Foods That Surprisingly Cause Acne

foods to help acne

By Kali Kushner

For a long time, I was in denial of the link between food and skin. I wanted to believe SO bad that my acne could be completely cured solely through the use of topical and prescription drugs, and that diet had absolutely nothing to do with it. Deep down this was mainly because I didn’t want to change my diet, I mean who does? I liked what I was eating and if everyone was eating the same thing, I figured that meant I could too.

Acne is of course, genetic, however, that doesn’t mean certain foods won't exasperate or improve your condition. After about a year of trial and error, I have found a definite link between 5 specific foods that cause acne, and 5 that fight it.

You'll find lists like this all over the web that mainly say don’t eat pizza and drink lots of water, but like c'mon man give me some advice I can actually use? This is my own personal list, no hogwash- just facts with the science to back it up.


 1. Dairy

 I wish I would have known about the link between dairy and acne sooner, please if you struggle with cystic acne cut dairy out from your diet TODAY. In a short three months after cutting dairy, my cystic acne reduced by 95% and stayed clear up until this day. Why does dairy cause acne exactly? Glad you asked, things like milk, cheese, ice cream, and other byproducts of cow's milk contain an inflammatory growth hormone, IGF-1, that when consumed, targets your skin's oil glands.

This hormone, not only forces your glands to overproduce oil but also creates excess skin cells that begin to stick together and get trapped inside of your pores. It's a growth hormone for baby cows, and in certain individuals, a growth hormone for acne. Not to mention, IGF-1 spikes inflammation in the body so that tiny white head has the ability to grow into a red, pounding cystic nightmare practically overnight. In short, dairy can cause a hormonal imbalance.

So, if you struggle with hormonal acne like me, it's best to avoid dairy at all costs. The biggest concern I hear is from acne sufferers is "where will I get my calcium?" If you're worried about your calcium intake once you kick dairy to the curb, this list contains some great vegan substitutes.

2. Soy

I didn't eat a lot of soy up until recently when I changed my diet and became vegan. I was using things like Boca Burger, tofu, and other meat substitutes while transitioning to a meat-free lifestyle when I noticed that my acne started to get worse. I was in shock at the change my body was going through because I mostly heard of veganism being used to clear up acne, not cause it. While going through my refrigerator and pantry it dawned on me, over half of these foods contain soy.

I had never relied on soy before veganism so I removed it from my diet and in a matter of days my skin completely returned to normal. Soy, similar to dairy, also interferes with your hormones but in this case, produces an excess amount of estrogen.

There is also a high level of omega 6 fatty acids in soy which, if not balanced out by enough omega 3, can cause inflammation in the body. So, if you find yourself breaking out along your jawline or lower half of your face, soy may be to blame. Here are 5 ideas for dairy free & soy free milk alternatives; my favorites are silk unsweetened vanilla almond milk and so delicious unsweetened cashew milk.

3. Refined Carbohydrates

Surprising right? Really never thought that it would be one of those acne causing foods. I gave up refined carbs shortly after giving up dairy while I was following a low GI diet. And not only did my skin improve but my digestion was better as well; I experienced less bloat and no longer had an overly full uncomfortable pit-feeling in my stomach.

Refined carbs refers to things like white bread, bagels, pizza crust, white rice, and most pasta, where the whole grain along with the vitamins and minerals are taken away; leaving the food with little to no nutritional value.

When consumed, refined carbs can cause a spike in blood sugar which in turn can trigger inflammation in the body. This inflammatory response then shows itself in tiredness, body aches, and you guessed it- acne. Whole grains are much gentler on your body, releasing all the necessary fiber and nutrients slowly over time without creating a hyper insulin response. Giving up refined carbs doesn't mean you have to give up foods you love! Here are my favorite low GI  pastabreadpizza crust, and rice.

4. Caffeine

This was hands down the hardest habit for me to kick, working two jobs, being in school full time, and still managing to hold my marriage together I NEEDED my coffee.

My favorite part of the entire day was starting up my Keurig, filling the house with that romantic aroma, and sipping on a latte while lying in bed scrolling through my Instagram feed. This was my time to reflect and relax before my day started. Coffee was a need for me not a want, and if it tasted so good how could it be so bad for me?

Caffeine, when ingested, messes with your hormone cortisol, the same hormone that is released when you're stressed. Excessive cortisol from caffeine and stress = excessive acne. With all of the demands put on us this day in age it's almost impossible to completely rid yourself of some type of caffeine (unless you go completely off the grid or you are superwoman and in that case can I borrow your cape?).

Good news is that things like matcha (½ the amount of caffeine when compared to coffee) and green tea (1/4 the amount of caffeine when compared to coffee) can give you the perfect amount of energy without raising cortisol levels through the roof and they boast some pretty serious health benefits. I went caffeine free for a few months, slowly reintroduced  green tea, and then matcha. I now drink one cup of matcha every morning as a replacement for that cup of joe, and I can say I don't miss the crazy mood swings, blood sugar cravings, or energy spikes one bit.

5. Sugar

Cookies, cake, soda, ringing a bell? This one may seem obvious or redundant but I still think it's important to explain how and why sugar can impact your skin. Sugar of course not only quickly spikes and drops your blood sugar levels, but it also increases inflammation in the body similar to carbohydrates. In fact, sugar is in itself a simple, fast acting carbohydrate but I personally think it deserves its own category due to all of the miserable ways it can affect your skin and your health.

Your insulin levels spike while you eat sugary foods AND greater insulin means greater IGF-1 levels. An easy way to think of it is 1 cookie= 1 pimple. Sugar can also throw your gut health out of whack by causing candida overgrowth, this is important because gut health indirectly contributes to acne.

I've never been one to have much of a sweet tooth so I didn’t think cutting out sugar would be much of a struggle for me- think again! Many processed or prepackaged foods contain hidden sugars. I was shocked to find salad dressing, whole wheat bread, canned baked beans, and even canned jalapenos all have added sugars. For this one I can't really tell you what all to avoid in your diet to prevent acne, besides the obvious sweet treats- just make sure to check the back label and if you aren't sure remember whole fresh food trumps prepackaged every time.

6.  Spicy Food

In a publication, Eastern Mediterranean Health Journal shows that acne patients tend to  relate spices to worsening acne breakouts. However, a well-controlled study between diet and acne has been done and the result does not point to spicy eats as a direct acne causing food. In fact, most dermatologists claim that cosmetics, changing hormones, and genes lead to frequent breakouts and severe cases of acne.

7. High Glycemic Food

High glycemic food such as nuts and white rice. Nuts are often blamed as an acne-triggering food. However, results show that there is no valid link between eating nuts and experiencing an acne breakout. It still comes back to the idea which claims that high-glycemic diet can contribute to acne breakouts, whereas, low-glycemic diet such as fresh fruits and vegetables promote clean, healthy skin.

It is already established that high glycemic foods can contribute to the severity and frequency of acne attacks. A scientific review printed in the journal, Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology, pin-pointed that eating a lot of rice in your diet can cause increased insulin release resulting in acne. Sushi rice is an example of food rich in glycemic content.

Now that we've gone through what we shouldn’t eat (probably feels like literally everything-hello am I even allowed to inhale o2?!), let's talk about which foods have been proven to fight acne. I make sure to eat all of these things- EVERY. SINGLE.DAY. Seriously, these foods will only help you.


1. Matcha

Never in a million years would I have pictured myself as a tea drinker, I once had an insanely deep love affair with coffee, but here I stand today chugging down matcha lattes like there's no tomorrow. 1 matcha, 2 matcha, 3 matcha, floor! Okay, maybe not that many but it does contain some pretty kick butt benefits and makes you feel SO gewd on top it.

One cup of matcha contains 37x more antioxidants and 10x the nutritional benefits of green tea. This is because rather than brewing the leaves, you are consuming the whole leaf in its entirety. Like green tea, matcha has special anti-aging and antioxidant benefits that can help delay the signs of aging skin. The polyphenols that are found in green tea help to neutralize harmful free radicals, flushing out any toxins in the skin to promote the healing of acne and acne scarring. Not to mention, matcha has also been proven to enhance mood, aid in concentration and mental clarity, promote a calm energy, boost metabolism, and increase physical endurance (can I get a woot woot!). My favorite brand is  ujido, though you can use any matcha- just make sure its origin lies in Japan!

2. Probiotics

I used to laugh at people who would recommend I take a probiotic for my skin, I never had digestion issues and for the longest time I was under the assumption that probiotics were for regulating- ya know, potty time. Oh boy was I wrong. Probiotics are the solution to literally everything. Got a pimple? Pop a probiotic. Got a flat tire? Pop a probiotic. Got trust issues? You get the picture.

The reason probiotics work so well for acne sufferers is because they balance out the good and bad bacteria in your gut. If you’ve ever been on an antibiotic (which if you've had acne of any severity- trust me when I say you have) the balance of good and bad bacteria in your gut is more than likely not in exact harmony. When you take an antibiotic, it kills off all the good bacteria living in your gut this in turn leads to gut problems (duh), inflammation, and acne (what the whaaa?!) Probiotics put the good bacteria back in your gut and help to correct any imbalance. The probiotic I currently take is  PB8 with the green cap, which is both vegan and vegetarian friendly. You can also get probiotics by adding things to your diet like yogurt, kefir, and kombucha (GTs Kombucha is my favorite).

3. Spirulina

It's funny I was in Tj Maxx one day when I came across a supplements section, I was bewildered to find half priced pink Himalayan sea salt, organic coconut oil, vegan protein, AND spirulina. I bought a tub of it on a whim not exactly sure what it would do for me (but hey it was on sale for $10), and I haven't looked back since.

Turns out, spirulina is one of the best natural anti-acne supplements out there. Not only does it work to detoxify your body from the inside out but it is extremely high in  vitamins, minerals, amino acids, iron, antioxidants, and it is one of the most alkaline foods available. It also boasts anti-aging properties due to its extremely high beta-carotene content and anti-inflammatory properties from an enzyme called superoxide dismutase.

Spirulina is basically a blue-green powder that is extracted from scummy pond water, and it tastes like it too, really it's pretty gnar. I would highly recommend purchasing a pill version rather than a powder version of spirulina so you can skip out on the taste while still reaping all of the benefits. You can find some of the highest quality spirulina here.

4. Omega 3

I don't have as much experience in this category, as the link between omega 3 and acne is fairly new. As of right now, there's not a ton of research surrounding it BUT the studies that have been done so far look extremely promising. In a recent control group study at the Seoul National University College of Medicine, Omega 3 supplements were proven to reduce acne lesions in patients by 42%.

As we are well aware at this point acne is an inflammatory disease, and omega 3 fatty acids help to fight off that inflammation with its anti-inflammatory effects on the body. I do eat a fair amount of flaxseeds, which are high in Omega 3, noticing that if I go without them for a few days I will begin to break out in small whiteheads, cute right? Other good sources of Omega 3 fatty acids are things like chia seeds, walnuts, and salmon.

5. Alkaline forming foods

Did you know that your body has the ability to turn certain foods acidic and alkaline once they have been digested? What this means is when you consume things like coffee, white bread, meat, and dairy they cause your body to produce acid ash while eating foods like avocado, cucumber, kale, and garlic promote alkaline ash.

Think of a piece of burnt wood and the ash it leaves behind; when you fuel your body with either alkaline or acidic food it extracts all of the vitamins and nutrients and then burns up the remaining food, leaving behind an ash residue. A diet that is high in acid-forming foods makes your body more susceptible to disease, including acne. This is because the acid ash residue left behind clogs up your gut and the nutrients you're consuming cannot be digested effectively. Your body will try to rebalance its pH level by pushing out any toxins, and voila you have acne!

The best way to fight an acidic body is to eat alkaline rich foods, these foods contain all the correct vitamins and minerals to help your body to function properly. It can get confusing though; things like lemon, which have an acidic pH externally, become alkaline once digested and meat, which is alkaline externally, becomes extremely acidic once digested.

If you're interested further, you can follow an alkaline diet easily here and here, these are the same charts I use almost on a daily basis. When I first started this diet, I bought a pack of pH strips off amazon and religiously checked my saliva and urine every single morning. After two weeks of dieting my body became steadily alkaline, from a fairly acidic 5.5 pH to a 7.5 (the healthy normal pH range is a 7.1- 7.5 pH level).

I can personally attest that my acne quickly cleared up as well, and whenever I cheated on my diet (overindulging in acidic foods) I would begin to break out again. Remember not to restrict yourself, it's all about balance- you can eat some acidic foods, just make sure they aren't the main building blocks of your diet.

Does Junk Food Cause Acne?

 First, you would have to determine exactly what is junk food.  If it's highly processed foods with a lot of salt, sugar, and saturated fat then it is likely to have an effect on skin. Food itself won't cause acne, but it can certainly make it worse.

If you go several days on a high junk food diet, it's possible to experience a few more breakouts the days after.  You may experience an upset stomach or feeling lethargic. It's best to not make junk food a daily habit for your overall health even if it doesn't cause acne for you.  

Everyone is different, so cutting out or adding these foods to your diet may or may not work for your acne. I've found the best way for me to naturally deal with my inflammatory acne is through diet and stress management. I'm not going to lie, at first it was really hard. About a year ago, I had the Standard American Diet (SAD), loads of sugar, refined carbs, dairy, meat, and fried foods. Never in a million years did I think twice about the relationship between what I was eating and my skin- and in this case, the age old saying "you are what you eat" stands true.

Now, it's almost second nature for me to eat what makes me feel good from the inside out. My biggest advice I can give is to not stress too much, the ONLY two rules I have are to make sure I am eating a variety of greens and always avoiding dairy. Seriously, don't stress about it and eventually, you will find more often than not you're making the right choices for your body. Using the 80/20 rule occasionally allows yourself to have things that you normally wouldn't, well because you know, YOLO and stuff.

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