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As you are growing up, acne causes are one of those mysteries that you live with.  No-one seems to really know exactly what causes this condition to appear in teenagers but also why people in their 20’s, 30’s and older can still experience the problem.  In recent times, research has shown that what you eat can be one of the causes of acne – so what foods should you avoid and what may actually help?

Battling acne

As a teen, I was destined to get acne because I had three things working against me – age, oily skin and trouble with nerves.  And while I did suffer (and still do, turns out I have sensitive skin and it reacts nastily to strange substances) I had friends who suffered even worse.  Back then, I remember a lot of talk about the treatment of acne, ranging from creams and washes through to more serious stuff that the doctor prescribed.

I don’t remember anyone saying that what you ate could impact your acne, either negatively or positively.

Acne symptoms and causes

In its most basic form, acne happens when the tiny holes in the skin become blocked – called sebaceous glands, they are where hairs normally grow from and are also called hair follicles.  Their jobs are to lubricate the hair and stop skin becoming dry and to do that, they create an oily substance called sebum.

When you have acne, the problem is that your skin produces too much sebum and this mixes with dead skin cells to block the follicle.  This creates those sore and uncomfortable types of spots, whiteheads and blackheads.  Normally harmless bacteria in the skin then infects the lump and this leads to the cysts or nodules that are really unsightly and sore.

Why acne happens

But why does the body go hyper and produce too much sebum, starting the process?  One of the top reasons is the production of testosterone in puberty which affects both boys and girls in different ways but can lead to acne in both.  Those glands are sensitive to hormonal changes and get a bit mixed up.

You can be prone to acne if your parents were also prone to it at the same age.  If one or more parents had it as a teen, then they are likely to blame (although it’s not their fault, of course).

Hormonal problems in women are also responsible for around 80% of cases of acne when you are past your teen years.  Everything from periods to pregnancy and other issues can all lead to bursts of acne.

Finally, you can have sensitive skin (like me) where touching the skin with certain products or substances can lead to an outbreak.  In some cases, medication to lead to acne and even smoking can trigger the condition.

Foods that fight acne

Now according to the NHS website, food doesn’t have an impact on acne and therefore what you eat is one of your acne causes.  However, there are quite a few studies that seem to argue with this point.

Glycemic index

For example, a study in the Journal of American Academy of Dermatology looked at the association between high glycemic index foods and acne.  The glycemic load looks at how each food impacts the blood sugar and a number of studies found that low glycemic load and high protein foods can positively affect hormones which in turn is a top cause of acne. 

So what does this actually mean?  Protein, fat and unrefined carbs should be eaten with each meal to achieve this while carbs such as fluffy white bread, refined grain cereals, pastries and sweets can have a negative impact.  Try to eat whole food carbs such as sweet potatoes, whole grains and whole fruit to balance out acne outbreaks.

Oily fish

Oily fish are the source of much discussion of late including their impact on cholesterol, diabetes and even productivity due to the benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids that are contained within it.  So it probably isn’t a surprise that the National Institute of Health says that oily fish can help ease acne.  The anti-inflammatory properties of these fish can help ease the inflammation and soreness associated with blocked follicles so aim for fish such as salmon, halibut, anchovies and sardines.

Salmon is a common example of an oily fish

Green tea

Okay, not a food but drinking green tea has been shown to have a beneficial effect on acne suffers for its anti-inflammatory content and also because it has natural anti-microbial properties – remember it is bacteria that take the spots from lumps to sore, inflamed spots.

Smoothies and juices

Because fruit and vegetables have substances such as beta-carotene in them, they can help with acne.  This stuff helps reduce the oil in the skin and are another natural anti-inflammatory.  Look to throw in a few dark leafy greens in your smoothies such as kale for added benefits while dark coloured berries have phytonutrients that boost the skin in general.

acne causes

Who doesn’t love a smoothie? And so might your skin if you suffer with acne

Acne causes in food

It isn’t a surprise that sugar is one of the evils named as a potential cause of acne – it seems to be the current bogeyman in place of fat.  But there are studies that show if you consume a lot of sugar, this can have a negative effect on your skin so watch your sugary drinks levels and keep a handle on sweets eaten at one time.

Some studies have said that cow’s milk may have an impact on acne for some people.  This is because it can possibly trigger the production of sebum and this leads to overly greasy skin and blocked follicles.  This seems to be mainly the case in teenagers.

Finally, greasy foods can make acne worse because they contain substances that make any inflammation in the body worse.  So if you have inflamed lumps on your skin, eating a lot of greasy, fast food can make this worse.

The chocolate question

The one food I can remember being said to be an acne cause was chocolate but even that is now relatively uncertain.  In fact, most experts will say there is nothing to show that chocolate makes acne worse.  One study in 2013 in the Netherlands did find a connection between people who ate 1.7 ounces of chocolate every day for four days.

There is some chance that chocolate can increase inflammatory properties in the body – with milk chocolate being the most likely.  Dark chocolate actually contains anti-inflammatory properties so if you find eating chocolate affects your skin, switch to dark and see how the reaction goes.


The connection between food and acne causes is still very vague, although much of the research is based on what the food contains – such as anti-inflammatory properties or nutrients that boost the skin.  So, if you find that you have a breakout, take a look at your diet over the last couple of days and keep a note.  Then if it happens again, see if there are any repeat culprits – this may be playing a part in the condition.

Do you find you have trouble with acne for any specific reason?  Is it related to something you eat or something you do?