Acne is the most common skin problem in the United States, affecting up to 50 million people annually, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (1). And while the majority of those suffering from acne are between the ages of 12-24, the number of adult women with acne is on the rise (2).
Treatments for acne vary widely and can range from topical solutions and prescription medications to laser resurfacing techniques and surgical intervention. But if you want to fight off acne from the inside, some researchers and dietitians believe that an anti-acne diet could help produce clear, pimple-free skin.
“While diet does not appear to be the culprit for everyone, there is plenty of research available that shows a positive correlation between dairy intake and acne as well as consumption of high-glycemic index foods and the presence of acne,” says Meg Hagar, a registered dietitian and holistic health practitioner working in New York.
Let’s take a closer look at the anti-acne diet, so you can decide whether or not this eating plan is the right option for you.
What Is the Anti-Acne Diet?
“A clear skin diet is about removing troublesome foods but it’s also just as much about adding nourishing foods,” says Hagar.
Most anti-acne diets start with an elimination phase, where participants are instructed to stop eating certain foods. These include high-glycemic foods, dairy products, and foods with added sugar and high saturated fat content.
“Consuming dairy and high-glycemic foods initiates a cascade of events inside the body that eventually lead the sebaceous glands to produce excess oil,” says Hagar. “This then causes clogged pores and eventually contributes to acne.”
While studies have linked a low-glycemic diet to improved acne symptoms (3), acne can have a variety of causes and what works for one person may not work for someone else. “Everyone is different, so there is no clear-skin diet that is right for everyone,” says Hagar. “In fact, a large portion of acne sufferers actually have food sensitivities and intolerances which vary from person to person, and acne is the body’s way of alerting us that something isn’t happy internally.”
Anti-Acne Diet: Foods to Avoid
During the elimination phase, Hagar recommends that patients start by avoiding foods high in sugar and carbohydrates. She also recommends that her clients cut out diary, since some studies link dairy consumption—specifically skim and nonfat varieties—to a greater prevalence of acne (4). “Triggers are different for everyone,” says Hagar. “The biggest triggers I see in practice are dairy, high glycemic foods and excess sugar. All of these foods and ingredients eventually lead to excess oil production in the skin and therefore contribute to acne formation.”
So what exactly should you avoid? Here’s a shortlist of foods to stay away from while on an anti-acne diet:
- Potato chips
- White bread
- Sugary sweets (cookies, baked goods, candy)
- Milk chocolate
- Dairy products (milk, cheese, ice cream, yogurt)
- Foods high in saturated and trans fats
Hagar says that it’s important to pay close attention to food labels when participating in the elimination phase of the anti-acne diet. “There are 61 different names for sugar on the ingredient label, so often it’s missed,” she says. “Common other names are rice syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, sucrose, dextrose, maltose, and barley malt.”
Once potential trigger foods are removed and patients begin to start seeing clearer skin, Hagar recommends the people begin to reintroduce foods back into their diets and monitor how those foods affect the skin. This helps individuals settle on a long-term diet plan that works specifically for their skin.
“This type of diet is not meant to be followed forever. Once a client’s skin is improved, I ask them to start adding in food groups one by one so we can identify exactly what foods are causing breakouts,” she says. “The purpose of this is to avoid unnecessarily restricting foods.”
Foods That Help Acne
In addition to eliminating certain ingredients while on an anti-acne diet, it’s also important to add in healthy, skin-friendly fare, says Hagar. “A good place to start may be following a diet based largely on lean proteins, complex carbohydrates, tons of fruits and vegetables, nuts, and seeds,” she says.
Here are some key, acne-fighting ingredients to include while on a clear-skin diet:
Omega-3 fatty acids. If you want to help your skin, add foods that are high in omega-3 fatty acids, says Hagar, who recommends items like fish, nuts, and seeds. “Salmon is a healthy source of complete proteins, which provide all necessary amino acids to support the structure of the skin,” she says. “Omega-3 fatty acids are also found in nuts like almonds and walnuts as well as flaxseed.”
Zinc. A surprising ingredient that can help fight acne is zinc, and Hagar suggests a healthy dosing while on a clear-skin diet. “I always recommend foods that are high in zinc to help fight inflammation, such as pumpkin seeds,” she says. “A handful of these seeds can provide up to a quarter of the estimated zinc needs per day.”
Antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. While it might go without saying, we’ll say it—eating foods packed with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants are your best friends when on an anti-acne diet. Vitamins and minerals, like vitamin C, are used in the process of building new skin cells, says Hagar, and antioxidants help fight off damaging particles that can weaken the skin and contribute to acne.
You’ll find these acne-fighting properties in the following foods:
- Lean proteins (free-range chicken, wild-caught fish)
- Green, leafy vegetables (spinach, Swiss chard)
- Low-glycemic fruits (berries, cherries, grapefruit, peaches)
- Low-glycemic vegetables (carrots, tomatoes)
- Low-glycemic starches (quinoa, beans, amaranth)
- Nuts and seeds (walnuts, flaxseed, pumpkin seeds)
The Anti-Acne Diet: Things to Consider
Although results from a clear-skin diet won’t happen overnight, Hagar says to be patient. She’s had clients experience an improvement in acne in as little as three weeks, but notes that it could take more time to see a difference. “Your skin cells turn over every four to six weeks,” she says. “So whenever you do change your diet, you should try to stick to it for at least one to two months.”
And even if eating an anti-acne diet does improve your skin, Hagar stresses that there are a lot of factors at play that may cause acne to come back. “Sometimes acne is deeper than diet. Stress, sleep, h
ydration, environment, and genetics all play a role in the formation of acne,” she says. “If diet changes alone don’t work, it’s important to know when working with a professional might be helpful.”