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Clean Eating & Clear Skin: How a Healthy Diet Can Prevent Acne

From persistent face acne to back acne to “mask acne” as a result of wearing a protective face mask… all kinds of acne are the worst. And if you have it, you’re not alone! It’s the most common skin condition with over 50 million Americans struggling with acne in any given year. (1)

But what exactly causes acne and can your healthy diet with 310 help clear up those stubborn zits? Read on to find out!

What Causes Acne?

Just below the surface of your skin are tiny sebaceous glands that pump out oil (also called “sebum”). This oil plays a role in keeping your skin moisturized and healthy. (2

But unpleasant zits, pimples, whiteheads, or blackheads pop up when your skin produces too much sebum. All that extra oil and dead skin cells get trapped in your hair follicles. This blockage triggers an inflammatory response, resulting in an uncomfortable acne breakout. (3)

But what causes this hair follicle traffic jam in the first place? Here are a few things that can trigger or worsen your acne:

  • Hormones: Changes in your hormones can increase your sebum production. This is why acne is most common in teenagers going through puberty. But hormonal changes during periods, pregnancy and menopause can also impact your sebum production. (2,3)
  • Stress: High levels of stress make you more prone to acne and other skin problems. When you experience stress your body increases sebum production, resulting in more breakouts. (4)
  • Genetics: Unfortunately, acne can run in the family. If your parents or other close relatives struggle with acne, there’s a high likelihood you will too. (2)
  • Medications: Some drugs containing corticosteroids, testosterone, or lithium can cause acne breakouts as a side effect. (3)
  • Diet: Certain foods can trigger or aggravate acne, like an excess of high-carbohydrate and sugar foods. (3)

Can Your Diet Affect Acne?

The exact relationship between diet and acne is an ongoing topic of discussion in the scientific community. But some researchers believe that yes, your diet plays a role in the health of your skin (acne included!). 

And that’s because healthy skin starts with the nutrients you’re putting in your body, not just the expensive creams you rub on your skin. 

Foods & Nutrients for Clear Skin

High nutrient foods like avocados, nuts, lean meats, fish on a table

Here are a few healthy foods that can improve your skin complexion from the inside out

  • Antioxidants: Fruits and veggies high in antioxidants like vitamins C, E, A, and zinc can help boost skin cell production, protect from harmful UV damage, and keep your skin clear and healthy. Some antioxidants can also speed up the healing process, so you’re less likely to struggle with lingering acne. (4,5)
  • Healthy fats: Healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (like omega-3s!) found in fish, avocados, nuts, and seeds can help reduce inflammation and promote a clearer complexion. They also help increase the moisture and elasticity of your skin, creating that youthful glow. (1,5)
  • High-quality protein: Collagen, keratin, and other proteins make up the structure of your skin. (5) Add more protein into your diet with healthy sources like lean meats, legumes, nuts, seeds, and fatty fish.
  • Water: Dehydration results in a buildup of dead and dry skin cells, which can clog your hair follicles and cause a breakout. By keeping your body hydrated, you help keep your skin hydrated. (6)

Foods That Can Cause Acne

Fried and high sugar foods like donuts, ice cream, and fries on a table

Just like some foods can support a clear complexion, others can do more harm than good. Try and limit or avoid these food groups if you’re struggling with acne:

  • Milk and dairy products: A diet high in dairy products like milk or whey protein could worsen or trigger acne breakouts. (7,8,9) In one study, for example, researchers found that those consuming cow’s milk were more likely to struggle with moderate to severe acne than those who didn’t. (10)
  • Foods with a high glycemic index (GI): Foods with a high GI, like white bread, cereal, pastries, potatoes, and pasta, are foods that raise your blood sugar levels. (1,9) These foods are often associated with acne breakouts. In one study on over 2,200 participants trying a low-glycemic diet, 87% reported fewer instances of acne. (11)
  • Sugar and processed foods: These foods (which often have a high GI!) could harm the collagen in your skin and cause inflammation. (4) 
  • Chocolate: Some studies say that a diet high in chocolate could cause acne, most likely because of its high sugar content. (12

However, research is still ongoing on the exact effects of these foods on your skin health. And keep in mind, that what causes acne on one person might not cause acne on another. It all depends on your hormones, skin type, genetics, and other factors often outside of your control

If you’re noticing regular acne breakouts try keeping a food diary to track the foods you’re eating. Do you notice any patterns between breakouts and certain food groups? For example, if you limit your dairy intake for a week, do you notice any changes in your skin? A food diary could be a helpful tool for finding the right anti-acne diet for your unique skin needs. 

How to Prevent Acne 

Woman gently washing her face with a white towel

While a healthy diet can help prevent and improve acne, it’s only one piece of the puzzle! There are a lot of ways to help prevent those unwanted zits from popping up on your face.

Here are some great suggestions for preventing acne breakouts:

  • Gently wash your face: You can’t scrub off the acne! In fact, harsh soaps, hot water, and too much exfoliation could aggravate it, making your situation much worse. (7)
  • Wash your masks: Struggling with pandemic mask acne? Wash reusable face masks after every use or opt for disposable masks that you use only once before throwing away. Every time you reuse a mask the dirt, oil, and germs build up making acne almost inevitable. 
  • Avoid touching your face: The last thing your face needs is more oil and dirt from your hands! 
  • Wash off your makeup: Makeup itself is not likely to cause acne, but leaving it on for too long can clog your pores. Use a gentle cleanser to wash your face before bed every night. (7)

Sometimes, even with your best efforts, acne just happens. Talk to your doctor or dermatologist for the right acne medication to prevent and reduce your acne breakouts. And head to our blog to enjoy even more Real Talk topics!


Written by:

Megan Elizabeth Clark

310 Nutrition Content Writer 

Megan Elizabeth Clark is a freelance copywriter and content marketing specialist in the health, wellness, and fitness industry. As a NASM certified personal trainer and RYT-200 certified yoga instructor Megan is passionate about using her fitness background and writing skills to provide authentic, actionable, and accurate information to the world [...]

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