When it comes to taking proper care of your skin, it doesn’t just end at a good skincare routine—though that certainly helps! What you put into yourself matters just as much, if not more, as what you put on it. Tracie Martyn co-founder and product formulator Marius Morariu is a holistic nutritionist and offers advice on eating for every skin concern.
Despite acne’s association with teenage hormones and the crushing inevitability of picture-day pimples, many adults are finding themselves struggling with acne long past puberty. In fact, adult acne is extremely common, especially among women. In one survey, 50% of women in their 20s, 35% of women in their 30s, and 26% of women in their 40s reported experiencing acne—almost double the incidences reported by adult men.
The rate of adult acne is also increasing, especially among women. Though we don’t fully understand why this is, it’s widely believed that modern stresses and diet play a big factor. While dietary changes won’t fix acne for all, there’s evidence that they could benefit many, especially when combined with topical treatments. When it comes to acne, it’s more about what not to eat than what to eat. I recommend testing the below approaches for at least a couple of weeks to see if it helps clear your skin.
Elimination diet and an allergy test
A note before we start: an elimination diet is when you remove certain foods or food groups from your diet that you suspect your body can’t tolerate well. Then, you reintroduce them, one at a time, while checking in with your body to see if you have a reaction. I recommend this approach if you suspect that any foods might be contributing to your acne. Some of them might even be foods I usually recommend. For example, nuts aren’t linked to acne directly, but I have seen clients break out from over-consumption of nuts and nut butters, especially peanuts and almonds. The same goes for chocolate (so sorry!). You also might want to consider an allergy test if that is available to you, since even “good food” can create inflammation if your immune system perceives it as a threat.
Try eliminating dairy
Multiple studies have suggested a link between dairy consumption and acne, partly because dairy cows in the US are often treated with growth hormones. Even organic milk contains insulin-like growth factors (IGF-1), hormones that regulate your growth hormones and are naturally found in your body. These growth hormones increase sebum production and inflammation, potentially triggering your acne. It’s also been suggested that skim milk is more of a culprit than whole milk, possibly because it doesn’t contain the fatty acids that help your body process whole milk. Dairy is also difficult to digest for many, especially if you’re lactose intolerant, and an unhappy digestive system can impact your skin. If you’re struggling with stubborn acne, try cutting out dairy for two weeks to see if it helps decrease your breakouts.
Try cutting processed sugar and white bread
This one’s never fun. High-glycemic foods are believed to trigger acne for some, possibly because the spike in blood sugar can cause excess sebum production. High-glycemic foods include things like white bread, white rice, and sweeteners, so unfortunately when it comes to acne, you might not be able to have your cake and eat it too. If you eat a high-glycemic diet and can’t seem to get your acne under control, try out low-glycemic eating by focusing on vegetables, fruit, healthy fats, and—if you’re not allergic and they don’t cause digestive discomfort—whole grains like oats, barley, quinoa, buckwheat, rye, and some rice varieties. Limit eating white potatoes, refined grains (for example, white bread and white pasta), and sweets.
Try an anti-inflammatory diet
We’re just beginning to understand how inflammation in the body contributes to skin diseases, and a growing body of evidence supports the idea that acne is primarily an inflammatory disease. So in theory, eating an anti-inflammatory diet should be helpful for managing acne. I actually suggest this approach for all our clients desiring healthy skin, not just those with acne. This aligns with the low-glycemic diet: lots of green leafy vegetables and fruit, some whole grains, beans (well-soaked and cooked and/or sprouted since they can produce inflammation otherwise through their lectin content), and nuts.
A crucial step for an anti-inflammatory diet is decreasing your omega-6 to omega-3 ratio, which in Western diets can be as high as 50-1. This means loading up on fatty fish like salmon and mackerel and plant-based sources like chia seeds, flax seed, and black walnuts. Fish oil or algae supplements containing EPA and DHA are also a great option if fresh food is less accessible. Of course, consult with your health care practitioner before taking any supplements and stick to the recommended dosage.
Eat for a healthy gut
The microbiome has become a big focus for health research, including for your skin, and there’s evidence to suggest that a consistent imbalance in the gut may be a reason for skin struggles for some. This is where an elimination diet really comes in handy, since foods can affect people in different ways. Some foods you may want to test eliminating are wheat and gluten, dairy, legumes, and nuts and seeds. It may help to eat prebiotic foods—foods with a type of fiber that feed the friendly bacteria in your gut. For example, resistant starches like plantains and cassava (they can also help regulate blood sugar) and vegetables like artichokes and garlic. Otherwise, eating for a healthy gut means limiting processed food and sugars since these increase the “bad” bacteria and eating a diverse, plant-heavy diet—a healthy microbiome is a diverse microbiome.
Try zinc, selenium, and chromium
Studies have suggested that not having enough zinc, selenium, and chromium in your diet could contribute to acne and other inflammatory skin conditions.
Food sources of zinc: asparagus, pine nuts, pumpkin seeds, mushrooms, and oysters.
Food sources of selenium: Brazil nuts, mushrooms, eggs, spinach, sunflower seeds
Food sources of chromium: Brazil nuts, dates, pears, mushrooms, mussels
Bon appétit! And cheers to clear, glowing skin!