What's the scoop on diet and acne?

In our blog, Toronto dermatologist Dr. Michelle Levy writes about common skin problems, controversies and developments, and provides science-based answers to common questions.

One of the most frequent questions I get in my practice as a dermatologist from is about whether or not someone’s diet is causing their acne.  Interestingly, the dermatologic community's thoughts on this issue have gone back and forth over the past few decades.  Today, there appears to be increasing scientific evidence that diet may play a role in exacerbating acne.

It was once thought that, because those with acne often have oily skin, eating oily, greasy foods might make acne worse.  This gave rise to the commonly-held belief that eating chocolate or pizza will cause acne to flare.  Flawed studies conducted decades ago seemed to support this, until better studies done more recently put this to rest; eating fat does not cause acne.

Acne is caused by genetic and hormonal factors. Usually, one’s diet does not cause acne, but may contribute to its severity. This is still somewhat controversial, and more research needs to be done to elucidate exactly which dietary factors make acne worse and how modifying one’s diet can be helpful.

Dairy and acne:

Milk contains hormones such as androgens and insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), which are postulated to contribute to acne by leading to increased production of sebum and blockage of hair follicles.  Several studies in which researchers surveyed large groups about their diets and whether they had certain health conditions found a link between consuming dairy products and acne, most significantly between skim milk.  Skim milk was correlated with acne on more than one occasion, possibly because skim milk contains different levels of hormones.  All of these studies are limited by their design; they show a correlation between dairy and acne but are not able to prove that drinking milk or eating dairy products causes acne. In all cases, the associations between milk consumption and acne were weak, and this evidence is not sufficient to make firm recommendations. Whey supplements, which contain dairy, have been shown to exacerbate acne.

Glycemic Load:

The glycemic index refers to a rating given foods based on how much they cause blood sugar (glucose) levels to rise, while the glycemic load takes in to account both the glycemic index and the carbohydrate content/serving size, for an estimate on a food's impact on blood sugar.  A glycemic index diet is a diet based on how foods affect your blood sugar.  High glycemic foods include those that are high in certain carbohydrates, such as sugar or white flour, as well as white potatoes and white rice.  A more detailed explanation of this type of diet can be found here, and a list of the glycemic index of many common foods can be found on this site.

Some scientists theorize that these foods cause high levels of the hormone insulin, which leads to increases in IGF-1 and increased sebum production.  Insulin also raises levels of androgens (male hormones) that are known to contribute to acne.

Two small studies have evaluated whether or not eating a low glycemic diet could improve acne symptoms.  In these studies, participants who ate low-glycemic diets for 12 weeks had improvement in their acne.  The studies were short in duration and we don't know if this improvement is sustained over longer periods of time.

Other studies have shown that those whose diet is rich in sugary foods, sodas, bread and rice have higher rates of acne than those whose diets are based on fruits and vegetables.  Like the dairy studies, studies using questionnaires of what people eat are limited in that they can not prove causation.



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Michelle Levy

Dr. Michelle Levy is a board-certified dermatologist specializing in medical and aesthetic dermatology. A graduate of the University of Toronto's Faculty of Medicine, Dr. Levy provides a full spectrum of dermatologic services in Toronto, Canada. Education: M.D., University of Toronto, 1999 Residency in Dermatology, University of Toronto, 1999-2004 Employment History: Self-employed, North York, Ontario, 2005-Present Medcan. Consultant Dermatologist. 2007-Present