How can I change my diet to reduce acne?
May 24, 2009 5:14 PM   Subscribe

Can you personally recommend a nutrition regimen that reduces acne breakouts?

I've had acne off and on for about 10 years and the only oral medication that has ever helped is Bactrim. But now that I'm back on it, I seem to have built up a tolerance to it and am still breaking out.

Both patients and doctors seem wildly at odds about whether or not diet affects acne. Studies say sugars and salts exacerbate it, other studies say food doesn't affect skin whatsoever.

Still, if I can make changes in my diet that positively affect my skin, I'm willing to try. That includes stuff like Brewer's Yeast or vitamins.

I would really like to hear specifically from people who have had the experience of improving their skin by changing their diet, and what the experience was like.

posted by deern the headlice to Health & Fitness (25 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Cut back on the dairy.
posted by dilettante at 5:28 PM on May 24, 2009

Yes! No iodized salt! It sounds crazy, but I made a dramatic difference in my acne when I switched to non-iodized table salt (this included sea salt). It's hard to know sometimes whether or not a particular food has iodized salt in it, but wherever you can, avoid it. This might mean doing a lot more cooking for yourself (e.g., making your own soup instead of buying it in cans, etc.) Fast food is particularly high in iodized salt, I've found, but you're probably just doing yourself a favor if you cut that stuff out.

Cola also breaks me out pretty fiercely, for what it's worth.

Primrose oil supplements have helped me a lot, but I've had a hard time getting a consistent supply; ask at a health food store what they recommend.
posted by corey flood at 5:29 PM on May 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

I always break out if I overdose on sugar. I don't care what the studies say, if I eat a whole bag of Haribo Fruit Salad in a sitting, within about 48 hours I become a teenager again.
posted by hermitosis at 5:29 PM on May 24, 2009

(But for what it's worth, dairy doesn't bug me at all...)
posted by hermitosis at 5:30 PM on May 24, 2009

Mostly I find that cooking more from scratch (so ingesting far fewer artificial colors, preservatives, chemicals in general, excess salt), eating WAY more vegetables, and sticking to whole grains makes a huge difference in my skin, along with getting enough sleep and avoiding excess caffeine help with my skin, as does moderate exfoliation and adequate use of moisturizer. Dairy has nothing to do with it for me; I eat at least one serving of yogurt daily along with some cheese.

For more/better sleep, I've been enjoying Dr. Stuart's Valerian Plus tea at night. I sleep like a freaking baby.
posted by Medieval Maven at 5:42 PM on May 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

More water. My skin was never better than when I was drinking plenty of water all day long.
posted by insectosaurus at 5:42 PM on May 24, 2009

More water, cut out the cola. No cola made a huge difference for me.
posted by Paragon at 5:45 PM on May 24, 2009

I don't have any problems with dairy.

However, when I cut out grains, legumes, sugar, and very starchy vegetables my acne disappeared almost entirely. And it was stubborn stuff that proved resistant to antibiotics, retinoids, all of that (though I never tried Accutane).
posted by Anonymous at 5:50 PM on May 24, 2009

100% Raw Vegan Diet. My skin is now perfect, and I am full of energy.
posted by Merlin144 at 6:01 PM on May 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I went on the Perricone clear skin diet last year and my skin completely cleared up in about a week. It was incredible. Im not as strict on it as I used to be, but if I have a breakout I just cut out the sugars and eat more salmon, etc. Basically it deals with inflammatory foods and their effect on the body including the skin. Of course the culprits are mostly sugary, salty or processed foods, but there are certain fruits (like canteloupe) that have anti-inflammatory effect and others (like papaya) that cause inflammation. Also, drinking a lot of water, green tea and doing yoga is part of the plan, and really helped me.
posted by osloheart at 6:07 PM on May 24, 2009 [3 favorites]

You might consider going on Accutane. I had deep cystic acne, and Accutane took care of it.

I very occasionally get a small pimple now and then, but it's a world of difference.
posted by Fleebnork at 6:12 PM on May 24, 2009

Response by poster: Great feedback, thanks guys.

Part of the issue is avoiding stuff like an excess of salts and sugars, but the other part of the equation is - how do I supplement them? I don't eat particularly badly, but salt and sugar can be hard to avoid and still eat flavorful meals. Also, I suck as a cook. Any suggestions for alternative recipes would be awesome.

Re: Accutane, it worked briefly 5 years ago, but never gave me the magic transformation everyone else seems to experience.
posted by deern the headlice at 6:14 PM on May 24, 2009

You might want to check out The Truth About Beauty. The author has a lot of suggestions for diet and supplements. This book really changed the way I dealt with my troubled skin.

I don't know how to do the metafilter link thing with amazon links.
posted by jeoc at 6:31 PM on May 24, 2009

Fish oil is quite literally my panacea. When I forget to take it for 3-4 days I start breaking out again.
posted by norabarnacl3 at 6:44 PM on May 24, 2009

go here
posted by Taurid at 6:54 PM on May 24, 2009

Best answer: I had acne from the time I started puberty until I did two things: cut out all processed foods. All of them. And I started using Cetaphil religiously. I couldn't take oral contraceptives. Topical creams never worked. Cutting out salt/sugar/fats never helped. I did cut out caffeine, though.

I cook from scratch and the only canned foods I use is tomatoes and sometimes beans. Get the book How To Cook Everything and read it like you would read a novel. It'll change the way you cook for the better.
posted by cooker girl at 7:09 PM on May 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

ooops go here
posted by Taurid at 7:16 PM on May 24, 2009

I'm sure it's different for different people.

Normally, 95% of my meals are prepared by me, usually from high quality fresh ingredients. Lots of salt and meat, though... and I drink a couple of litres of water a day. I don't really see a correlation between what I eat (say, for a couple of weeks when I'm not cooking for myself) and acne outbreaks.

The only thing that works for me is sleeping more, and not drinking. Even when I'm living clean, I'll still get the random major breakout. I'm guessing hormones or something.

When I quit stopped smoking the last time, I broke out like MAD but then didn't have any major acne breakouts until I started smoking again (3 months or so).
posted by porpoise at 7:51 PM on May 24, 2009

Cutting back on caffeine (diet cola-related) helped my skin get better. (Getting more sleep, in general, also really helped.) And the sugar connection seemed to be true for me, as well -- it's not like you can totally avoid sugar, like you said, but it helps for me to at least cut back on the amount of candy, cookies, etc., that I consume. Also, I'm lactose-intolerant and try to avoid dairy products anyway -- I don't eat enough of them to really know if it makes a difference for me.

About every two years or so i get ambitious enough to think about keeping a very simple food/skin journal -- write it down if I see skin troubles flaring up -- then write down what my diet has been like around that time. (Too bad I haven't been ambitious enough to ever start a journal.) You might consider trying it, though, to see if you can establish any specific connections for food vs. acne.
posted by oldtimey at 11:21 PM on May 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I cut out dairy and fried food from my diet, and mostly ate lots of fish and vegetables and tofu, with very few carbs. My skin stopped being oily, and I didn't get zits anymore.
I didn't like processed foods to begin with, and I used to get pretty revulsed looking at a plate of oily food and imagining all the oil eventually appearing on my face.

I like home-cooked food, I try to cook rather than eat out. At one point, I went a year or so without using salt in my cooking. I don't really use sugar much in my cooking... (unless I'm baking a cake or making apple crumble or something). Herbs and spices, things like onions, garlic, ginger, tomatoes, lemongrass, tumeric... etc, etc, etc - can go a long way in flavouring food. And I think it's fine to use salt in cooking, just in moderation - to complement rather than overwhelm. What sort of recipes are you looking for? I mean... what do you like to eat? (I have a rather Asian diet / repertoire.)

At one point I was just eating lots of steamed food and soup (with lots of leafy veggies and fish etc in it)... I think stir-fries are ok as long as there isn't an excess of oil used. If I had to cook a meal that would be friendly to my face, now - I'd probably make soup with tomatoes and ginger and onions and some meat (probably minced pork) and tofu and maybe shitake mushrooms. To make it tastier, though, I'd probably fry the meat with ginger and onions first, with minimal oil... and maybe I'd add a bit of fish sauce and chilli shrimp paste. And then I'd add water, and chopped-up chunky tomatoes and mushrooms, (and maybe rice noodles, if I wasn't being super-conscious about all sorts of carbs) and simmer it all for a while. And then I'd add in yummy leafy veggies maybe 6 minutes before I'd turn off the stove, and add an egg or two maybe 3 minutes before turning off the stove. That's sort of how I improvise when I can't get my head together to plan out specific meals and dishes. Other times, when I'm even lazier, I boil water, add fish stock, maybe add a bit of miso... throw in lots of vegetables and tofu and maybe fish (which would be canned in this instance since I'd be in lazy mode) and lastly an egg... and then, er, that's my soup.

I know that drinking lots of water helps too (although I'm not very vigilant about this myself..). And until recently, I didn't drink cola.

(Now I've started eating chocolate and junk food, and drinking cola...and it's showing up on my face, haha. I've started getting blackheads and a shiny face again!)
posted by aielen at 12:03 AM on May 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: As you've noticed, everyone is giving different answers - because different people react differently to different things. It's all about finding - through a process of elimination - what is causing your acne. This may take a while - it took me about 3-5 years to completely figure out my own issue.

Quite simply, I get acne whenever I eat anything with fat in it. Any kind of fat - animal fat, oil, ect. I cut fat out of my diet and my skin is virtually perfect.

I can eat as much sugar or processed foods or dairy (fat-free) or meat (lean) - and as long as nothing I eat has much fat - I get no acne.

Alternatively, if I have a perfectly "healthy" diet, but I eat anything with fat in it - including "good" fat such as olive oil, peanuts, ect - my face gets covered in zits.

Good luck to you. If you have any questions, feel free to write me. I've been dealing with this for almost 15 years.
posted by thelettere at 1:17 AM on May 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I guess no one has mentioned the Paleo Diet. It posits that grain, sugar, and dairy are the problem, not fat. I think you pretty much have to try everything. We all know people who eat crap and drink and smoke and have gorgeous skin...and the opposite. Just one person with hay fever might react to willow pollen and another to ragweed, skin reactions to food seem to vary quite widely. The problem is that it can take some time for the diet to have an effect, so I guess you can look for common threads and work from there.

One thing I do is that I monitor the fatty acid composition in my diet so that the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is around 3:1 (here is a journal article about the relation That has kept it in control for me. I eat the Paleo Diet most of the time, but I'm human when I encounter birthday cakes with delicious cream cheese icing.

There are lots of good reasons to keep that ratio besides skin health's good for the brain and the heart. And it can be done on most diets simply by adding in a good source of the omega-3 (fish, flax, hemp) and reducing the omega-6 by cutting out things like corn oil (most important for vegetarians since if you consume too much omega-6 your body can't process the plant sources). Both the Paleo and the Perricone diets emphasize the omega-3 thing. I now use coconut oil to cook with instead of olive because it doesn't mess up the ratio so much.

Sugar is also another common thread to most acne diets and another thing that is in general, beneficial to your health to reduce.

Increasing green consumption is another great way to attack inflammation and improve your health.

I think one thing that turned me from frozen food fanatic to local healthy food chef was that I asked for cooking classes as presents from friends and family. I took a few and that was enough to give me the basic skills and confidence to learn on my own. Now that I eat a diet free from most of the foods that people rely on for quick meals, being able to cook is a lifesaver. Also, I got a cheap combo blender/food processor, which has made a huge diference because I can make things quicker and have a nice smoothie in the morning.
posted by melissam at 6:11 AM on May 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Wash your hands a lot, so you reduce the amount of bacteria you transfer to your face. Wash your face with soap and lots of water, and in the shower, rinse your face for a long time.

Anecdotally, a friend really improved her skin by giving up dairy.

Topical antibiotics tend to be alcohol or grease-based. I have a lot of allergies, so oral antibiotics for acne are not a great idea. I make my own solution of water and erythromycin. (1 pill + 1 oz. water, dissolve overnight, shake before using). If you can find a pharmacy that does their own formulation, ask them for advice.
posted by theora55 at 7:13 AM on May 25, 2009

My friend has had excellent results following the simple treatment steps on She uses a mild facial wash (Kiss My Face), 2.5% benzoyl peroxide from the store, and Oil of Olay moisturizer with SPF 15 for sensitive skin. She didn't change her diet at all and her skin went from years of fairly severe acne (lots of whiteheads, but not cystic) to a consistently flawless complexion in about 10 weeks. The key for her was using that particular brand of benzoyl peroxide (store brands made her acne worse) and sticking to that routine: once in the morning, once at night.

Proof that it has nothing to do with diet (in her case anyway) is evident on her other problem areas, i.e. she isn't as consistent treating her back and shoulders and still gets backne.
posted by LuckySeven~ at 9:38 AM on May 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Hi,
I have had severe cystic acne so bad that i was on the clinical trials for Accutane, (somewhere there are adolescent pics of me in some hoary medical journals) and so bad I had zits on my *calves.* So I am something of a self-styled expert. Still break out in my 40s.

I know you want to know what diet regimen worked for people, but the problem is that you cannot prove causality by correlation. if someone said he or she cut out salt or sugar, and that person's acne got better, well when we feel good we generally exercise more and tend to our diet more, and when we eat crap, we're generally stressed. Stress produces cortisol which is proven to be acnegenic in suseptible people. So was it the stress or the crap that the person ate? Nobody knows. I am just saying that I have a lot of skepticism when it comes to diet and anecdotal or personal experiences.

That being said, personally I've cut out iodized salt, there is fair amount of evidence that too much iodine might be acnegenic, and it is doubtful in Western countries that you'd get goiter - especially if you eat seafood. Corey flood is absolutely right.

Caffeine might produce benign cysts in suseptible people, whether or not that translates to acne type cysts is an open question.

The most exciting thing is that there really does seem to be good correlation between high glycemic load, processed sugars and starches and acne. Dr. Perricoen's inflammation hypothesis, might be true. I have to look at the link, I posted it in another AskMe acne thread, but a French dermatologist, who noticed that aboriginal peopl NEVER get acne unless they adopt a Western diet, posits that gycemic load might create a cycle of insulin spike -> DHT ( a type of testosterone implicated in male pattern baldness -> DHT causing increased sebum productin and narrowing of the pores which causes acne.

Water unless you're thirsty don't drink lots, nothing wrong with it but if water did all that it was purported to do in this thread, well it would be miraculous. Most of the water + toxin + 8 glasses/day is now debunked. Sorry can't resist.
posted by xetere at 1:00 PM on May 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

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