If you have acne, you’re not alone. Acne vulgaris, commonly known as acne, affects up to 80% of people at some point between 11 and 30.
Acne, especially adult acne, is often referred to as hormonal acne. Hormones and many other factors, including bacteria, skin cell abnormalities, genetics, and stress levels, play a role in its progression.
Though the condition is typically treated with medication, lifestyle factors, including your diet, can play a decisive role in controlling and reducing symptoms.
This article reviews the best diet for acne, including foods to eat and avoid and supplements that may help.
What is acne vulgaris?
Acne vulgaris, or acne, is a skin disease characterized by blackheads, whiteheads, inflammation, rashes, red skin, and sometimes deep lesions.
It’s classified according to its severity:
- Mild acne: non-inflammatory lesions, few inflammatory lesions, or both
- Moderate acne: more inflammatory lesions, occasional nodules — hard, painful lesions, or both, and mild scarring
- Severe acne: extensive inflammatory lesions, nodules, or both, and scarring, ongoing moderate acne that has not improved with treatment after 6 months, or any acne that causes severe psychological distress
Acne typically occurs on parts of your body that have sebaceous glands, which are tiny oil-producing glands influenced by hormones. These exist on your face, back, chest, neck, and upper arms.
Severe cases of acne can lead to disfiguring, permanent scarring of the skin, and severe emotional distress that can lead to depression and withdrawal from social situations.
Though the condition is most common during the teenage years, it can continue into adulthood, and some may even experience it their entire life.
What causes acne?
The factors that lead to acne are complex and multifactorial.
Genetic predisposition, hormonal fluctuations that lead to excess sebum or oil production from the sebaceous glands, inflammation, follicular hyperkeratinization, and bacterial colonization can trigger acne.
Follicular hyperkeratinization — the abnormal shedding of skin cells of the sebaceous glands and upper section of hair follicles near the opening of pores — is the main cause.
These skin cells clog the pore and form what’s medically referred to as a microcomedone.
Propionibacterium acnes (P. acnes) is a bacterium that usually grows on your skin.
In people with acne, it grows abnormally, which leads to inflammation, skin damage, follicular hyperkeratinization, and alteration of sebum.
Hormones also play an essential role in the development of acne, which is why it’s often referred to as “hormonal acne.” It typically occurs during adolescence due to increases in sex hormone levels during puberty, regardless of gender.
Women also experience acne later in life-related to hormonal fluctuations during pregnancy, premenopause, and when using hormonal birth control.
Inflammation and diet are also thought to play a role, though some argue that diet is less significant. Still, there is strong evidence that some dietary changes significantly affect acne treatment.
Acne can also be caused by certain medications and occupational chemical exposure. However, these types of acne are different from acne vulgaris.
Summary: Acne is a skin disease caused by many factors, including hormonal changes, bacteria, inflammation, hyperkeratinization, and diet.
The best diet tips to control acne
Research has shown that changing certain dietary habits can significantly reduce acne symptoms.
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The following are the most evidence-based ways to control acne through your diet.
Eat for optimal blood sugar control
Avoiding blood sugar fluctuations by following a low-glycemic-index diet to control acne is one theory that has gained momentum in science.
The glycemic index measures how slowly or quickly a food spikes your blood sugar levels.
Choosing foods with a high glycemic index, such as soda, white bread, candy, sugary cereals, and ice cream, cause dramatic fluctuations in blood sugar and can exacerbate acne.
Eating sugary foods increases insulin levels, a hormone that shuttles sugar out of your blood and into your cells, where it can be used for energy. This stimulates the release of other hormones, such as insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1).
This hormone increase leads to hyperkeratinization and excess sebum production, which can worsen acne.
Some studies have shown significant improvements in acne in people following a low glycemic index, high-protein diet.
Even though acne is widespread in Westernized populations following high glycemic index diets laden with sugary foods, the condition rarely occurs in populations eating traditional diets that don’t include refined sugars or processed foods.
Therefore, cutting out sugary foods and beverages and refined carbs, such as white pasta, pastries, and white bread, may improve your acne symptoms.
Try cutting out dairy and whey protein
It’s postulated that milk and dairy products promote insulin secretion and the production of hormones, such as IGF-1, significantly contributing to acne development.
A review of 14 studies that included 78,529 children and adults aged 7–30 found that the intake of any dairy products, including milk, cheese, and yogurt — regardless of the frequency or amount — was associated with a greater risk of acne.
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Another review of 9 studies on 71,819 people showed that people who drank milk were 16% more likely to have acne than those who did not.
Similarly, research indicates that consuming whey protein — a milk-derived protein — may be associated with acne.
One 2-month study in 30 people aged 18–45 observed that the use of whey protein was linked to the onset of acne.
Several case studies report an association between whey protein and acne as well.
Eat mostly whole, nutrient-dense foods
Following a nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory diet is one of the best ways to treat and prevent acne naturally. Given that inflammation causes acne, choosing foods that reduce inflammation is crucial.
Opting for anti-inflammatory omega-3 fat sources, such as fatty fish and chia seeds, over potentially inflammatory omega-6-rich fat sources like canola and soybean oils may decrease acne symptoms.
Filling your plate with colorful vegetables and fruits is another way to tame inflammation and reduce acne symptoms. These foods deliver anti-inflammatory antioxidants and other vital skin-supportive nutrients, such as vitamin C, to your body.
Considering that acne is closely linked to Western diets high in processed foods, choosing whole foods and limiting or avoiding highly refined products is essential to treat your acne through diet.
Summary: Controlling blood sugar, limiting or cutting out dairy and whey protein, and following a whole-food-based, nutrient-dense diet are some of the best ways to treat your acne naturally.
Foods to eat and foods to avoid
Research shows that refined foods, dairy products, and sugary foods and beverages may be associated with acne development and worsen its symptoms.
Therefore, it’s best to eat whole, nutritious foods.
Foods and beverages to enjoy
- Vegetables: broccoli, spinach, kale, peppers, zucchini, cauliflower, carrots, beets, etc.
- Fruit: berries, grapefruit, oranges, apples, cherries, bananas, pears, grapes, peaches, etc.
- Whole grains and starchy vegetables: Sweet potato, quinoa, butternut squash, farro, brown rice, oats, buckwheat, etc.
- Healthy fats: whole eggs, olive oil, avocados, nuts, seeds, nut butter, coconut oil, etc.
- Plant-based dairy alternatives: cashew milk, almond milk, coconut milk, coconut yogurt, etc.
- High-quality protein: salmon, tofu, chicken, turkey, eggs, shellfish, etc.
- Legumes: chickpeas, black beans, lentils, kidney beans, etc.
- Anti-inflammatory herbs and spices: turmeric, cinnamon, black pepper, parsley, garlic, ginger, cayenne, etc.
- Unsweetened beverages: water, sparkling water, green tea, hibiscus tea, lemon water, etc.
Foods and beverages to avoid
Dairy products, refined foods, and high-sugar foods and beverages should be avoided:
- Milk and dairy products: milk, cheese, yogurt, etc.
- Highly processed foods: fast food, frozen meals, meal bars, sugary cereals, chips, microwave meals, white bread, etc.
- Sweets and sugary beverages: candy, cake, soda, cookies, table sugar, energy drinks, sweetened sports drinks, juice, etc.
Summary: The best diet for acne revolves around whole, nutritious foods that fight inflammation. Avoid highly processed foods, sugary items, and dairy.
Can supplements help treat acne?
Research indicates that supplementing your diet with certain vitamins, minerals, and other compounds may ease acne.
Acne has been associated with low vitamin D levels
Studies have linked low vitamin D levels to acne. Researchers theorize that a deficiency in this nutrient may worsen acne symptoms due to the vitamin’s powerful anti-inflammatory properties.
A study in 80 people with acne and 80 healthy controls found that vitamin D deficiency was detected in nearly 50% of individuals with the condition, compared with only 23% in the control group.
Vitamin D deficiency was also correlated with acne severity. A follow-up study showed that supplementing with 1,000 IU per day of vitamin D for 2 months significantly improved acne lesions in people deficient in this nutrient.
Your medical provider can determine your vitamin D deficiency and recommend an appropriate supplement dosage.
Green tea may decrease acne lesions
Green tea contains potent antioxidants and has been shown to possess powerful anti-inflammatory effects.
Research indicates that supplementing with green tea may benefit those with acne.
A study of 80 women with moderate to severe acne demonstrated that those who were supplemented with 1,500 mg of green tea extract for 4 weeks experienced significant reductions in acne lesions, compared with a placebo group.
Green tea extract is widely available, but be sure to speak with your healthcare provider before trying a new supplement to treat your acne.
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Other supplements that may help
Aside from vitamin D and green tea extract, the following supplements may help reduce acne symptoms:
- Fish oil. Some evidence suggests that supplementing with omega-3-rich fish oil may reduce acne severity in some people. However, the results are mixed, with some people experiencing worsened symptoms.
- B vitamins. Supplementing with B vitamins may benefit some people with acne. Yet, high-dose injections of B12 may induce acne in some individuals.
- Zinc. Oral zinc supplements have been shown to improve acne severity in several studies, and zinc plays a critical role in maintaining skin health.
- Vitex. Vitex agnus-castus, also known as chasteberry, may reduce acne before menstruation due to its ability to affect certain hormones, including estrogen. Still, more research is needed.
- Barberry. Berberis vulgaris L. (barberry) has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties. According to some studies, supplementing with barberry extract may significantly reduce acne lesions.
- Probiotics. Some research suggests that probiotics may reduce skin inflammation and other acne symptoms, but more studies are needed to determine the most effective strains.
- CBD. Cannabidiol (CBD) has potent anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties and was found to reduce inflammation and regulate sebum production in human skin cells in a test-tube study.
Summary: Vitamin D, green tea extract, B vitamins, and zinc are some supplements that may benefit people with acne.
Aside from following a healthy, nutrient-dense diet and experimenting with the supplements above, changing other lifestyle factors may help control your acne.
Smoking is significantly associated with acne and countless other health issues, including lung cancer and heart disease. It’s critical to quit smoking to reduce your acne symptoms and improve your overall health.
Drinking too much alcohol, not getting enough sleep, and being stressed have been shown to contribute to acne development and aggravate symptoms.
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Skincare is also essential in treating acne. Work with your dermatologist to find the best products for your needs, as some products may work well on certain skin types but not others.
Summary: Lifestyle factors, such as smoking, alcohol use, stress, sleep, and skincare, can affect acne severity.
Acne vulgaris is a skin disease that affects many people of all ages and can impact your emotional well-being.
Along with traditional acne treatments, such as medications, diet can be used as an alternative, natural way to help control this condition.
Following a nutrient-dense diet, cutting out dairy, and limiting added sugars are evidence-based practices that may improve acne symptoms.
Taking certain supplements like vitamin D and green tea extract, getting enough sleep, quitting smoking, and reducing stress are other healthy ways to fight this disease.
Trying out a few of the tips listed in this article may lead to significant improvements in acne symptoms — and your overall health.