As an acne-sufferer since the age of 15, I certainly know what it’s like to feel the crushing effects of acne on your self esteem. But perhaps the only thing worse than teenage acne is adult acne, when you’ve come to naturally assume that you’ve paid your “acne dues” and will never have to suffer from it again. *Sigh*
The truth is, 25% of men and 50% of women are affected by adult acne according to acne.org. So, if you're an adult acne-sufferer, you're definitely not alone! This blog post explores what I’ve learned from my own acne and how you can better understand yours, too.
What is acne, really?
Acne vulgaris can occur on the face, upper back and chest—areas that are rich in sebaceous glands—a.k.a. glands that produce oil. Acne can consist of comedones (clogged pores), papules (a solid pimple), pustules (a zit containing pus), and cysts (deeper zits full of pus).
Normally, sebum (oil) travels up the follicle to the skin surface without a problem. But when hormones increase sebum production, the follicles become blocked and create acne. Bacteria and dead skin cells on our face only make this worse: the blocked follicle can completely close up to form a whitehead or remain partially open to form a blackhead.
My Case for Diet-Related Acne
Trust me when I say that I’ve tried every cleanser, cream, gel, spot treatment, pill, and brand to cure my acne. I’ve used cheap products from Walmart, expensive ones from Sephora, prescription creams from doctors, and pills from dermatologists. I have even been on Accutane—the world’s most potent and side-effect-filled acne treatment—twice since once wasn't enough. Not only have these treatments cost me more money than I can stomach, but I've endured more emotional frustration than an acne-free person will ever understand.
But after my two cycles of Accutane—which stops your body from producing all oil—my acne struck back. Simultaneously, statistics were telling me that the prevalence of acne had not only been increasing over the last few decades in the U.S., but that acne is mainly a Western disease. I couldn’t help but think: something must be going on internally for this to be happening.
Does What You Eat Cause Acne?
The argument of whether or not one’s diet leads to acne is a controversial topic in the medical community. Though many of my dermatologists were adamant that there was no link, new research is suggesting otherwise. Here are some recent findings:
Dairy can aggravate acne.
A 2014 study concluded that dairy products—particularly milk—contain steroid hormones, steroid precursors, and growth factors that can trigger acne lesions and create a more severe inflammation process.
ACNE-FRIENDLY ALTERNATIVE: Swap out cow’s milk for almond, coconut, or cashew milk. Thankfully there are lots of alternatives out there!
2. Chocolate, sweets, and weed make acne worse.
A study published in Dermatology concluded that daily consumption of chocolates and sweets are highly associated with acne. The same went for cannabis.
ACNE-FRIENDLY ALTERNATIVE: Try to reduce your intake of chocolate, sweets, and pot as much as possible!
3. Oxidative stress can cause acne.
Oxidative stress occurs in the body when you don’t consume enough antioxidants to combat free radicals. Though free radicals are natural byproducts of metabolic processes, they’re highly reactive molecules that can damage cellular structures in our bodies. Refined foods, sweets, and junk foods produce more free radicals that can overwhelm our system. Acne sufferers seem to require higher amounts of antioxidants since their bodies “eat through” them at a quicker rate.
ACNE-FRIENDLY ALTERNATIVE: Enjoy antioxidant-rich foods like berries, beans, artichokes, and apples. Vitamin C, E, and A are especially helpful for acne.
4. “Bad carbs” make acne worse.
I’m mainly referring to simple sugars that break down and enter your bloodstream super quickly (think white bread, potatoes, sweets, etc.). In raising blood sugar and insulin levels, “bad carbohydrates” were found to change the sebum composition in male patients in a study, which resulted in an increase in acne! Other studies have verified these findings.
ACNE-FRIENDLY ALTERNATIVE: Replace refined carbs with complex ones that break down slowly like whole wheat brad, brown rice, and quinoa.
5. Not having enough “good bacteria” can cause acne.
Your gut is filled with bacteria—some of which is actually helpful and some of which messes with your system. If the bad guys take over, it can compromise your body's ability to properly absorb proteins, fats, carbohydrates, B vitamins, and other micronutrients. Bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine is ten times more prevalent in acne- and rosacea-sufferers than those with clear skin!
ACNE-FRIENDLY ALTERNATIVE: Start adding probiotoics, all-natural yogurt, kefir, and fermented foods to your diet to increase the good bacteria in your gut!
6. Whey protein can exacerbate acne (direct tip from my current, amazing dermatologist).
7. Stay the HELL away from hormone-filled IUDs if you’ve suffered from hormonal acne in the past.
I know this isn't necessarily food-related, but my amazing dermatologist also told me that those who struggle with hormonal acne would likely benefit from staying away from hormonal IUDs.
Refresher: intrauterine devices (IUD) are small T-shaped birth control devices that are inserted into a woman’s uterus to prevent pregnancy. There are copper IUDs or hormonal IUDs that use the hormone progestin to prevent pregnancy, which is similar to the hormone progesterone.
ACNE-FRIENDLY ALTERNATIVE: If you're someone who breaks out a lot around "that time of the month" and/or went on the birth control pill to get rid of acne, hormonal IUDs will likely make your acne worse. Stick to copper IUDs or other forms of birth control.
The Bottom Line
Don’t get me wrong, there is definitely a genetic component to acne. And if you’re using the wrong products, sleeping in makeup constantly, or touching your face all the time, you’re likely going to have acne regardless of what you eat. But given the rising rates of acne in recent years—as we simultaneously develop more advanced treatments—I can’t help but think that our diet plays a huge role in acne development, and more and more research is backing up this theory.
You Tell Me!
Did you ever make a diet change that significantly improved your acne? Let me know in the comments below!