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How to Eat for Healthy, Clear Skin

There are tons of products out there that promise to clear acne-prone skin. But which foods help prevent (or cause) those blemishes? Greatist found out here.
How to Eat for Healthy, Clear Skin

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Generations of teenie boppers have been told that eating chocolate causes breakouts, and greasy foods like pizza results in "pizza face." Acne — that oh-so loveable inflammatory skin condition that gives us clogged pores, blackheads, and pimples — is never fun [1]. We’re stepping in to investigate if what we eat really leads to bad skin — and how we can help fight that prepubescent nightmare.

What Makes Acne Worse

Some foods can aggravate acne, but the main offenders are high in carbs or excessively greasy. Here’s the breakdown of why a loaf of white bread or a basket of wings could lead to a zit disaster.

High Glycemic Index Foods The Glycemic Index is a ranking of carbs (from 0 to 100) based on how much they raise blood sugar levels when we eat them. Foods with values below 55 are considered "low-GI," while those above 70 are considered "high-GI" [2]. High GI foods (like doughnuts, white bread, or pretzels) spike blood sugar levels because the body digests them very quickly. This can increase acne flare-ups because spiked insulin levels increase the body’s inflammatory reactions, which — surprise, surprise — can mean acne inflammations [3] [4].

Greasy Foods While eating certain foods can affect our skin from the inside out, greasy food causes problems from the second it touches our lips. French fries and a cheddar-smothered burger can create acne when the grease from that delicious meal touches our skin, causing pimples [5].

Refined Sugars, Dairy, Chocolate, Fast Food While some people may get acne flare-ups from eating dairy, refined sugars, and even chocolate, there’s not a whole lot of evidence to prove they definitely lead to a face full of pimples [6]. Dairy is still on the radar because milk and whey protein-based products up levels of insulin [7] [8] [9]. Fast food, because of high sugar levels and fat content, could likely contribute to less-than-perfect skin, but there’s not a lot of research to prove its link to acne [10]. And then there’s chocolate, which has been associated with acne for decades… but only one controlled study claims that chocolate causes acne due to its dairy and carb content.

Now that we know what foods we should steer clear of, what foods should we eat for clear skin?

What (Might) Make it Better

Photo by Caitlin Covington 


You don’t have to be a brainiac to know that protein- and veggie-packed diets are good for us. But there some diets that can help maintain clear skin. Studies have found that the Mediterranean diet — mostly fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, beans, nuts, and olive oil — can protect against acne, as can the Paleo diet [11] [9] [12].

But if sticking to a set diet with a fancy name sounds daunting, we looked into what specific foods we should eat to zap zits, and why.

Vitamin A Foods like carrots and spinach are a good source of vitamin A, which prevents the overproduction of cells in the skin’s outer layer (read: there are fewer dead cells hanging around to clog pores). Not a fan of spinach or carrots? Try other vitamin A stars like pumpkin, sweet potatoes, dark leafy greens, and cantaloupe [13].

Omega-3 Fatty Acids Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, like salmon, walnuts, and flax seed may help keep inflammation under control (which can show through as red, painful bumps on our skin) [14] [15].

Vitamin E Foods containing lots of vitamin E, like pine nuts and sunflower seeds, play an important role in preventing acne development. Many studies have found that levels of vitamin E were significantly lower in patients with acne. Plus, the vitamin can help heal acne-scarred skin [16].

Zinc Zinc deficiency is associated with a variety of skin problems, including acne. Kicking back oysters and munching on dark chocolate can provide a healthy dose of zinc [17] [18].

Vitamin B5 Vitamin B5 (and other B vitamins) promotes, among other things, healthy skin and hair. In one small study, a large dose of vitamin B5 supplements cured cases of acne. Why, you ask? Vitamin B5 has been shown to decrease oil production on skin and reduces the size of pores [19].

Selenium Whole grains (like quinoa and brown rice) and aromatic vegetables (like onion and garlic) are rich in selenium, which helps preserve skin’s elasticity. But that’s not all — selenium can also reduce inflammatory damage to the skin. A small study found that taking selenium supplements improved the skin of patients with severe acne [20] [21].

Water and High Fiber Foods Guzzling H2O and consuming high fiber foods like fruits, beans, and vegetables, can help the body flush out toxins, which can lead to inflammation and clogged pores. Constipation has also been linked to skin conditions like acne [22]. A high fiber diet with adequate hydration will help keep things moving smoothly [23].

How have you found diet affects your skin? Tell us in the comment section below or tweet the author @nicmcdermott.

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Works Cited +

  1. Acne vulgaris; Cystic acne; Pimples; Zits. Last reviewed: November 22, 2011. A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia.
  2. Insulin resistance: definition and consequences. Lebovitz, H.E., State University of New York Health Science Center at Brooklyn, USA.
  3. Does diet really affect acne? Ferdowsian, H.R., Levin, S. Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, Washington, DC, USA. Skin Therapy Letter, 2010 Mar;15(3):1-2, 5.
  4. Over-stimulation of insulin/IGF-1 signaling by western diet may promote diseases of civilization: lessons learnt from laron syndrome. Melnik, B.C., John, S.M., Schmitz, G. Department of Dermatology, Environmental Medicine and Health Theory, University of Osnabruck, Sedanstrasse, Osnabruck, Germany. Nutrition & Metabolism (London), 2011 Jun 24;8:41.
  5. Neglected aspects in the management of acne. Gordon, B. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 1885;78 Suppl 10:10-4.
  6. The association of acne vulgaris with diet. Veith, W.B., Silverberg, N.B., University of Kentucky College of Medicine, Lexington, USA. Cutis; Cutaneous Medicine for the Practitioner, 2011 Aug;88(2):84-91.
  7. Evidence for acne-promoting effects of milk and other insulinotropic dairy products. Melnik, B.C. Department of Dermatology, Environmental Medicine and Health Theory, University of Osnabruck, Osnabruck. Nestle Nutrition Workshop Series. Pediatric Program, 2011;67:131-45. Epub 2011 Feb 16.
  8. Insulin resistance and acne: a new risk factor for men? Del Prete, M., Mauriello, M.C., Faggiano, A., et al. Department of Molecular and Clinical Endocrinology and Oncology, Federico II University of Naples, Naples, Italy. Endocrine, 2012, Mar 25.
  9. High glycemic load, milk and ice cream consumption are related to acne vulgaris in Malaysian young adults: a case control study. Ismail, N.H., Abdul Manaf, Z., Azizan, N.Z. BMC Dermatology, 2012 Aug 16;12(1):13.
  10. Acne: prevalence and relationship with dietary habits in Eskisehir, Turkey. Koku Aksu, A.E., Metintas, S., Saracoglu, Z.N. Department of Dermatology Department of Public Health, Faculty of Medicine, Eskisehir Osmangazi University, Eskisehir, Turkey. Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology, 2011 Nov 10.
  11. Mediterranean diet and familial dysmetabolism as factors influencing the development of acne. Skroza, N., Tolino, E., Semyonov, L. et al. Dermatology UnitD. Innocenzi, Polo Pontino, Sapienza University of Rome, Rome, Italy. Scandinavian Journal of Public Health, 2012 Jul;40(5):466-74. Epub 2012 Jul 24.
  12. Diet in acne: further evidence for the role of nutrient signalling in acne pathogenesis. Melnik, B.C., Department of Dermatology, Environmental Medicine and Health Theory, University of Osnabruck, Osnabruck, Germany. Acta-Dermato Venerologica, 2012 May;92(3):228-31.
  13. Does the plasma level of vitamins A and E affect acne condition? El-Akawi, Z., Abdel-Latif, N., Abdul-Razzak, K. Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Jordan University of Science and Technology, School of Medicine, Irbid, Jordan. Clinical and Experimental Dermatology, 2006 May;31(3):430-4.
  14. Acne vulgaris, mental health and omega-3 fatty acids: a report of cases. Rubin, M.G., Kim, K., Logan, A.C. Lasky Skin Clinic, 153 Lasky Drive, Suite 1, Beverly Hills, CA. Lipids in Health and Disease, 2008 Oct 13;7:36.
  15. Acne: inflammation. Farrar, M.D., Ingham, E. Skin Research Centre, Division of Microbiology, School of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, University of Leeds, Leeds, UK. Clinical Dermatology, 2004 Sep-Oct;22(5):380-4.
  16. Does the plasma level of vitamins A and E affect acne condition? El-Akawi, Z., Abdel-Latif, N., Abdul-Razzak, K. Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Jordan University of Science and Technology, School of Medicine, Irbid, Jordan. Clinical Experimental Dermatology, 2006 May;31(3):430-4.
  17. Innate immunity: a crucial target for zinc in the treatment of inflammatory dermatosis. Brocard, A., Dreno, B. Skin Cancer Unit, Nantes University Hospital, Nantes, France. Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology, 2011 Oct;25(10):1146-52.
  18. Innovative uses for zinc in dermatology. Bae, Y.S. Hill, N.D., Bibi, Y., Dreiher, J., et al. Department of Dermatology, Boston University School of Medicine, Boston, MA. Dermatologic Clinics, 2010 Jul;28(3):587-97.
  19. Pantothenic acid deficiency as the pathogenesis of acne vulgaris. Leung, L.H., Department of General Surgery, Hong Kong Central Hospital, Hong Kong. Medical Hypotheses, 1995 Jun;44(6):490-2.
  20. Erythrocyte glutathione peroxidase activity in acne vulgaris and the effect of selenium and vitamin E treatment. Michaelsson, G., Edqvist, L.E. Acta Dermato-Venereologica, 1984;64(1):9-14.
  21. The glutathione peroxidases. Arthur, J.R., Rowett Research Institute, Aberdeen, Scotland, United Kingdom. Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences, 2000 Dec; 57(13-14):1825-35.
  22. Risk factors for sebaceous gland diseases and their relationship to gastrointestinal dysfunction in Han adolescents. Zhang, H., Liao, W., Chao, W., et al. Department of Dermatology, First Affiliated Hospital, Jinan University, Guangzhou, China. Journal of Dermatology, 2008 Sep;35(9):555-61.
  23. Water supplementation enhances the effect of high-fiber diet on stool frequency and laxative consumption in adult patients with functional constipation. Anti, M., Pignataro, G., Armuzzi, A., et al. Department of Internal Medicine, Catholic University, Policlinico, A. Gemelli, Rome. Hepatogastroenterology, 1998 May-Jun;45(21):727-32.