Acne. You can wash your face religiously, mediate away all your stressors or pay for treatment after treatment and still wake up to greet new, infuriating red spots on your face every morning.
You can be spot-free for your entire high school years and then wake up one morning during college to find a mountain range formed on your face overnight — that plants itself there until you’re well into your 30s.
Acne is just one of the most frustrating things, isn’t it? Will we ever find a cure?
Diet as an acne cure
Well, that’s kind of what happened to identical twins Nina and Randa Nelson, 22, when they hit age 20. They had zero acne during high school and then broke out like mad when they reached college. Why? Or more important, how the heck did they get it to go away?
Well, they found an article on a website by Dr. John McDougall — a physician, nutrition expert and vegetarian — which explains that much of acne is caused by diet choices.
“Dr. McDougall also said that adopting a very low fat diet would cure acne. That meant that we had to eliminate many of the vegan foods we had been eating, like soymilk, guacamole, avocados, nuts, hummus, Clif bars, olives, and peanut butter,” the twins explain on McDougall’s site. They had been raised on a vegan diet, so in addition to that, cutting out all fats and oils had a miracle-like effect on their skin.
By doing this, “they cleared their skin and banished blemishes in three days with a vegan no-fat, no-oil diet,” Daily Mail reports. The twins explain that the diet’s effect was almost immediate, as no new breakouts formed.
Can certain foods really cause acne?
A study on diet and acne in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology explains, “Before the 1960s, certain foods were thought to exacerbate acne. However, subsequent studies dispelled these alleged associations as myth for almost half a century. Several studies during the last decade have prompted dermatologists to revisit the potential link between diet and acne.”
Thus, new studies are beginning to show some kind of link — some weak, some strong — between the foods we ingest and the condition of our skin. Here’s a lowdown on some of the research that’s currently circulating in regard to diet and acne.
1. Vegan diets
Can a vegan diet cure acne? In the twins’ case, they had grown up on vegan diets and already ate what they called a pretty clean diet. So when their acne began showing up, they were already on vegan diets. Likewise, Adria DeCorte, a nutritionist and blogger at Healthy Vegas Vegan, shares her frustrations about acne: “I have adult acne. I am also a high raw vegan. I have the cleanest diet and lifestyle of anyone I know. I do everything right. So what gives?”
These two cases show that a vegan diet may not necessarily hold the answer to clear skin. However, at the same time, a vegan diet may not hurt. After all, vegans cut out all animal products, like dairy, meat and eggs — most of which carry several strains of hormones, pesticides and bacteria. Livestrong reports that beef and pork “increase insulin levels, and in turn inflammation, which contributes to acne. Also, meats are acid-forming foods, which means they temporarily increase your body’s pH above the ideal level of 7.35 to 7.45. Too much acid in your body also increases inflammation.”
2. Oils and fats
McDougall states, “A high-fat diet increases the amounts of fats in and on the skin (sebum). With extreme changes in food intake such as almost total avoidance of fat (like the McDougall diet) or inclusion of fat as the sole source of food, the amount of sebum production has been found to be greatly altered.” He also notes that a high-fat diet causes poor circulation, and greasy/oily fingers on skin directly contributes to acne by plugging pores and feeding bacteria.
Similarly, a study from Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology attributes one of the major causes of acne to “saturated fats including trans-fats and deficient omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids.” Although the study explains there is “no doubt that androgen (hormone) excess promotes acne,” the researchers go on to show that diet can also be a contributing factor.
3. Milk and dairy
Milk has an abundance of hormones (like growth hormones!), causes insulin spikes, produces excess sebum oils and “glues together dead skin cells inside your pores” — all of which contribute to acne, according to Clear Skin Forever.
So you can pretty much bet that the milk, dairy and cheese you’re consuming are causing your blemishes. Well, now that’s a start! Devin Mooers (ironic last name?), founder of Clear Skin Forever, suggests eliminating dairy completely or opting for organic, grass-fed cow’s milk.
Carbs just always seem to get a bad rap no matter how delicious they are. For acne specifically, several studies have been attributing high-glycemic index carbohydrates to causing acne. High-glycemic carbs (like white rice and white bread) spike your blood sugar and insulin levels, whereas low-glycemic carbs (like oatmeal and brown rice) are digested more slowly and keep blood sugar levels more steady. The sharp increase of insulin levels (from high-glycemic foods) are known to increase the production of androgen — hormones that directly cause acne.
Additionally, author and writer Jennifer Blanchard shares her firsthand account on how even going gluten free (avoiding wheat products) helped clear her acne: “When I reintroduced gluten and dairy into my diet after the elimination period was over, I immediately saw my symptoms — and acne — return. Amazed and so grateful, I cried. I finally had the cure for my acne.”
More: Eating fruits and veggies makes skin healthier, says new study
When it comes down to it, it seems we’re all on our own in our personal acne battles. A “cure” for me may not be a “cure” for you — as study after study will reveal that acne can be caused by our hormones, genes, skin care regimens and, yes, our diets. You may have to explore several solutions — like elimination diets, exercise plans or medicinal face washes — to finally find clear skin again.
But I encourage you to not give up. Try, try, and try again. Your acne cure is out there — you just have to find it.