When it comes to breakouts, we’re often quick to point the finger at food. That new pimple must be because of chocolate. That greasy slice of pizza. Or maybe we just ate a little too much sugar, gluten, wheat, or dairy. Many of my dermatology patients tell me that they’ve cut out certain foods – or even entire food groups – in hopes it will help to clear their blemishes.
While there’s no doubt that lifestyle plays a role in our skin’s health, food is only one of several potential variables when it comes to acne – and it may be a relatively minor one. (How many of us know someone who lives on junk food yet has clear skin, and others who eat a careful diet but suffer from persistent acne?) The frequency and severity of blackheads, whiteheads, and pimples can be influenced by age, hormones, genetics, stress, our skin type, medical conditions, medication, bacteria, hygiene, and more.
All of that said, there are at least two dietary factors that may contribute to blemishes in people who suffer from acne, according to scientific studies.
A high glycemic index diet. Research suggests that a diet rich in simple carbs – which can cause rapid spikes in blood sugar – may worsen acne in those prone to it. This may be because foods with a high glycemic load can increase and activate a compound called insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1), which ramps up acne-promoting hormones (androgens) and the skin’s oil (sebum) production. By contrast, a low-glycemic index diet has been shown in small studies to help alleviate acne. (Find out more about these diets here)
An excess of dairy, especially skim milk products or whey protein. Dairy products may exacerbate breakouts in some people, including blemish-prone teenagers, according to recent research from the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. This may be due to the hormones naturally contained in milk, and bioactive molecules (such as IGF-1, glucocorticoids, and transforming growth factor-b) that have the potential to ramp up oil glands and contribute to clogged pores. Skim milk and low-fat dairy products seem to flare acne more than higher-fat dairy, possibly because the process of fat reduction enhances milk components that promote IGF-1. Small human studies have reported that supplementing with whey protein (a milk derivative) can worsen acne, while reducing whey supplementation can help alleviate it.
But it’s important to remember that dairy can be an important part of a healthy diet – especially for building and maintaining healthy bones and vitamin D levels. Unless there’s an allergy or a medical reason to avoid dairy, physicians don’t recommend eliminating it altogether.
More research is needed to explore the impact of many foods on the skin (including, thankfully, chocolate!). In fact, the American Academy of Dermatology doesn’t recommend any specific dietary change for acne, based on the scientific evidence to date. Talk with your dermatologist, who will probably tell you not to make yourself crazy or miserable with a bland or restrictive diet on account of acne. Balance is key, and all of us should enjoy a variety of healthful foods – including dairy and sugary treats, in moderation.