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Are These Foods Triggering Your Acne?

by Emily Linehan on July 04, 2022

Though they aren't the root cause of acne, many foods do have the power to significantly trigger acne breakouts. Because of that, taking a close look at your diet is required to completely clear the skin and keep it clear.

Some foods are "healthy" but that doesn't mean they won't lead to breakouts. In fact, some foods can lead to chronic inflammation and can even age you more rapidly! So, here is what to look out for…and amazing skin-friendly substitutes and suggestions!

Dairy

If you’re experiencing tender, inflamed acne lesions found mostly on the cheeks, chin and/or jawline then dairy is likely the culprit. Dairy is one of the most inflammatory and triggering foods for those who are acne prone for several reasons. For one, since milk comes from pregnant cows, it naturally contains hormones, and for those of us that are acne prone, a cow’s hormones combined with our own causes excess sebum production, leading to clogged pores and the perfect breeding ground for acne. As mentioned above, it is also naturally high in dietary iodine.

Because dairy exacerbates inflamed acne, it is important to avoid all dairy products. Fortunately, there are many delicious dairy-free options available. When selecting a dairy-free alternative, always double check that it is not soy based and does not contain carrageenan on the ingredient list.

Learn more about the Link Between Dairy and Acne and check out my list of acne safe dairy alternatives here.

Sugar

Since the 1950s scientists have referred to acne as “diabetes of the skin”, due to acne being largely driven by increased insulin levels. When sugar or high glycemic index foods are consumed, the sugar absorbs very quickly into the bloodstream, resulting in increased blood sugar levels. In response to this, the pancreas produces insulin (which is a hormone that helps regulate blood sugar) to herd the blood sugars out of the bloodstream and into the cells. When a lot of sugar is consumed, the resulting insulin spikes cause a burst of inflammation and signals the liver to produce a hormone called IGF-1 (Insulin-like growth factor) to help restore balance to your bloodstream. Unfortunately, IGF-1 also increases testosterone, which results in an overproduction of sticky oil in the pores and excess cell turnover (congestion), contributing to acne breakouts.

Not only is sugar a big trigger for acne, an overabundance of sugar causes an inflammatory response in the skin called Advanced Glycation End (or AGE, for short). This inflammation begins when excess sugar molecules attach to the protein in our skin. This attacks our collagen & elastin fibers (the tissue that keeps our skin young & firm) and begins to accelerate the aging process.

If you're acne prone, it's important to minimize how much sugar you are consuming to ensure that your skin clears and stays clear. It's close to impossible to eliminate refined sugar all together, but there are substitutes we can make to avoid it as much as possible, such as Stevia (my favorite is Sweet Leaf Stevia Drops) and Monk Fruit. You can find more acne safe sugar alternatives here.

Learn more about How Sugar Affects the Skin

Soy

Soy is a major acne contributor for two reasons: it is high in dietary iodine which irritates the pores, and it is high in phytoestrogens that will trigger hormonal acne. Phytoestrogens behave like our own estrogen but at a fraction of the strength (about 1000x weaker). They bind to our estrogen receptors, blocking our natural estrogen which leads to estrogen dominance since our natural estrogen has nowhere to go. Because phytoestrogens are so weak (in comparison to natural estrogen), it allows androgens (testosterone) to be the dominant hormone which leads to hormonal and cystic acne. It is so important to eliminate all soy products including soy milk & soy yogurt, edamame, tofu, tempeh, miso, soy sauce and any protein powders or bars that contain soy to successfully clear the skin.

For suggestions on acne safe substitutions, please check out my favorite Soy-Free Alternatives.

Protein Powders/Bars

While we think of them as "health foods", most protein powders and bars are actually hidden acne triggers. Protein powders that contain whey and casein (which are sourced from dairy), as well as soy-based protein powders are very triggering to acne breakouts.

While the common alternative to these are plant based protein powders, many plant based protein powders contain other triggering ingredients such as the "super greens" (spirulina, chlorella, algae, maca, kelp, seaweed, etc.) as well as biotin.

If you struggle with acne, you will want to be sure to avoid all these ingredients in your Protein Powders, Bars and Shakes in order to stay consistently clear:

  • Whey and Casein (both dairy based)
  • Soy, Soy Protein Isolate
  • Super Greens (spirulina, chlorella, algae, maca, etc.)

For my personal recommendations, please check out my continuously updated list of #EmmeApproved Acne Safe Protein Powders and Bars, which also includes my favorite recipe for No-Bake Acne Safe Protein Bars!

Peanuts

Though it may be heartbreaking to hear, peanuts and peanut butter are huge triggers for those of us with acne. Peanuts are rich in omega-6 fatty acids, which as we discussed previously, can trigger inflammation and acne. Additionally, peanuts contain a lectin called peanut agglutinin which can cause “leaky gut” syndrome. Lastly, most peanut butters contain sugar and hydrogenated oils which lead to inflammation, glycation (aging), clogged pores, an overproduction of sebum (oil), and a compromised immune system.

To learn more about why peanut butter is contributing to your breakouts, and acne-safe alternatives, click here.

Eggs

Eggs are full of protein, nutrient dense and egg whites are a low calorie option which has made them a popular protein choice. However, the type of protein found in eggs, the concentration of hormones that naturally occur, and inflammation due to very common allergies/sensitivities to eggs can lead to inflamed and cystic breakouts for many who are acne prone.

Egg whites contain albumin, which is a protein that is extremely hard to digest. Unfortunately, proteins that don’t digest well clog up your lymphatic system, which can lead to breakouts along the cheeks, perimeter of the face, and all the way down to the neck. In addition, eggs naturally contain progesterone which is a known acne-triggering hormone.

If you are experiencing cystic acne in the patterns mentioned above, try removing eggs (especially egg whites) from your diet to see if the problem clears.

Gluten

Aside from internal issues (digestive problems, achy joints, etc.), gluten has also been linked to several skin conditions including acne, eczema, rosacea, skin rashes and keratosis pilaris (also known as ‘chicken skin’ on the back of your arms). 

Gluten triggers inflammation due to increasing zonulin levels (a protein that regulates gut permeability). When zonulin is high the inflammation causes the lining of the small intestine to become damaged. In extreme cases, this is known as leaky gut syndrome where the undigested food particles, toxic waste products and bacteria “leak” through the intestines and flood the bloodstream. 

In addition to the inflammation, the phytates found in most foods containing gluten also prevent the absorption of nutrients, such as zinc which is important to help keep the skin clear. 

Additionally, gluten-containing foods are often high glycemic, and a high glycemic diet is associated with acne.

If you have a skin condition listed above that isn’t clearing with your own effort, try an elimination diet where gluten is removed for 30-45 days. This will give you a good idea if wheat or gluten can be the culprit.

Inflammatory Oils

High in hydrogenated fats, vegetable oils are one of the biggest offenders when it comes to triggering acne. Oils such as canola, grapeseed, soybean, sunflower, safflower, peanut, and palm are rich in omega-6 fats. Too much omega-6 can lead to an inflammatory state, which in turn exacerbates acne and accelerates the aging process. 

To combat this, avoid inflammatory oils whenever possible and supplement with a high quality omega-3 fish oil. You can do this by cooking with healthier oils such as olive oil, coconut oil, and avocado oil. In addition, be sure to check labels carefully and avoid processed foods that contain vegetable oils. 

Learn more about Acne and Cooking Oils here.

Chocolate

Surprisingly enough, chocolate is a common food allergen, which can lead to skin flare-ups for those affected. In fact, a study by the National Rosacea Society showed that 1 in 5 rosacea sufferers reported that chocolate triggered a flare-up. 

Even if you aren’t sensitive to chocolate, most chocolate’s are loaded with sugar and dairy, which are known acne triggers. In addition, it is also very common to find additives such as soy-derivatives and even vegetable oils, which are also extremely triggering. 

If you’re craving something chocolatey, reach for a high quality dark chocolate instead. It offers a higher percentage of pure cocoa and less fat, sugar and other triggering ingredients than milk chocolate.

Dietary Iodine

While iodine is a mineral that is essential for healthy hormone production by the thyroid, an overabundance of it is problematic for those with acne prone skin. This is because the excess iodides are excreted through the sweat glands which are irritating/inflaming to the pore and create an acnegenic* response on the skin.

*Acnegenic = irritation/inflammation to the pore which is the ideal environment for acne to form. Comedogenic = ingredients that block/clog the pore and increase comedone formation.

Many of us are familiar with iodized table salt, but don’t realize that processed foods are full of dietary iodine as well. It even occurs naturally in many foods, such as dairy products. Salt is added to some foods to extend their shelf life and is often listed in their ingredients as potassium chloride, sodium chloride, sodium or salt. While it may sound overwhelming to eliminate all processed foods from your diet, the key is to eliminate foods with the highest salt content. Think of it like a low-sodium diet. When it comes to dietary iodine, it's all about minimizing the best you can.

Avoiding Triggers 

While there are many foods (such as dairy, sugar and soy) that should always be avoided, it can be tricky to assess which other foods may be triggering for you. Therefore, I recommend eliminating all the acne-triggering foods from your diet while your skin clears. Because it can take a while for the effects of some foods to leave your body (e.g. gluten), it is important to eliminate the foods long enough to understand how it is affecting your skin (typically 4 weeks).

Once your skin has cleared, you have the option to reintroduce potentially acne-triggering foods back into your diet to see if it is a trigger for your skin. What is most important is to only introduce one food at a time so you know for certain which foods affect your skin. Generally, you will see the impact of what you are eating within 24-48 hours.

xoxo, Emme

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