December 22, 2014

Ditch these 3 Culprits to Eliminate Acne.

Nicole Simon/Flickr

Editor’s Note: This website is not designed to, and should not be construed to, provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion or treatment to you or any other individual, and is not intended as a substitute for medical or professional care and treatment. For serious.


As our sugar and dairy consumption have increased over the last 100 years, so has our acne.

We now have over 17 million acne sufferers, costing our health care system one billion dollars a year. To varying degrees, 80 to 90 percent of teenagers struggle with acne.

The pimply millions rely on infomercial products hawked by celebrities or over-the-counter lotions, cleansers, and topical remedies, yet recent research shows what we put in our mouth matters more than what we slather on our skin.

While experts have long suggested a link between diet and acne, until recently no large clinical studies proved that connection. Instead, dermatologists prescribed long-term antibiotics and Accutane, both of which could cause long-term harmful effects. Then in 2009 a systematic review of 21 observational studies and six clinical trials found clear links between diet and acne.

Specifically, two large controlled trials found cow’s milk increased both the number of people who got acne and its severity.

Other large randomized prospective controlled trials found people who had higher sugar intake and ate sugar, flour, and other high-glycemic foods had significantly more acne. The good news is that dark chocolate didn’t seem to cause acne.

Those culprits—dairy and sugar—cause spikes in certain pimple-producing hormones. Dairy boosts male sex hormones (androgens) and increases insulin levels just like sugar and starches raise blood sugar and increase insulin levels. Androgens and insulin both stimulate your skin to make those nasty, embarrassing pimples.

Acne’s cure lies at the end of our forks, not in a prescription pad.

Let’s take a look at three major dietary acne culprits:

  1. Dairy. One scientist referred to milk as a “complex aqueous, suspended fat, liposomal, suspended protein emulsion.” Milk, full of naturally occurring anabolic hormones, helps grow babies and calves. An average glass of milk—even organic or raw—contains 60-some hormones. According to mypyramid.gov, adults should drink at least three glasses of milk a day. Numerous scientists, including Walter Willett and David Ludwig, have strongly criticized that suggestion.
    The famous Nurse’s Health Study examining health habits of 47,000 nurses found that those who drank more milk as teenagers had much higher rates of severe acne than those who had little or no milk as teenagers. Interestingly, skim milk had the strongest risk for acne. In other studies of over 10,000 adolescents, a direct link existed between the amount of milk consumed and the severity of acne. Anabolic hormones are culprits here, but so is milk’s ability to stimulate insulin production. Drinking a glass of milk can spike insulin levels 300 percent, contributing to pimples but also pre-diabetes.
  2. Sugar. Recent studies also show sugar and refined carbs contribute to acne. Taking kids off sugar and putting them on a healthy, whole food, low-glycemic load diet resulted in significant improvements compared to a control group eating a regular, high-sugar American diet. Besides fewer pimples, the low-glycemic participants lost weight and became more sensitive to insulin’s effects, resulting in less pimple-producing circulating insulin. The whole food group also had less pimple-triggering sex hormones.
  3. Bad fats. Our typical Western diet is full of inflammatory fats: saturated fats, trans fats, too many omega-6, inflammatory, processed vegetable oils like soy and corn oils. These increase insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) and stimulate pimple follicles. Inflammation has been linked to acne.

8 Strategies to Prevent or Cure Acne

The link is clear: hormonal imbalances caused by our diet trigger acne. Our diet influences sex hormones like testosterone, IGF-1, and insulin, which promote acne. The biggest factors affecting your hormones are your diet’s glycemic load and the amount of dairy products you eat.

Applying these eight strategies can balance those hormones and reduce acne:

  1. Stay away from milk. It is nature’s perfect food…if you’re a calf.
  2. Eat a low glycemic load, low sugar diet. Sugar, liquid calories, and flour products all drive up insulin and cause pimples.
  3. Eat more fruits and vegetables. People who eat more veggies (containing more antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds) have less acne. Make sure you get your five to nine servings of colorful fruits and vegetables every day.
  4. Get more healthy anti-inflammatory fats. Those include omega-3 fats (from fish oil) and anti-inflammatory omega-6 fats (evening primrose oil).
  5. Include foods that correct acne problems. Fish oil, turmeric, ginger, green tea, nuts, dark purple and red foods such as berries, green foods like dark green leafy vegetables, and omega 3-eggs are among the foods that improve many underlying causes of acne and can help correct it.
  6. Take acne-fighting supplements. Some supplements are critical for skin health. These include:> Evening primrose oil: Take 1,000 to 1,500mg twice a day.
    > Zinc citrate: Take 30 mg a day.
    > Vitamin A: Take 25,000 IU a day. Only do this for three months. Do not do this if you are pregnant.
    > Vitamin E as mixed tocopherols: Take 400 IU a day.
  7. Try probiotics. Probiotics can help reduce gut inflammation that might contribute to acne.
  8. Avoid food sensitivities. Delayed food allergies are among the most common causes of acne. Foods like gluten, dairy, yeast, and eggs are common culprits and can be a problem if you have a leaky gut.

Following these simple tips can help eliminate acne and develop glowing skin. This regimen ultimately becomes much cheaper (and safer) than expensive medications and dermatologist visits.

Have you improved your diet and used supplements to reduce or prevent acne? Share your story below or on my Facebook fan page.



5 Steps to Clear Skin & Why Nutrition is Everything.



Adebamowo CA, Spiegelman D, Danby FW, et al. High school dietary dairy intake and teenage acne. J Am Acad Dermatol 52(2):207-14 (2005 Feb).

Adebamowo CA, Spiegelman D, Berkey CS, et al. Milk consumption and acne in adolescent girls. Dermatol Online J 12(4):1 (2006).

Adebamowo CA, Spiegelman D, Berkey CS, et al. Milk consumption and acne in teenaged boys. J Am Acad Dermatol 58(5):787-93 (2008 May).

Anderson PC. Foods as the cause of acne. Am Fam Physician 3(3):102-3 (1971 Mar).

Bendiner E. Disastrous trade-off: Eskimo health for white civilization, Hosp Pract 9:156-89 (1974).

F. William Danby, MD, Nutrition and acne, Clinics in Dermatology (2010) 28, 598–604

Fulton JE, Jr., Plewig G, Kligman AM. Effect of chocolate on acne vulgaris. Jama 210(11):2071-4 (1969 Dec 15).

Hoyt G, Hickey MS, Cordain L. Dissociation of the glycaemic and insulinaemic responses to whole and skimmed milk. Br J Nutr 93(2):175-7 (2005 Feb).

James MJ, Gibson RA, Cleland LG. Dietary polyunsaturated fatty acids and inflammatory mediator production. Am J Clin Nutr 71(1 Suppl):343S-8S (2000 Jan).

Kaymak Y, Adisen E, Ilter N, et al. Dietary glycemic index and glucose, insulin, insulin-like growth factor-I, insulin-like growth factor binding protein 3, and leptin levels in patients with acne. J Am Acad atol 57(5):819-23 (2007 Nov). Cordain L, Lindeberg S, Hurtado M, et al. Acne vulgaris: a disease of Western civilization. Arch Dermatol 138(12):1584-90 (2002 Dec).

Lello J, Pearl A, Arroll B, et al. Prevalence of acne vulgaris in Auckland senior high school students. N Z Med J 108(1004):287-9 (1995 Jul 28).

Venereol 21(6):806-10 (2007 Jul).

Magin P, Pond D, Smith W, et al. A systematic review of the evidence for myths and misconceptions’ in acne management: diet, face-washing and sunlight. Fam Pract 22(1):62-70 (2005 Feb).

Simopoulos AP. Essential fatty acids in health and chronic disease. Am J Clin Nutr 70(3 Suppl):560S-9S (1999 Sep). 26. Kaaks R, Bellati C, Venturelli E, et al. Effects of dietary intervention on IGF-I and IGF-binding proteins, and related alterations in sex steroid metabolism: the Diet and Androgens (DIANA) Randomised Trial. Eur J Clin Nutr 57(9):1079-88 (2003 Sep).

Smith RN, Mann NJ, Braue A, et al. A low-glycemic-load diet improves symptoms in acne vulgaris patients: a randomized controlled trial. Am J Clin Nutr 86(1):107-15 (2007 Jul).

Smith RN, Mann NJ, Braue A, et al. The effect of a high- protein, low glycemic-load diet versus a conventional, high glycemic-load diet on biochemical parameters associated with acne vulgaris: a randomized, investigator-masked, controlled trial. J Am Acad Dermatol 57(2):247-56 (2007 Aug).

Smith RN, Braue A, Varigos GA, et al. The effect of a low glycemic load diet on acne vulgaris and the fatty acid composition of skin surface triglycerides. J Dermatol Sci 50(1):41-52 (2008 Apr).

Spencer EH, Ferdowsian HR, Barnard ND. Diet and acne: a review of the evidence. Int J Dermatol 48(4):339-47 (2009 Apr).

White GM. Recent findings in the epidemiologic evidence, classification, and subtypes of acne vulgaris. J Am Acad Dermatol 39(2 Pt 3):S34-7 (1998 Aug).

Wolf R, Matz H, Orion E. Acne and diet. Clin Dermatol 22(5):387-93 (2004 Sep-Oct).

Zouboulis CC. Is acne vulgaris a genuine inflammatory disease? Dermatology 203(4):277-9 (2001).


Love elephant and want to go steady?

Sign up for our (curated) daily and weekly newsletters!

Editor: Rachel Nussbaum

Photo: Nicole Simon/Flickr

Read 12 Comments and Reply

Read 12 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Mark Hyman  |  Contribution: 10,420