Whenever dermatologist Ellen Marmur, MD, eats chocolate, she breaks out two days later. Although she admits there is no hard science to explain why, she takes comfort in knowing she’s not alone. More than one-third of people with acne see a connection between what they eat and their blemishes.
“It’s true that we don’t have studies to prove again and again that certain foods cause or prevent acne,” says Marmur, author of Simple Skin Beauty. “But if you surveyed a group of dermatologists, many of us would say, ‘Yes, diet has an effect,’” she says.
The symptoms of acne are:
Persistent, recurrent red spots or swelling on the skin, generally known as pimples; the swelling may become inflamed and fill with pus. They typically appear on the face, chest, shoulders, neck, or upper portion of the back.
Dark spots with open pores at the center (blackheads)
Tiny white bumps under the skin that have no obvious opening (whiteheads)
Red swellings or lumps (known as papules) that are visibly filled with pus
Put simply, acne is a disorder of the turnover of skin cells, called keratinization. Improper skin turnover leads to retained cells, which block the oil glands and pores and trap protein and sebum (your skin’s natural oil) under the skin. Those proteins and oils become food for P. acnes, the bacteria that cause acne.
Marmur, who is also a professor of dermatology at Mt. Sinai Hospital, explains that there are hundreds of steps involved in the cycle of skin renewal, of which the foods you eat are components. The body, skin included, is constantly under construction. “And it uses vitamins and nutrients from food to repair and rebuild,” she says.
However, Marmur warns not to overestimate the relationship between skin and nutrition.
“Food is only about 25% of the picture when it comes to acne,” she says. The other 75% is influenced by hormones, stress, sleep levels, and where you live. Good skin care also plays a role. “So there are really no ‘super foods’ when it comes to acne prevention,” she says.
Overall, promoting healthy skin with diet is all about adopting good nutritional habits.
"We all eat the same basic five to 10 meals,” Marmur says. “So if you give yourself five to 10 meals that provide a balanced diet, it will go a long way in preventing skin problems,” she says. For acne-prone skin, she recommends eating low-fat, whole (not processed) foods and avoiding hormone-laden dairy products and meats, chocolate, french fries, and other junk foods.
The studies on diet and skin don’t reveal anything we don’t already know. Diets rich in fruits and vegetables are good for us, skin included. Healthful foods appear to reduce inflammation and decrease the likelihood of breakouts. Here are some of the big players when it comes to healthy skin:
Vitamin A. “Vitamin A helps regulate the skin cycle, so no acne-causing protein and oil get trapped,” Marmur says. It’s the main ingredient in Accutane, an effective prescription medicine for acne. Good food sources of vitamin A include fish oil, salmon, carrots, spinach, and broccoli. Too much vitamin A can lead to toxic side effects, however. Limit your daily dose to 10,000 IU and never take it while pregnant or nursing.