The People's Perspective on Medicine

What Should You Eat to Fight Acne?

Scientists are learning that you can eat to fight acne. Stay away from processed foods and dairy products, and concentrate on vegetables and fruits.
Handsome african young man eating a healthy vegetable salad using a fork to eat lettuce, happy and smiling sitting on the table

Dermatologists have a nasty name for pimples. The term they use is acne vulgaris. Sounds vulgar, doesn’t it? But vulgaris actually means common in Latin, so the medical term means common facial eruptions. There are numerous over-the-counter products to help treat this condition as well as quite a few prescription medicines. But there is growing evidence that diet may play a role in mitigating the condition. How can you eat to fight acne?

Is Acne a Teenage Problem?

There are lots of myths about the causes of acne. One of the most prevalent is that only teenagers suffer acne. A related view is that acne is an unavoidable consequence of the hormone surges of adolescence. The fact that 79 to 95 percent of adolescents in places like North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand are afflicted with acne helps keep that myth alive (Archives of Dermatology, Dec. 2002). 

In actuality, though, many adults are plagued with acne well beyond their teen years. Around half of men and women over 25 have some facial acne.

What’s more, adolescents in other places aren’t always troubled by zits. Anthropologists report that in Mali, for example, adolescent boys are far less likely to have acne than in the US (Evolution, Medicine and Public Health, Oct. 2016).  If these boys do have breakouts, they are much less severe than is common elsewhere. Adolescents in non-Western societies in Papua New Guinea and Paraguay don’t experience acne as American and European teens do, either.

Can You Eat to Fight Acne?

The scientists who reported on the Aché of Paraguay and the Kitavan youngsters of Papua New Guinea hypothesized that diet is an important driver. These populations consume almost no processed foods, dairy, alcohol, coffee, tea or oils. While their meals are high in carbohydrates, they are low in glycemic load. That is, they don’t raise blood sugar and insulin rapidly.

An editorial linked to this report points out that dermatologists have changed their attitudes toward diet over the years (Archives of Dermatology, Dec. 2002). In the early 1950s, dermatologists were encouraged to warn patients “to avoid chocolate, fats, sweets, and carbonated beverages.” Commonly, youngsters were told to stay away from French fries and cheeseburgers, staples of teenage social life at that time. But by the 1960s and later, dermatologists argued that diet had no role in acne vulgaris.

It now seems possible, however, that a diet high in processed foods may be bad for skin. When blood sugar and insulin shoot up quickly, a cascade of other hormonal changes starts that can affect the skin. These are not just the hormones associated with puberty, however. They include compounds that encourage inflammation. And inflammation is what makes a pimple so red and sore.

Don’t Eat Dairy to Fight Acne:

It is easy to advise people that processed foods are what you should not eat to fight acne. In addition, a review of studies concluded that milk and other dairy products are strongly associated with the prevalence of acne (International Journal of Dermatology, March 19, 2009).  A Norwegian study confirmed an association between high milk intake and acne in high school students (Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology, March 2017).  Moreover, a meta-analysis concluded that “any dairy, such as milk, yogurt, and cheese, was associated with an increased OR [Odds Ratio] for acne in individuals aged 7-30 years” (Nutrients, Aug. 9, 2018). 

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We don’t know exactly how dairy products increase the risk of acne, but some researchers have suggested that the high levels of the amino acid leucine found in milk may drive the production of excess fatty acids in hair follicles (Dermatoendocrinology, Jan. 1, 2012). Skin bacteria, especially Propionibacterium acnes, love those fatty acids. As they proliferate, they cause inflammation.

The scientists proposed that controlling acne could best be achieved by lowering levels of the enzyme mTORC1:

“An attenuation of mTORC1 signaling is only possible by increasing the consumption of vegetables and fruit, the major components of vegan or Paleolithic diets.”

Other scientists looking at the causes of acne vulgaris agree that mTORC1 (mammalian target of rapamycin complex 1) is among the most important factors (Archives of Dermatological Research, July 2019).  A diet low in processed foods and dairy products and high in vegetables can dampen this enzyme’s activity and should prove helpful for clear skin.

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    About the Author
    Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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    Citations
    • Cordain L et al, "Acne vulgaris: A disease of Western civilization." Archives of Dermatology, Dec. 2002. DOI: 10.1001/archderm.138.12.1584
    • Campbell CE & Strassmann BI, "The blemishes of modern society? Acne prevalence in the Dogon of Mali." Evolution, Medicine and Public Health, Oct. 2016. DOI: 10.1093/emph/eow027
    • Thiboutot DM & Strauss JS, "Diet and acne revisited." Archives of Dermatology, Dec. 2002. DOI: 10.1001/archderm.138.12.1591
    • Spencer EH et al, "Diet and acne: A review of the evidence." International Journal of Dermatology, March 19, 2009. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-4632.2009.04002.x
    • Ulvestad M et al, "Acne and dairy products in adolescence: Results from a Norwegian longitudinal study." Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology, March 2017. DOI: 10.1111/jdv.13835
    • Juhl CR et al, "Dairy intake and acne vulgaris: A systematic review and meta-analysis of 78,529 children, adolescents, and young adults." Nutrients, Aug. 9, 2018. DOI: 10.3390/nu10081049
    • Melnik B, "Dietary intervention in acne: Attenuation of increased mTORC1 signaling promoted by Western diet." Dermatoendocrinology, Jan. 1, 2012. DOI: 10.4161/derm.19828
    • Cong TX et al, "From pathogenesis of acne vulgaris to anti-acne agents." Archives of Dermatological Research, July 2019. DOI: 10.1007/s00403-019-01908-x
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    I have noticed that one of the cause of acne on face and body (back, sholders and chest) seems to be from drinking of colas (coke & Pepsi), or chocolate milk. After advising some adult family members to stop drinking colas their acne problem has gone away. After it cleared up, one family member started drinking the offinding drinks after a few months, and the acne problem returned. In my opinion there is a relation between these drinks and acne problems.

    After years of treatment by a dermatologist for persistent acne, my daughter went to a naturopath who advised her to stop eating dairy products from cows. Within a few weeks, her skin was perfect.

    What I really dislike about the claims of food causing acne is that the victim is blamed. I had a terrible problem with adult acne. Nothing I did helped. Nothing! All of the medical things I read told me I was doing things wrong. I either ate wrong, washed wrong, used the wrong soaps, on and on. Finally, in my late-forties, my doctor prescribed Retin-A, plus a dab-on antibiotic. With a bit of trial-and-error, I found that a medium strength gel worked best and caused the least peeling. I used it daily at first, then every three days, and finally I didn’t need it at all. It was never my fault at all.

    I had typical outbreaks as a teenager, but was dismayed with I started having outbreaks in my thirties. What!?!
    A dermatologist prescribed two topical meds, a little expensive, but they worked to keep my face clear. But one of them caused my skin to itch, and when the doctor told me I’d have to choose between the itching and having acne, I started looking around.
    One friend posted that her teenage son was helped with the recommendation to use a fresh washcloth every time he washed his face. I bought a stack of washcloths, and sure enough, my face started to clear up.

    And I also was recruited by a friend doing research on hydration. She needed adults to submit to a course of drinking 12 glasses of water each day for 8 weeks. It was a challenge to drink that much water. But the health benefits became obvious: my skin cleared up completely, and it got a healthy glow. And wrinkles were less noticeable. The funny bleed lines forming above my lips disappeared completely, so I no longer needed to use lipliner.

    My miracle cure: a fresh washcloth every time I wash my face, and drinking 8 glasses of water each day.

    Don’t forget, also, that it could be an allergic reaction. I had oozing sores under my chin and near my ears. Turned out it was the fragrance in laundry detergent (on collars and pillowcases). Once I switched to fragrance-free products, it cleared right up.

    * Be nice, and don't over share. View comment policy^