The Food/Face Connection: Do Some Foods Give You Acne?


It’s no surprise that diet and nutrition impact overall health. But what about something a little more specific, like acne? Acne is one of the most common dermatological conditions that can creep up in puberty and last well into your 50s. I’m not going to lie: Looking at that age range is pretty disheartening. Just when I thought I was over the “tween/teen” problem, I could be facing a few more decades of this?! It got me thinking about ways to help prevent pimples from popping up and wondering if there really is a connection between the food we eat and our faces.

First things first, what is acne? Basically, it’s a skin condition that comes up when your hair follicles get clogged with dead skin cells and oil, resulting in an inflamed, raised bump or plugged pore. Acne is primarily genetic, meaning that if one of your parents had acne, there’s about an 80% chance you will have it too. Thanks a lot, Mom and Dad.

But what about the remaining 20% chance? Naturally, my first thought turned to food. Since we always hear “you are what you eat,” many writers have explored the connection between diet and acne. Flip through beauty magazines or Google “diet and acne,” and you will be bombarded with articles. Some stress the importance of avoiding X food for clear skin, or blame X food for causing breakouts. Chocolate, dairy, and carbohydrates seem to be the biggest targets for allegedly exacerbating acne. But are these claims based in science? Let’s turn to the literature for some good ol’ guidance.

Turns out, several reviews including a systematic review asked some of these questions. The authors wanted to assess the evidence of the effects of diet on acne management. Reviewing data from seven studies with more than 4,000 participants, the article reported that the there was no evidence linking diet and acne. So off the bat, the argument linking diet with acne is on some rocky grounds. Now, we’ll jump in to the specific studies.



To be honest, I was a bit relieved when I read this body of research. A handful of studies ranging from dietary interventions to single-blinded crossover trials have shown no effect of chocolate consumption on acne or face oil production. However, a recent clinical trial in men found that unsweetened cocoa may exacerbate acne. This study only had 13 participants and had participants consume 6 ounces of cocoa powder to generate results. So if you are planning on consuming over 23 tablespoons of cocoa powder or a pound of milk chocolate all at once, I’d say you are fine to enjoy chocolate, in moderation.     



Milk has also been a large target in recent years with the publication of studies linking acne to milk consumption. However, what fails to get mentioned in the sensationalistic headlines is that the studies’ methodologies involve data collected from self-reporting and questionnaires. One study even asked women to recall what they ate years ago as teenagers. None of these studies used randomized clinical trials to test the effects of dairy on acne and instead used methods that result in correlative findings rather than causative conclusions.



Here comes the bad news. Turns out, some pretty extensive and strong research has been conducted in this area. This study used a randomized clinical trial design, the gold standard of scientific studies, and assigned individuals to either a low glycemic load diet or a high glycemic load diet. Those on the low glycemic load diet had fewer acne lesions when compared to the control group. These findings have been supported by other dietary intervention studies, revealing that a low glycemic load diet may help decrease acne.

So what does this mean for us carb lovers? What exactly is glycemic load? When we eat carbohydrate-containing foods, blood glucose levels rise and fall. How high they rise and how long they remain elevated depend on the type of carbohydrate food and how much is consumed. Together, both of these factors help predict blood glucose responses and thus, the term “glycemic load” (GL) came to be.

GL helps predict what the effect of a specific amount (typically one serving) of a specific carbohydrate-containing food will be on blood glucose levels. GL helps to complete the metabolic story. It accounts not only for the quality (or type) of carbohydrate consumed, but also the quantity. 

So these findings must be taken with a grain of salt. It does not mean stay away from all carbs, but rather, the type of carb (i.e. low GL) may reduce acne rates. Additionally, while these trials investigated the link between diet and acne, more research needs to be conducted (i.e. in females, since these two studies were only in males) to generate more applicable findings.

Despite some research suggesting a link between diet and acne, the strongest link resides between genetics and acne. It may not hurt to tweak aspects of your diet to improve your skin conditions, but just be aware that the main reason for acne really lies in your unique DNA. 

What to read next? Check out 4 Nutrients to Eat for Better Skin & Hair.