Photo: Levi Brown/Trunk Archive
Acne is a complex issue—there’s no single cause of breakouts, and what triggers a pimple in one person might be benign to another. With that said, if topical treatments haven’t made a difference, it may be time to change what you eat. More doctors and estheticians than ever believe in a diet-acne connection, and some common foods are now believed to be breakout triggers. Here, 7 foods that can make acne worse. (On the bright side, chocolate is not on the list.)
Bad news, dairy queens: milk actually doesn’t do a complexion good. Because of recent research on diet and acne, the American Academy of Dermatology now says there may be a link between milk consumption and breakouts.
Blame the hormones in dairy, says Dr. Frank Lipman, an integrative and functional medicine physician and the founder of Eleven Eleven Wellness Center in New York City. “Dairy causes spikes in certain pimple-producing hormones,” he explains. “I encourage patients to have almond milk, rice milk, coconut milk, or hemp milk instead of cow’s milk.”
As if we needed another reason to give up the white stuff. “Sugar can absolutely cause breakouts, because it’s pro-inflammatory,” Lipman confirms. “Acne is considered an inflammatory condition, and someone with acne-prone skin should follow an anti-inflammatory diet.”
That doesn’t mean you have to give up sweetness for good, though. Lipman recommends eating fruit (not fruit juice) and, if you must have sweetener, choose small amounts of stevia, raw honey, or maple syrup.
If you break out around the mouth and along your jawline, tofu and other soy foods could be to blame. And it’s all due to the natural plant estrogens found in soybeans. “Phytoestrogens mimic natural estrogen levels, and that throws off our hormones,” says esthetician Kimberly Yap Tan, founder of Skin Salvation, an acne clinic in San Francisco. Soy derivatives show up in everything from veggie burgers to energy bars, so read labels carefully.
A cup of joe can wake you up, but it can worsen a breakout, too. “There’s an organic acid inside coffee beans that raises cortisol levels,” Yap Tan says. Cortisol, also known as the stress hormone, can act like an androgen, simultaneously stimulating sebaceous glands and inflammation. Switching to decaf won’t do anything, since caffeine isn’t the trigger; your best bet, says Yap Tan, is to replace coffee with tea or yerba mate.
If you’re prone to acne, baguettes, croissants, and all that other good stuff may make the situation worse. “Wheat causes inflammation,” Lipman says. “And to get rid of acne, you want to reduce inflammation in your body.” Yap Tan points out that many commercially produced breads also have sugar, soybean oil, and dairy: “You could eat an English muffin and unknowingly consume three big triggers: dairy, soy, and sugar.”
“A lot of people are shocked to hear about this one,” Yap Tan says of this comedogenic oil. “But not only does coconut oil clog pores around the mouth, it also creates a stubborn kind of inflammation—usually on the cheeks and along the jawline.” That goes for coconut oil that’s applied topically or ingested with food, so check your pantry along with your medicine cabinet.
Peanuts contain an androgen, which can make acne worse by increasing sebum production. “Peanuts will generally make people more oily,” Yap Tan notes. “I’ve had clients with white pustules around the nose, and it turned out they were eating more peanut butter than usual.” Acne-safe alternatives to peanuts include other nuts such as almonds and cashews, which don’t affect androgen levels.
So, what should you eat?
Both Yap Tan and Lipman advocate swapping processed foods for natural ones. “Sticking to fresh, whole foods like protein, vegetables, healthy fats, and gluten-free grains is the way to go,” Lipman says. And in time, even certain acne-triggering foods may find their way back into your diet—without sending you to breakout town. “Each person is different, and everyone has a different threshold with these foods,” Yap Tan says. “We don’t want to tell people they can’t eat these foods for the rest of their lives, but without eliminating them, we can’t find out what’s triggering the acne.”