skin cells. 

The sebaceous glands go into overdrive, making the risk of an acne breakout more likely. 

Then comes the high levels of cholesterol and saturated fat naturally present in meat products too – a definite no-go for anyone prone to hormonal cystic acne.

Related: What are the causes of acne?

Food to Help Acne

Now that you know what not to eat, what are those must-eat food choices to get your skin glowing and acne-free? Consider this your skin food shopping list:

Complex Carbohydrates


Just as refined carbohydrates are an absolute no-go area for blemish-free skin, the exact opposite can be said for complex whole grains. 

We’re talking whole wheat bread, quinoa, brown rice, whole fruits and vegetables, legumes like peas and beans, sweet potatoes, avocado, spinach, tomatoes, carrots, apricots as well as red and yellow peppers. 

Think of these as superfoods for your skin – laden with fibre, vitamins and minerals without causing your blood sugar to spike when consumed. 

Foods Rich in Vitamins A, C, D and E

On the topic of vitamins, when it comes to skincare, you can truly never have too many, especially when consumed on the inside. 

Ingest too few of them and your skin will almost certainly show the results. 

A study into the impact of vitamins A, E and zinc on acne, found that those participants who ate diets lacking in vitamins A and E experienced increased acne. 

You’ve heard of the benefits of applying vitamin A in the form of retinol to the surface of your skin, but when consumed in food, the advantages are even higher. 

During a study in 2003, doctors in the Netherlands found that people with higher levels of vitamin A in their blood reported less oily skin. 

As the study continued and study participants increased their consumption of vitamin A-rich foods, their sebum levels decreased. 

Keen to get in on the skin-loving benefits? Stock up on dark leafy vegetables, tuna, eggs, oranges and mackerel. 

To top up your levels of vitamin E, look for nuts like peanuts and almonds as well as broccoli.

vitamins a c d e

Remember too that vitamins in supplement form should always to taken only with the advice of a doctor. Consider adding vitamin-packed foods to your diet instead.


Ever heard the term “second brain”? That would be referring to your gastrointestinal system or gut, the essential organ responsible for not only breaking down the food you eat but also for absorbing the nutrients to perform your body’s most important functions. 

It’s also the reason behind the health craze surrounding fermented foods like kombucha, miso, kimchi and kefir. 


These foods are all probiotics and are very useful in maintaining healthy bacteria in the intestines.  The right balance of bacteria not only keeps your digestion in check, but it also lowers inflammation, balances hormones and fixes any resistance to insulin – all highly essential in managing acne breakouts on your skin. 

Get your daily fill by adding fermented goodies to your shopping cart like Greek yoghurt, kefir, buttermilk and sauerkraut.


Indian saffron

Known as the “Indian saffron” due to its vibrant yellow color, turmeric is one of the top treatments for acne – both when applied topically and also when ingested. Experts have long researched its main active ingredient called curcumin and found it to not only reduce inflammation in the skin but also inhibit the growth of the acne bacteria P. Acnes. 

Want to get in on the benefits? Doctors recommend a daily intake of between 400 and 600mg to be especially helpful in the treatment of cystic acne. 

As with all medication though, be sure to consult with your doctor before starting a new dose.



No list of acne-treating food would be complete without zinc. It’s been lauded for the boost it can give to your brain and immune system. 

But what about your skin? While more research is required, studies have found it to be effective in decreasing cysts and papules when ingested orally and applied topically to the skin. 

It’s no surprise then that adding zinc to your diet could combat inflammation and soothe redness and irritation. In fact, too little zinc in your diet was found to lead to increased acne breakouts in study participants of a 2016 test group. 

Get your fix of this must-have skin ingredient in beans, chickpeas, seeds like sunflower and pumpkin seeds as well as shellfish and meat.

Green tea

green tea

What’s the healthiest beverage you can drink for clear, acne-free skin? If you said water, you’d only be half-right. Brew a cup of boiling water with green tea and you’re on to a winner. Still not convinced? 

Consider the results of a randomized controlled trial done in 2012 on a group of 80 adult women. The study found that those who added decaffeinated green tea to their diets showed marked improvements in inflammatory lesions and redness in their skin.

What makes green tea so good is the addition of vital plant-based compounds called catechins. These are further made up of antioxidant polyphenols known to be both anti-inflammatory and antibiotic. 

Also present in red wine, nuts and certain vegetables, studies have found that these polyphenols can actually reduce the amount of sebum secreted by the skin.

Bone broth

Last, but definitely not least, is one foodstuff that comes jam-packed with vitamins, minerals and all-around skin-loving goodness: bone broth. 

Loved by everyone from Gwyneth Paltrow to Halle Berry, bone broth works by not only cleansing your liver but also boosting your body’s production of collagen.  

Take this advice from Halle Berry as she shared her recipe on her Instagram account: "It’s made with bones that are simmered for at least 8 hours. I like to slow-cook my bones in my crock pot for 24 hours. 

The purpose is to cook the bones until they produce gelatine collagen and trace minerals that support the immune system and help with the development of healthy joints, bones, ligaments and tendons as well as hair and skin!" 

bone broth

There currently isn’t any research backing up claims that collagen can treat acne, however, it helps keep your skin looking young. 

If you too want to jump on the bone broth bandwagon, add a cup of hot bone broth to your daily routine to see glowing results.

Alternatively, if you’re not much of a Gordon Ramsey, opt for a powdered hydrolyzed collagen supplement with hyaluronic acid and vitamin C. Hyaluronic acid helps to control sebum production and vitamin C helps with the absorption of both skin-nourishing ingredients. 

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