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  • Your dermatology provider prescribes your formula

  • Apply nightly for happy, healthy skin

Sugar and acne: How diet can affect your skin

The bittersweet truth about sugar, plus nutrition tips for healthier skin.

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Curology Team
Feb 02, 2019 · 10 min read

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We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.
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  3. > Sugar and acne: How diet can affect your skin

For many, breakouts are not only common, but they seem to pop up at the worst times possible. According to Dr. Julie Akiko Gladsjo, a board-certified dermatologist at Curology, “Acne breakouts can happen when oil, also called sebum, and dead skin cells clog hair follicles. Bacteria thrive in the oil and lead to inflammation.” Contributing factors can include certain medications and hair, makeup, and skincare products that contain pore-clogging ingredients. Hormones often contribute to breakouts and some people may even be genetically prone to experiencing acne.¹ 

But did you know that what you eat can also contribute to pimples? It’s true: Your diet can affect your skin’s health.² That’s because some foods may influence hormones and promote an inflammatory response throughout your body, which can trigger outbreaks in some people. For the record, inflammation refers to your body's natural process of fighting against things such as infections, injuries, or toxins, which can include bacteria that can lead to acne. A recent study shows a connection between dairy, foods that are high in fat and sugar, and sugary beverages and acne vulgaris—especially adult acne.³

Thankfully, making a few small changes to your diet may be a huge help in keeping your breakouts to a minimum.

How sugar can affect your skin

Foods with a high glycemic index—sugary treats (like sweetened cereal, donuts, or soda) and simple carbohydrates (such as white bread or white rice)—can set off a hormonal domino effect that may lead to acne breakouts. In fact, a 2014 study suggests that low glycemic index (GI) diets are connected to improvements in acne.⁴ While high sugar and simple carb diets cause a spike in the blood’s insulin levels, insulin isn’t the bad guy—it actually helps lower blood sugar levels. However, high levels of insulin may contribute to breakouts. When insulin spikes, it can lead to the production of androgen hormones and an overproduction of sebum. It can also lead to inflammation throughout the body. Increased sebum and inflammation can both play a role in acne.⁵

Researchers are also discovering that a diet high in simple carbohydrates and sugar may lead to an increase in pro-inflammatory markers, namely C-reactive protein (CRP).⁶ CRP measures internal inflammation—not just the kind of inflammation from a sprained ankle or insect bite but also the deeper, internal inflammation you cannot see with the naked eye. It’s this inflammation that can have detrimental effects on skin health—namely, acne!⁷

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What to do if your skin breaks out after a sugar crash

First things first: There’s no crime in having a sweet tooth, and we’re not saying you should think of sugar as your enemy. Nor do we think you should give yourself such a hard time if you treat yourself to certain sugary treats every now and then. The trick is to enjoy them in moderation. You might also consider trying these tips to help your skin bounce back in between the occasional servings of sweetness:

1. Switch to smart carbs

Foods on the lower end of the glycemic index take more time to break down, which helps stabilize blood sugar levels and can keep you feeling fuller longer. Instead of white bread, white rice, or sugary snacks, consider eating more:

  • Grains like barley, quinoa, and rolled oats

  • Sweet potatoes

  • Chickpeas and other types of beans

  • Low-glycemic fruits (blueberries, plums, peaches, cantaloupe)

2. Swap soda for water or green tea

Sweetened sodas tend to have a lot of sugar—some as much as 20-30 grams per serving. A high sugar intake can trigger the inflammatory and blood-sugar-spiking processes that can result in acne. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition⁸ shows a marked increase in inflammation when a person drinks just one to two cans of sugar-sweetened soda per day—not such good news for anyone with acne-prone skin. If you turn to soda for an energy boost, try green tea—it’s loaded with health benefits. And, of course, drinking plenty of water is key to staying hydrated and keeping your skin healthy and happy.

3. Use skincare products with the right active ingredients

Again, we totally get it—it’s only human for the sweet tooth to beckon every now and then. Establishing a smart skincare routine (and sticking to it!) can help keep your skin clear regardless of what you eat, and that might include regularly using a topical treatment with ingredients like salicylic acid or tretinoin. If you have sensitive skin, be sure to choose skincare products that won’t clog your pores or cause irritation. If you haven’t already given Curology a try, sign up today for your free trial! Your first custom bottle is on us, and our dermatology providers are here to answer any questions you may have.

4. Chill out

Sure, “keeping calm and carrying on” is often easier said than done. But stress can trigger certain hormones, and these hormones can result in a “domino effect” that triggers acne.⁹ Try to reduce stress without reaching for comfort foods and sweet treats. Instead, drink some herbal tea, do some yoga, meditate, go for a jog, take a nap, or play with your pet. Whatever your favorite go-to healthy activity may be, enjoy it!

Closeup of person with apple on their face

Six foods that can impact acne 

We wish it were as easy as saying, “Hey, these specific foods cause breakouts.” Sadly, it’s not. That’s because everyone’s body is different, and we all react to different foods differently. What’s more, your diet might not even be the culprit. But there are some foods to consider avoiding—at least temporarily—to see if they have an impact on your skin. If your skin is wreaking havoc and you find you’re snacking on one of these regularly, you might consider trying to decrease or eliminate it to see if your skin clears up.

  • Sugar and refined grains. Refined carbohydrates include bread, crackers, cereals, pasta and noodles, and desserts made with white flour. These, along with refined sugars like those found in sodas and other sugar-sweetened drinks, increase the amount of insulin in your system, which can lead to increased sebum production and inflammation, both of which can contribute to breakouts. 

  • Cow’s milk. Multiple studies have shown a correlation between dairy (specifically cow’s milk) and acne in some people.¹⁰ More specifically, cow’s milk has been shown to increase levels of insulin and IGF-1.¹¹  Both excessive insulin and IGF-1 can increase the occurrence and severity of acne.

  • Omega-6 fatty acids. Many foods common to Western diets contain large amounts of omega-6 fatty acids, like corn and soybean oils, but relatively few omega-3 fatty acids like those in flaxseed, salmon, and other types of fish. Omega-3s may have a beneficial role in decreasing acne. A typical Western diet with a high ratio of Omega-6 FAs compared to Omega-3 FAs could be linked to increased acne.¹²

  • Chocolate. One study in 2016 found that dark chocolate can worsen breakouts in males with acne-prone skin,¹³ and we know that the dairy in milk chocolate may contribute to breakouts in certain people. Researchers also believe chocolate may increase the reactivity of the immune system to acne-causing bacteria, potentially leading to breakouts.¹⁴ That said, more research is needed before we can take a definitive stance on chocolate and acne.

  • Whey protein powder. Whey is a popular dietary supplement rich in amino acids. A recent study in bodybuilders showed a link between whey protein and acne. The mechanism by which this happens is believed to be related to high insulin levels and IGF-1, but researchers have yet to determine a direct cause.¹⁵

Diet tips for healthy skin

Everyone is unique, so there’s no universal answer regarding what you should or shouldn’t eat. That’s right—here’s no such thing as a lone “correct” diet! But, there are certain habits you can adopt to help keep not just your skin but your entire body running its best.

  1. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. It probably comes as no major newsflash that what's good for the heart and brain is also good for the skin. Opting for whole foods—fruits and veggies, along with lean protein and healthy fats like those found in fish is a smart move for your overall health.

  2. Consider going sugar- and dairy-free (at least temporarily!). Cow’s milk, including organic, often contains hormone triggers and insulin-spikers that can increase sebum production and lead to acne. Dairy doesn’t necessarily trigger acne for everyone, but if you’re experiencing breakouts and it’s a regular part of your diet, you might want to try skipping it for a few months. Consider switching to dairy-free alternatives, such as unsweetened almond or oat milk. For more info on the relationship between your diet and acne, check out our diet guide.

  3. Sprinkle on the seasoning! Some herbs and spices—including ginger, garlic, and cinnamon—may help reduce inflammation, among other potential health benefits. Plus, they’re delicious! Adding seasoning is an easy way to make healthier eating all the more enjoyable without having to rely heavily on sugar.

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Sign up for sweet success

If your skin has been breaking out and you decide to try a change in diet, it may take some time to see results. But stick with it! Consistency is the way to achieve (and keep) clear skin. One thing to note—talk to your medical provider before making any significant changes to your diet. 

When it comes to your skin, Curology can also help. We take the time to see you, understand the uniqueness of your skin, and provide a personalized solution that allows you to see and feel the difference. We think of skincare as a journey, one that we’re here to help you along with as much info and support as possible

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

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Curology is full-service skincare that gives you access to customized, dermatologist-designed skincare products and dedicated support from licensed dermatology providers. Our medical providers deeply understand skincare concerns and create one-on-one relationships with patients to help them navigate the often confusing world of skincare. Sign up for Curology and we’ll send you a 30-day supply of your Custom Formula with a mix of three active ingredients chosen for your unique skin concerns, plus any of our recommended products, for free—just pay $4.95 (plus tax) to cover shipping and handling.

FAQs

How sugar can affect your skin?

Researchers are discovering that a diet high in simple carbohydrates and sugar may lead to an increase in pro-inflammatory markers, namely C-reactive protein. CRP measures internal inflammation that can have detrimental effects on skin health—namely, acne.

What to do if your skin breaks out after a sugar crash?

Try these tips to help your skin bounce back in between the occasional servings of sweetness:

  1. Switch to smart carbs

  2. Swap soda for water or green tea

  3. Use skincare products with the right active ingredients

  4. Chill out

• • •

P.S. We did the homework so you don’t have to:

  1. Penso, L., et al. Association Between Adult Acne and Dietary Behaviors: Findings From the NurtiNet-Santé Prospective Cohort Study. Journal of American Medical Association. (2020, August). 

  2. Mahmood, S.N., et al., Diet and Acne Update: Carbohydrates Emerge as the Main Culprit. Journal of Drugs in Dermatology. (2014, April). 

  3.  Melnik, B.C., et al., Over-stimulation of Insulin/IGF-1 Signaling by Western Diet May Promote Disease of Civilization: Lessons Learnt from Laron Syndrome. Nutrition and Metabolism. (2011, June 24).

  4. Aeberli, I., et al., Low to Moderate Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Consumption Impairs Glucose and Lipid Metabolism and Promotes Inflammation in Healthy Young Men: A Radomized Controlled Trial. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. (2011, August). 

  5. Tanghetti, E.A., The Role of Inflammation in the Pathology of Acne. The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. (2013, September).

  6. Aeberli, I., et al., Low to Moderate Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Consumption Impairs Glucose and Lipid Metabolism and Promotes Inflammation in Healthy Young Men: A Radomized Controlled Trial. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. (2011, August).

  7.  American Academy of Dermatology. When it Comes to Skin Health, Does Diet Make a Difference? (n.d.).

  8. American Academy of Dermatology. Can the right Diet Get Rid of Acne? (n.d.).

  9. Ismail, N.H., et al., High Glycemic Load Diet, Milk and Ice Cream Consumption are Related to Acne Vulgaris in Malaysian Young Adults: A Case Control Study. BMC Dermatology. (2012, August 16).

  10. Kim, H., et al., Insulin-Like Growth Factor-1 Increases the Expression of Inflammatory Biomarkers and Sebum Production in Cultured Sebocytes. Annals of Dermatology. (2017, February).

  11. Melnik, B.C., The Role of Transcription Factor Fox01 in the Pathogenesis of Acne Vulgaris and the Mode of Isotretinoin Action. Giornale Italiano di Dermatologia e Venereologia. (2010, October).

  12. Simopoulos, A.P., Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Inflammation and Autoimmune Disease. Journal of the American College of Nutrition. (2002, December).

  13. Caperton, C., Chocolate Consumption Modulates Cytokine Production in Healthy Individuals. Cytokin. (2013, March 1).

  14. Simonart, T, Acne and Whey Protein Among Supplementation Bodybuilders. Dermatology. (2012, December 13).

  15. Simonart, T, Acne and Whey Protein Among Supplementation Bodybuilders. Dermatology. (2012, December 13).

This article was originally published on February 2, 2019, and updated on July 14, 2022.

* Subject to consultation. Subscription is required. Results may vary.

• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Kristen Jokela, NP-C

Kristen Jokela, NP-C

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