Foods that trigger acne can vary from person to person but there are some general things to avoid. The reader should be aware at this point that the issues around acne and diet are very contentious. There are opinions everywhere, the science is often unclear and there are so many competing theories of digestion and inflammation it is basically impossible to tell what the foods that cause acne are.
However, this kind author has read what papers are available regarding the foods that cause acne and has hopefully assembled enough data here for you to make some informed decisions about your acne.
Acne breakouts are usually caused by hormonal changes in the body caused by puberty or the menstrual cycle. However, it is thought that the foods you eat can drastically change the likelihood of having an acne breakout. Excess production of sebum is usually the underlying reason that most people develop acne vulgaris, and different diets and drugs have been found to help regulate the production of sebum.
Acne might be unavoidable for unfortunate teenagers (though it seems diet can help lessen the symptoms) but for adult acne, diet might play more of a role.
Some interesting studies have found that small, isolated groups of humans who have diets and lifestyles similar to those of our ancient ancestors have zero acne. It is not clear whether these are just outlying groups who have just got lucky, or that their diet really is the deciding factor. As the scientific data grows, the relationship between the Western diet and severe acne becomes more pronounced. At this time, the exact mechanisms of how food directly causes acne is not understood, but there is definitely a relationship.
So far, nobody has conclusively proven chocolate can exacerbate acne. There have been extremely small studies and there were issues with the methodology that make the results questionable. According to one review “As to the question of whether chocolate aggravates acne lesions, there is still no clear answer.” This comes as a huge relief to chocolate-loving people everywhere. However, this relief may just be temporary; more data is needed.
The science of antioxidants is controversial. They are apparently good for us because they reduce the number of “reactive oxygen species,” or oxygen molecules and atoms crashing around the body, reacting with everything and causing damage. The theory is good; the reality is less clear. There is some evidence to show that oxidative stress is related to acne and some antioxidant drugs do help clear up acne.
Some antioxidants, like resveratrol, a chemical found in red grapes, peanuts, and mulberries, shows promise for treating acne. Vitamin E supplements and green tea are supposedly beneficial (they are generally good for you, so you will do yourself no harm in getting the right amounts of them), but they have not been conclusively proven to play a role.
High doses of vitamin A (retinol) taken orally have been shown to be an effective treatment of acne, however, large quantities of vitamin A can be toxic, so if the reader wants to use it for their acne, they should do so with caution.
Milk and Dairy
Even though this link has been studied since the 1940’s, once again there has never been conclusive proof of dairy products causing or exacerbating acne. Theories abound but one theory is that insulin growth factors, which are found in milk, are also related to the growth of comedones (spots). Levels of this growth factor vary during puberty and some have pointed to the positive correlation between the growth factor and acne outbreaks.
In large scale studies (one had 50,000 women taking part), the link is stronger, but it is correlational, not causational. Interestingly, the fat content of the milk seemed to affect how strongly acne outbreaks occurred. Skimmed milk was the culprit, as far as anyone can tell. Nobody has proved this conclusively, however, so for the moment, it is uncertain.
No clinical study has conclusively proven a link between dietary fibre and acne, but in one study a low-glycaemic diet (see below) was correlated with improvement in skin appearance. The researchers hypothesized that this might be due to the high dietary fibre content of the food. So far, so inconclusive.
Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids have an important role in the inflammatory response in the human body. We cannot produce these ourselves and have to get them from the food we eat. Deficiencies are related to all sorts of illnesses, but the effect on proinflammatory cytokines is the one that applies to acne vulgaris.
Eating foods rich in omega-3 can inhibit the production of these cytokines, one of which regulates the production of sebum, the skin oil that in excess causes acne. The link has not been satisfactorily established, but it is always recommended to eat enough omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids as they have clear health benefits.
One study from the 1960’s found that teenagers who ate lots of fish had less acne symptoms. A more recent but tiny study found that omega-3 fatty acids might prevent acne. Again, so far, it is inconclusive.
High Glycaemic Load
The clearest relationship between food types and acne is the glycaemic index of a food. This index is the ability of carbohydrates in foods to raise the glucose levels of the blood.
Foods that are high in easily digestible or biologically available carbohydrates are more quickly absorbed and converted into glucose, the way the body stores energy (most of the time). This influences insulin levels, causing hyperinsulinemia, a raised level of insulin. It is understood that raised levels of insulin can promote sebum production through several biological pathways.
The link between eating lots of food high on the glycaemic index and the prevalence of acne is quite well established. Populations of isolated humans who have had subsistence diets low on the glycaemic index had no acne until they were introduced to the Western diet, which has far higher levels of high glycaemic index foods.
Other studies have shown that teenagers who eat lots more high glycaemic index foods have a higher incidence of acne. Dairy products have a similar effect by increasing the insulin growth factor 1 levels but are low on the glycaemic index.
The Foods that Cause Acne
The foods that cause acne appear to be (possibly) milk and dairy products and (almost certainly) high glycaemic index foods. These are heavy carbohydrate foods, so chips, potatoes, fries, white bread, and other starchy foods like fast food are likely to wreak havoc on your skin.
Can CBD Help?
The American Academy of Dermatology is researching how cannabinoids work with acne, and have established from preliminary studies that cannabinoids (the active chemicals in cannabis) play an important role in the immune system in the skin. However, they concluded that “further clinical research is needed before they can be used for these purposes clinically.”
CBD has an anti-inflammatory effect and there is some evidence that it inhibits sebocytes, the oil producing cells in the skin. This was from a lab study, so it is far from conclusive. There are few side effects with CBD.
The foods that cause or lessen acne, for you, will require some experimentation to find out which ones are relevant to your body. CBD might work but it has not been proven yet. It is critical to maintain a good skin care routine for clear skin.