Teen Acne: Is Food to Blame?

Medically Reviewed by Debra Jaliman, MD on February 18, 2014
From the WebMD Archives

You may have heard that certain foods you eat affect your appearance. But it's not that simple.

Experts are still looking for proven connections between the foods you eat and the pimples that later pop up.

But one thing they do know: "Poor nutrition may make acne-prone teens even more susceptible to breakouts," says Ava Shamban, MD, a Beverly Hills, Calif., dermatologist and author of Heal Your Skin. Here's a look at some surprising ways foods may affect your skin.

Sweets and Carbs

Chocolate has gotten a bum rap ever since your parents were pimply teens. But recent studies suggest it's sugar, not cocoa, that's to blame for those zits.

A diet high in sugar and simple carbohydrates may make an acne flare-up more likely. Foods in this group include:

  • Processed foods like chips, crackers, and cookies
  • Starches like white bread, pasta, and potatoes
  • Sugary drinks like soda

These foods spike your blood sugar.

"Your body responds by cranking out more insulin, which increases the production of skin oils and contributes to the clogging of follicles. It can wreak havoc on your skin," says Valori Treloar, MD, a dermatologist in Newton, Mass., and coauthor of The Clear Skin Diet.

Greasy Foods

Your skin won't make more zit-causing oil just because you indulge in greasy foods like pizza, burgers, fries, and potato chips. But working in a grease-splattered setting -- such as flipping burgers and frying spuds at a fast-food joint -- may bring out blemishes.

"Oil particles in the air can coat your skin and clog your pores," says Ellen Marmur, MD, associate clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York and author of Simple Skin Beauty.

You don't need to quit your job, but you do need to wash your face as soon as your work shift is over with a gentle, alcohol-free cleanser. Ask your family doctor or a dermatologist for a product recommendation.

Dairy Products

Some research suggests that dairy products, particularly milk, may contribute to flare-ups. That's not for sure, though, and the exact link between the two isn't clear. "More research is needed, but it may be that the growth factors and hormones naturally found in milk somehow act as acne triggers," Treloar says.

One way to find out if milk makes your skin break out is to go dairy-free for at least a month and note any changes in your complexion.

Of course, your growing body needs calcium to build strong bones. If you cut down on milk and other dairy foods, make sure you still get 1,300 milligrams of calcium every day. You can get that from a supplement or calcium-fortified foods such as orange juice, cereal, bread, soy milk, and tofu. Almonds, spinach, and broccoli also have calcium naturally.

Fruits and Vegetables

You can't blame spinach, or any vegetable or fruit, for your pimples. In fact, eating more of these foods may help give you glowing, healthy skin.

"A varied, healthy diet consisting of foods as unprocessed and true to their natural form as possible is as essential to your skin's health as it is to your overall health," Marmur says.

Eat more foods that are high in vitamin A (such as cantaloupes, carrots, and sweet potatoes), which contribute to a clear complexion. Wash everything down with water, which hydrates your skin and has no sugar.

To curb flare-ups, you have to be a skin detective. "Start incorporating healthy food choices and pay attention to your skin," Shamban says.

It will take time. You may need to stick to your new way of eating for 2 months before your skin improves. But it could happen.

Show Sources


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News release, American Academy of Dermatology.

Valori Treloar, MD, dermatologist, Integrative Dermatology, Newton, Ma.; coauthor, The Clear Skin Diet, Cumberland House, 2007.

FDA: "Facing facts about acne."

National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases: "Questions and answers about acne." 

Ellen Marmur, MD, associate clinical professor of dermatology and genetic sciences, Mount Sinai Medical Center, New York; author, Simple Skin Beauty, Atria Books, 2010.

American Academy of Dermatology: "Face washing 101."

National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements: "Dietary supplement fact sheet: calcium."

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Ava Shamban, MD, dermatologist, Santa Monica and Beverly Hills, Calif.; author, Heal Your Skin, Wiley, 2011.

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