My teenage daughters are getting acne and I am worried. It is not too bad now but I do not want them to have acne scarring like I do. Is it true that some foods can cause acne?



For years we have heard that there was no relationship between food intake and acne but recent evidence suggests that there could be a link. Our diets are complex and the relationship between them and how we feel, act and behave is hard to study. Nevertheless, we are what we eat and it is not surprising that looking at food intake and skin diseases is very important.


Patients' stories: 

Dermatologists have long heard stories of mothers attesting to the correlation of their teenagers eating habits and acne eruptions. Mothers implicated different foods including “junk food” such as chips, fries or hamburgers as well as chocolate and sweetened pop drinks. Without conclusive evidence, dermatologists could not confirm these proposed links and the standard answer remained: “there is no evidence that food intake can cause or make acne better”. Parents’ suspicions remained but until recently it was without much evidence.


Let's look at acne:

pizza_acne.jpgAcne is a very common skin condition mostly seen in teenagers (for some people it can persist into adulthood). Acne continues to be the most common skin problem affecting up to 99% of teenagers as well as, to a lesser extend, young adults. Although acne eruptions are temporary, lasting anywhere from months to years, the disfigurement persists for life.


There are many causes of acne including the following:

  1. Increased oil (sebum) production
  2. Presence of bacteria in the oil glands
  3. Plugging of the hair/oil gland units
  4. Inflammation 


Hormones as acne modulators:

acne_pimple_formation.jpgMany of acne causes are related and initiated by internal body hormones. Hormones are powerful messengers. They can increase production of skin oils and modulate inflammation (two of the causes of acne). Hormones in the body are inter-related in that a change in one influences many others.


Foods that affect acne:

Recent large population studies indicate a link between certain foods and acne.

Milk Products:

A 2009 review evaluating published studies indicated that dairy products and high glycemic-index foods (Westernized diet) increase the risk of acne. When 47,000 nurses were studied, those consuming more than 3 milk servings per day (as teenagers) had acne more frequently compared to those who consumed less than or one milk serving per day. The strongest association was for skim milk suggesting that it is not the fat in the milk that is the problem. In another study examining both girls and boys (9-15 year-olds,) there was an association between acne severity and cow’s milk intake. The association was strongest for girls. It is thought that some milk components have insulin-stimulating abilities. This, in-turn, can increase testosterone levels prompting more skin oil production.


High glycemic-index (GI) foods:


food_acne_causes.jpgHigh GI foods are foods that are rapidly digested and absorbed resulting in marked increase and fluctuations in blood sugar levels. The index varies by food type as well as its preparation. As the 2009 review pointed out, high GI food intake has been correlated with acne. In addition, South American study indicated that those who adhere to a low GI food diet experience improvement in the number of acne lesions. It is thought that a low GI diet improves insulin sensitivity, lowering insulin levels in the process.

The relationship between acne and other foods such as chocolate or salt has not been conclusively demonstrated.


Key message:

This research is very important as now we can suggest diet modification to improve acne – a very common and frustrating condition to treat. The common theme in the research is to avoid foods that can increase the levels of insulin. As such, some components of milk as well as all high GI food are implicated. Having a diet composed of low GI foods is good for your general health and now we know that it can even help your skin.

Youthful Image



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