June 19, 2024
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Acne Out of Whack: The Correlation Between Acne and Nutrition

Nobody likes them. Everyone dreads the sight of them. And sometimes, when one finally vanishes, another one is lurking in the shadows, waiting to make their miserable appearance.

Acne, otherwise known as Acne Vulgaris, is one of life’s pains that many encounter in some stage of their lives. Some experience it intermittently, while others fight it on a regular basis. Regardless of one’s exposure to it, acne is nevertheless unsolicited and unwanted. My face has recently manifested some of these nefarious spots, which spurred on some pondering as to why I’m getting them now at 33-years-old. Did I eat something weird? Am I too stressed? Are my hormones out of whack? It honestly could be a combination of all those factors, and if that’s the case, my work is cut out for me.

Acne occurs when hair follicles get clogged with sebum (an oily substance) and dead skin cells and become inflamed. It can be attributed to genetic predispositions, hormonal fluctuations, immunological disorders, or psychological, environmental, or iatrogenic factors. Trigger foods may compound acne episodes, especially if one is predisposed to pimples in one way or another already. A high-glycemic load diet, a diet consisting of simple carbohydrate foods (potato chips, white bread and cupcakes) can contribute to blood glucose spikes, which in turn churn the wheels of insulin production. This production may cause an increase in the creation of sebum and inflammation, the two co-founders of acne.

Another trigger food is milk, which is unfortunate as there are so many beneficial macro/micronutrients in milk, including protein, calcium and Vitamin D. Aghasi et al. (2019) conducted a meta-analysis (i.e.. a formal review) of observational studies positing a positive correlation between milk consumption and acne. There was no significant relationship found between yogurt/cheese and acne, which is interesting and further testing needs to be done to understand why. Nevertheless, randomized controlled trials (RCTs), the gold standard in research testing, need to be done to prove causation between milk consumption and acne development.

Is there any hope of acne clearance from the nutritional realm? One can look upward, quite literally, in the above paragraph regarding high-glycemic load diet. Though a high-glycemic load diet can spur on acne, consuming the exact opposite kind of diet, a low-glycemic load diet (which includes fruits, vegetables, proteins, etc.) may help clear it up. Kwon et al. (2012) conducted an RCT of 32 participants with mild-to-moderate acne. They were placed on either a low-glycemic load diet or a high-glycemic load diet for 10 weeks. Those on the low-glycemic load diet demonstrated significant reductions in inflammatory/non-inflammatory lesions, more minor sebaceous glands, reduced acne severity, and decreased inflammation overall.

An unexpected micronutrient may shed some light and hope on acne removal as well. Zinc, an essential mineral, is involved in many metabolic functions, including immunity, inflammation, growth/development, and acne treatment. A systematic review of 25 small, low-quality clinical trials showed patients with acne have decreased serum zinc levels compared with the controls. They subsequently were treated with either zinc sulfate or zinc gluconate and demonstrated a significant improvement in their acne condition. Foods rich in zinc that can be incorporated into our diets include pumpkin seeds, cashews, beef, turkey, quinoa, lentils, and certain seafood like oysters and crab.

Though acne development may not be so black-and-white and clear-cut, the factors explained above may elucidate their procreation and occupancy on our skin. A diet rich in essential vitamins and minerals, as well as wholesome macronutrients (which include complex carbohydrates, proteins and healthy fats) can boost a healthy metabolism, which in turn can fuel the fires for healthy skin and lessen the population of acne in our dermatological community.


Melissa Papir Kolb is a registered dietitian working in long-term care nutrition in Washington Heights, New York. She works with middle-aged/elderly residents to provide nutrition that can help boost their quality of life. She loves to write about nutrition in her spare time. She can be reached at [email protected].

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