The Diet and Acne Link

It's common for those who struggle with acne to evaluate their lifestyle in the hopes of finding something they're doing that is causing their acne. In fact, we regularly get questions via the Lexli Facebook page asking "What foods cause acne?" and "Do I need to change my diet to get rid of acne?"

There is a gamut of information and misinformation out there on the topic. If you've followed the Lexli expert skin care blog for awhile, you know we solely share skin care information that is backed by science and research. Therefore, allow us to present to you the facts related to diet and acne, as simply as possible:

Direct Causes of Acne

Before we go down the path of talking about foods that cause acne, it's important to realize that there are four main direct causes of acne. These include follicular keratinization (abnormally “sticky” skin cells), overactive sebaceous glands that produce excess sebum (skin oil), higher than normal levels of Propionibacterium on the skin (the bacteria that contribute to acne) and skin inflammation.

It's no surprise that acne can be notoriously difficult to treat. The reason? For most individuals, these direct causes of acne are due to genetics. In fact, a 2002 study in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology suggested that genetic factors contribute 81% to the development of acne. For other individuals, the direct causes of acne may be encouraged by the use of certain medications, hormonal surges, stress, environmental factors and yes, diet.

Diet: A Secondary Cause of Acne

Those factors that contribute to the development of acne are considered "secondary" causes because they trigger one or more of the direct causes of acne to develop. In the case of diet, this is due to the biochemical changes that occur in our bodies with the consumption of certain foods, including:


In recent years, several studies have examined the link between milk and acne. In particular, skim milk has been shown to worsen acne symptoms. It is suspected that the hormones present in milk interfere with the hormones in our own bodies, causing an increase in inflammation and the production of sebum. (For an in-depth read about this topic, consider Dr. F. William Danby’s commentary in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology.)

High-Glycemic Foods

While the idea that consumption of greasy foods directly leads to acne has long been debunked, there is a linkage between the development of acne and the consumption of foods like potato chips, soft drinks, baked goods and candy. These foods are categorized as “high glycemic” because of their ability to cause blood glucose levels to spike and cause an increase in production of insulin. This increased insulin level in the body leads to inflammation, which increases the activity of oil glands in the skin. Ultimately, this increases the potential for acne.

Improving Your Diet to Improve Acne

Consider for a moment that acne has been found to be primarily a condition of the Western world, with diet being the main differing environmental factor between us and groups unaffected by the disease. In fact, an article by Dr. Loren Cordain in the Archives of Dermatology outlines the low incidence rates of acne in two non-Westernized populations, while a 1971 article by Dr. Otto Schaefer, a family practitioner who spent nearly 30 years treating the Inuit people, demonstrated that Canadian Eskimos didn’t experience acne until they transitioned to a Western diet. These facts give support to the importance dietary changes as a worthwhile effort to improve acne conditions. Keep in mind, however, that best results are achieved when dietary improvements are coupled with use of advanced topical skin care products formulated to address the four main causes of acne.

Consider these guidelines when making dietary changes intended to improve acne symptoms, but remember - if diet isn't contributing to the development of your acne, these changes may not make a noticeable improvement in your breakouts. Regardless, eating a cleaner, healthier diet is good for your skin overall. (Suggested reading: "Why Antioxidants are Vital to Your Skin.")

DO Eat:

  • Fresh fish, especially fatty varieties like salmon, sardines and Albacore tuna, which are rich in omega-3s.
  • Fresh vegetables, especially leafy greens, which are loaded with vitamins and minerals.
  • Nuts and berries, which are great sources of antioxidants.
  • Probiotics, including full-fat yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut and more, all of which help to reduce inflammation in the body.

For best results, keep a food diary to help pinpoint any foods that contribute to acne development.

Foods to AVOID:

  • Low-fat dairy products
  • Sugary beverages
  • Candy
  • Fast food
  • Baked goods
  • Refined “white” foods, including bread, rice, pasta and cereals

Related Reading:

Teen and Child Acne Treatment Guidelines