Research suggests that what you eat plays a big part in your skin health.
But what foods are good for your acne-prone skin?
In this article, I will take a closer look at why diet is essential to consider when it comes to acne and 10 foods to include in your diet to reduce breakouts.
The History of Diet and Acne
The link between diet and acne has always caused controversy.
Literature examining diet and acne over the past 100 years is mixed, although nutritional therapy as a potential treatment for acne is not new.
During the late 1800s and early 1900s, conventional acne treatments included diet as part of their healing protocols .
Throughout history, much of the focus was on foods to avoid as a treatment for acne. In the 1920s, MacKee and his team of dermatologists advised that “avoiding candy, pastry, soda water, ice cream, chocolate, rich foods, fried foods, cocoa and gravy as a bare minimum plus or minus tea, coffee, alcohol and spices” .
In the 1930s, a dermatologist called Goodman advised avoiding starchy foods, bread rolls, noodles, spaghetti, potatoes, oily nuts, chop suey, chow mein, and waffles. Goodman favoured the following foods to be a suitable acne cure: cooked and raw fruit, farina, rice, wheat, oatmeal, green vegetables, boiled or broiled meat and poultry, clear soup, vegetable soup, and an abundance of water .
MacKee also highlighted the importance of digestion and a daily bowel movement with acne prevention and stated that “if there is indigestion or intestinal troubles the alimentary canal must be attacked”. Today we continue to discuss the link between skin and digestion, and you can read more about it here in my article ‘Acne and Gut Health - The Link Between Digestion and Your Skin’.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that the diet-acne connection became less favourable, and this trend continued for several decades to come. This change in approach coincided with discovering medicinal-based treatments, such as topical retinoids and antibiotics.
However, over the last decade, research has led dermatologists and dieticians to reflect on this connection significantly. It is now more challenging to ignore compelling evidence of a close association between diet and acne, with nutritional therapy becoming of interest in acne treatment.
In this article, I look at how diet affects acne-prone skin and 10 foods to include in your diet to reduce breakouts.
How Does Diet Affect Acne-Prone Skin?
Research isn't conclusive on what foods cause acne, and how your skin reacts to foods can be very individual. You may respond differently to foods than someone else.
However, some foods may be more problematic than others, such as dairy, sugar, gluten, ultra-processed, and fatty foods.
Diet can influence sebum (oil) production on your skin, inflammation, and hormone regulation, all of which play a role in acne.
While acne is a multifactorial condition with factors such as stress playing a potential role, what you eat can make a big difference to the production of sebum and your overall skin health.
To find out your potential triggers, an IgG Food Intolerance Test can quickly identify any problematic foods. At the beginning of my Nutrition for Skin Health Programme, I include a test to establish this information at the outset.
You can also keep a food diary and note any trigger foods before leaving them out of the diet to see if the situation improves.
But what foods can be beneficial for acne-prone skin and should be included in the diet?
10 Foods to Include in Your Diet to Reduce Breakouts
Carrots are rich in beta-carotene, which gets converted into vitamin A in the body. Vitamin A is a potent antioxidant and plays a role in cell turnover (like a natural exfoliation), can reduce inflammation, and help strengthen the skin against bacteria which can cause acne flare-ups.
One study showed an association between lower vitamin A levels and more severe acne, with improved outcomes for those given vitamin A. The results concluded that vitamin A plasma levels play an essential role in the pathogenesis of acne, and low levels can contribute to the worsening of symptoms .
Carrots are an easy way to get more vitamin A into your diet, as they are perfect for a quick snack dipped into hummus or guacamole. They are also great for chopping into soups, stews, sauces, or grated into your favourite salad or slaw.
Other good sources of vitamin A include kale, spinach, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, pumpkin, tomatoes and red peppers.
Packed full of phytonutrients, berries such as strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries offer potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits for skin health. Berries can help reduce acne-induced inflammation and reduce the severity of symptoms in mild to moderate cases. Their high vitamin C content can also help boost collagen production to aid skin healing.
Blueberries have a high content of anthocyanins, compared to strawberries and raspberries, which gives the berries their dark blue colour. These anthocyanins contain antioxidants that quench free radicals and help prevent damage to collagen. They may also help to balance hormones and reduce oil production on the skin, to improve acne.
Berries are a versatile way to get more antioxidants into the diet, alongside a range of vitamins and minerals, and fibre to support skin health. They are also low in natural sugars than many other fruits and are a great option to add to breakfast and snacks.
Other antioxidant-rich fruits include red grapes, pears, apricots, oranges, mango, papaya, and watermelon.
Packed full of nutrients, broccoli is an excellent skin-clearing vegetable. Broccoli contains vitamins A, B complex, C, E, and K. Its high antioxidant content helps fight free radical damage and support acne-prone skin.
Broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables contain specific phytonutrients that can help with hormone balance. These phytonutrients help to block excess estrogens, and the high fibre content helps excrete excess estrogens.
Research also shows that a higher intake of cruciferous vegetables is significantly associated with lower circulating levels of inflammatory markers . Reducing inflammation is vital in tackling those acne breakouts.
Aim for at least 1-2 cups of cruciferous vegetables a day to make the most of their nutritional benefits. Lightly steam or eat raw to retain as much of the phytonutrients as possible.
There are many cruciferous vegetables to choose from alongside broccoli, including cauliflower, cabbage, Brussel sprouts, kale, radish, watercress, bok choy, rocket (arugula), and other leafy greens.
Avocados are very nutritious and contain a wide variety of nutrients, including vitamins K, C, B5, B6, E, folate, plus more potassium than bananas.
Avocados are one of the few fruits to contain rich levels of naturally occurring monounsaturated fatty acids, essential for healthy skin. They help target inflammation and oxidative stress, protect the skin’s natural oil barrier, keep it hydrated, plumper and younger-looking.
The high content of vitamins E and A may help speed up skin repair and improve skin conditions such as acne. They have vitamin E in the form of alpha-tocopherol, which is the most active in the body, and most of your RDA for vitamin E can come from just one medium avocado!
One study looked at the dietary habits of people who consumed avocados and found those who ate them regularly to be much healthier overall than people who didn’t eat this fruit .
Avocados are well-known for the classic guacamole dip and make a versatile addition to salads, smoothies, and dressings. You can add avocados to main meals as an accompaniment or slice in half and spoon out the flesh for a quick and easy snack.
5. Pumpkin Seeds
Pumpkin seeds are rich in phytonutrients and minerals such as manganese, copper, magnesium, iron and zinc, alongside vitamins E and C and essential fatty acids.
Zinc, in particular, is beneficial for acne-prone skin due to its powerful antioxidant properties. Research also shows that zinc reduces excess sebum, which can cause acne if overproduced on the skin . Pumpkin seeds are one of the richest plant sources of zinc, alongside beans and pulses. Seafood, such as oysters and meat, also contain high levels of zinc. You may even benefit from a zinc supplement if dietary sources are low.
Pumpkins seeds are a good source of polyunsaturated fatty acids, including omega 3 and 6, which may help regulate oil production and help with skin health and acne management.
Pumpkin seeds are easy to incorporate into your diet, and you can add them to meals or eat them as a quick and nutritious snack. Try adding to dairy-free yoghurt and fruit or blended in smoothies. You can add them to a healthy muffin or bread recipe.
As with many nuts and seeds, they contain phytic acid, which can affect the bioavailability of some nutrients you eat. To reduce the phytic acid content, you can soak or sprout them before eating.
Other skin-friendly nuts and seeds include sunflower seeds, flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, almonds and brazil nuts.
Salmon and other oily fish are a good source of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, with regular consumption linked to a reduction in acne symptoms . Omega-3 fatty acids can help regulate hormones and the overproduction of sebum, which is essential for acne-prone skin.
As well as lowering inflammation, eating salmon may also decrease IGF-1, a protein that increases the risk of acne. Increased IGF-1 in addition to androgens may influence acne in adult men and woman. However, IGF-1 appears to have a more substantial effect on adult women with acne, while androgens may play a more significant role in acne for men.
Salmon is also a good source of zinc and vitamin E, two skin-friendly nutrients.
You can eat salmon in various ways, and it can be pan-fried, grilled, baked or poached. You can flavour it in many ways, such as lemon and herbs, chilli, garlic, ginger or made into a delicious fish curry. Aim for around 2-3 portions of oily fish per week.
Other good options for oily fish include mackerel, anchovies, sardines, pilchards, trout and herring.
Sauerkraut is a finely cut fermented raw cabbage. This fermentation process creates beneficial bacteria or ‘live cultures’ that give sauerkraut its health benefits. Fermented foods such as sauerkraut are incredibly healing for your gut and your skin.
The link between gut and skin health has been the subject of much research, and you can read more on this in my article ‘Acne and Gut Health - The Link Between Digestion and Your Skin’. Influenced by factors such as diet, your gut microbiome may significantly impact acne progression . Probiotic foods such as sauerkraut can support the delicate balance of beneficial bacteria in the gut and improve skin conditions such as acne and eczema.
When buying sauerkraut, look for a quality product that does contain the live cultures. It makes a great accompaniment to salads, sandwiches or even homemade burgers and gives a tangy hit to meals.
Other beneficial fermented foods include kombucha and kimchi. My favourite brand is Loving Foods, as they use organic ingredients and have a delicious range of different flavours.
8. Green Tea
Green tea is particularly rich in epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), a polyphenol that research shows may help to benefit acne-prone skin .
EGCG is anti-androgenic, making it effective at reducing sebum excretions in the skin. High or fluctuating androgen levels can stimulate the sebaceous glands to produce more oil, clog pores and increase bacterial growth. EGCG helps to improve this cycle and reduce oil overproduction.
Research isn’t clear on just how much green tea is needed, but swapping your usual cuppa for green tea might help soothe your acne.
You can also apply a cool cloth soaked in green tea or a cold teabag to acne-prone areas of your face for around 10-15 minutes.
Turmeric is a culinary spice commonly used throughout the world and is well known for adding a golden yellow colour to food. Turmeric contains the polyphenol curcumin, which exhibits antioxidant, anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory properties.
A recent review carried out into the clinical evidence of the effects of turmeric on skin health showed good evidence that it may have therapeutic benefits. The review looked at the evidence from studies using both ingested turmeric and topical application . As well as helping to reduce inflammation, curcumin may inhibit the growth of acne-causing bacteria.
Supplements that contain curcumin, the most active part of the turmeric root, have become popular and may be an excellent therapeutic option.
Turmeric is a popular addition to curries and Middle Eastern dishes and is used in ‘golden milk’, a traditional Indian drink with its roots in Ayurveda.
10. Brown Rice
While for many, it is helpful to limit high carbohydrate foods when tackling breakouts, brown rice can be an excellent alternative to refined white rice. Brown rice has a lower glycemic index (GI) than white rice, is digested more slowly and has a lesser effect on blood sugar. When your blood sugar rises quickly, it causes the body to release a hormone called insulin. Having excess insulin in your blood can cause your oil glands to produce more oil, increasing your risks of acne.
Brown rice is also a rich source of B vitamins, magnesium and antioxidants. B vitamins are great for skin health as they help to keep it soft and smooth. B2 (riboflavin) helps prevent dryness and overproduction of oil, leading to breakouts. It also helps with zinc absorption, essential for skin health. B7 (Biotin) also fights inflammation and protects against acne.
Brown rice can be an excellent accompaniment to many dishes such as curries and stews and other meat and vegetarian dishes. But be aware of portion sizes when it comes to your carbohydrates and aim to fill the plate with more non-starchy vegetables.
We can’t ignore the compelling evidence that diet plays an essential role in the health of your skin and that it should form a critical part of your overall skin-healing protocol.
These 10 foods to include in your diet to reduce breakouts explores the foods shown in research that play a beneficial role in skin health, especially for acne-prone skin. However, it is essential to remember that we are all individual when it comes to diet and skin
health and not everyone will have the same experience with all foods.
If you would like to explore diet and nutrition for your skin condition, please get in touch here for a FREE 20 minute discovery call or email firstname.lastname@example.org and find out more about my Nutrition for Skin Health Programme.
2. Smith R, Mann N. Glycemic load and acne. In: Pappas A, editor. Nutrition and skin lessons for anti-aging, beauty and healthy skin. 1st ed. Springer; New York: 2011. p. 147.
4. Smith R, Mann N. Glycemic load and acne. In: Pappas A, editor. Nutrition and skin lessons for anti-aging, beauty and healthy skin. 1st ed. Springer; New York: 2011. p. 147. [Google Scholar]