glass of milk and chocolate chip cookies, dairy products, bedtime snacks

Is there a connection between acne and diet? For years, dermatologists told teenagers to stay away from high-fat foods like burgers, shakes, fries or chocolate. Then there was a period in which dermatologists didn’t seem to think diet had any impact. That has now changed, with increasing evidence that high-sugar foods or low-fat milk can trigger acne.

Is It True That Sugar and Milk Can Trigger Acne?

Q. I have acne and it seems that every time I eat anything with sugar I break out. It also seems that milk makes me break out. Is this all in my head or does diet make a difference for complexion?

A. It is not in your head. Dermatologists used to assure their acne patients that diet didn’t matter, but sophisticated research now establishes that foods like sugar and refined starches (carbohydrates) that raise blood glucose and insulin promote acne (Bodo Melnik, Dermato-Endocrinology, Jan/Feb/March, 2012).

This is supported by epidemiological research showing that adolescent acne is rare in places like Mali where the diet is not highly processed and doesn’t contain much sugar (Campbell & Strassmann, Evolution, Medicine, and Public Health, Oct. 2, 2016). Presumably, sugar stimulates the production of insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1). This, in turn, encourages skin cells to boost their production of skin oils (sebum) and natural inflammatory chemicals (Kim et al, Annals of Dermatology, Feb. 2017).

The Effect of Milk on Acne:

The amino acid leucine, abundant in milk, also contributes to the biochemical processes that underlie acne. We find it fascinating that low-fat and skim milk can trigger acne, but full-fat milk does not seem to have an effect (LaRosa et al, Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, Aug. 2016).

What Can Be Done for Acne?

The current recommendation is to eat more vegetables and fruits, and avoid dairy products and highly refined foods. That may not clear up a breakout overnight, but with time that dietary pattern should help make acne easier to control. It is also better for heart and brain health.

There are also some topical remedies to try. Many readers have found that Milk of Magnesia applied to the face overnight and removed with a gentle cleanser in the morning can be helpful for acne. Here is one mother’s testimonial:

“My daughter’s skin cleared up after she started using MoM, and I was convinced that it worked when her only occasional breakouts were all along the edges of where she applied it – her hairline and around her lips. She ran out of MoM while I was out of town and now we have proof – her forehead completely broke out before we got to the store for more!

“Her skin with MoM is so smooth that her friends ask her what she uses. They have all tried expensive treatments like Proactive without the results she gets from MoM.”

Other readers have reported that using Pepto-Bismol in a similar way may be helpful. Perhaps the salicylates in Pepto-Bismol have some activity.

Dermatologists have many possible treatments for acne. If you or someone you know is considering a prescription approach, you might want to check the effectiveness and possible adverse reactions as described by dermatologists for other doctors (Zaenglein et al, Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, May 2016).

Revised 3/2/2017

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  1. Gerry

    I suffered from adult acne from ages 25 to 40. After I divorced, a friend told me to see her dermatologist in Atlanta, which I did; he said get Vitamin A palmitate (a water soluble form of Vitamin A) from Bronson Labs. Use 8 capsules daily for 6 weeks, after that half (4) for six weeks, then 2 a day for the rest of my life. My skin cleared up for the first time in 15 years, I had suppurating cysts, extremely unattractive. I am 80 now and have used this all these years; sometimes I eat too many acid things like strawberries or tomatoes and have to up the dosage for a couple of days. Works like magic, it’s cheap, I guess it’s still available but when I ordered last time ordered $50 worth for free shipping and still have a few bottles left.

  2. NAN

    I have suffered from acne my entire life (I am now 40)–I had been on Accutane TWICE, once in my teens and again in my mid 20’s, but my acne always came back.
    I now watch my diet closely and have given up gluten 2 years ago and have noticed clearer skin. I also drink 2 tsp of apple cider vinegar diluted in 8 oz of water every morning (which helps digestion as well). 2 x per week I do a facial scrub which consists of lemon juice mixed with baking soda to make a paste, then I “scrub” it on my face (gently) and let it sit for 2-3 min then rinse.
    IF you use this scrub you will need to work up to it as it can be powerful and leave you red and “raw” if you don’t (I’ve notice it has helped lighten the brown spots on my skin as well–due to the lemon juice. I also use other topical products but can’t name them on here…all in all I’ve found the combination to work the best and I my skin is the best it’s ever been!

  3. sdw

    When I quit eating gluten; my roseacea went away. Now when I accidently eat something with gluten in it; I figure it out quickly when my face breaks out or I get a migraine the next day. Restaurants, food samples at Costco and any sort of processed food are problems. I have to stick to fresh fruit, vegetables and protein.

  4. Jean J

    When I was in college, I had a terrible case of acne. We found ourselves filling up on milk because the food was not the best. My roommate visited a dermatologist who told her to give up milk. As soon as we did, we found our skin clearing up.

    • Carey

      When I was in college I also had acne – oozing sores around my chin. When I went home for two weeks, it cleared right up. It was the laundry detergent on pillow cases and collars. My mom used fragrance-free, which I have done ever since. Now I hardly get a spot.

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