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Does cutting out sugar help acne?

Acne is a common skin condition that affects people of all ages, though it is most prevalent among teenagers and young adults. It is characterized by areas of skin with seborrhea (scaly red skin), comedones (blackheads and whiteheads), papules (pinheads), pustules (pimples), and nodules (large papules). While the exact causes of acne are complex and not fully understood, major contributing factors include excess sebum production, follicular hyperkeratinization, inflammation, and proliferation of the bacteria Cutibacterium acnes.

One potential dietary trigger that is often cited as influencing acne is sugar consumption. The notion that eating less sugar can improve acne has become popular in recent years. But is there any truth to this claim? Let’s take a closer look at the evidence surrounding diet, sugar intake, and acne.

Does Sugar Consumption Affect Acne?

There are several hypothesized mechanisms by which sugar may theoretically worsen acne:

  • Sugar spikes insulin levels, which increases androgen secretion and sebum production. Androgens and sebum are involved in acne pathogenesis.
  • High glycemic index foods (which includes many sugar-containing foods) increase inflammation, which can exacerbate acne.
  • Sugars may alter gut microbiota in a way that promotes Cutibacterium acnes growth.

However, the overall evidence linking sugar intake and acne is mixed. Some key research findings include:

  • In clinical studies, there is no consistent association between high glycemic load diets and acne severity.
  • Total dietary sugar intake does not appear to correlate with acne severity in cohort studies.
  • Food frequency questionnaires find minimal to no association between sugar-containing food intake and acne.
  • Higher chocolate or sweets consumption is linked to acne in some but not all observational studies.
  • Intervention trials restricting sugary food intake for acne patients show inconclusive results.

Overall the evidence is insufficient to conclude that dietary sugar intake has a significant influence on development or severity of acne. More rigorous clinical trials are needed to better understand if sugar modulates acne pathogenesis.

Foods with a Glycemic Index Under 55

While the role of sugar and high glycemic index foods in acne remains unclear, some people still choose to limit sugar intake. Focusing on low glycemic index foods under 55 can help reduce blood sugar spikes. Here are some examples of low glycemic foods:

Fruits Vegetables Grains Proteins
Apples Broccoli Oats Soybeans
Grapefruit Cabbage Barley Lentils
Cherries Lettuce Quinoa Chicken
Peaches Cucumber Sweet potato Turkey
Plums Bell peppers Pumpernickel Eggs

Tips for Reducing Sugar Intake

For those looking to lower their sugar consumption, here are some helpful tips:

  • Avoid sugary drinks like soda, juice, and sweetened coffee and tea. Drink more water instead.
  • Limit your intake of candy, baked goods, ice cream, and other sweets.
  • Watch out for hidden sugars in condiments, salad dressings, sauces, and processed foods.
  • Satisfy sweet cravings with fresh fruit instead of sugary treats.
  • Read nutrition labels closely to choose low sugar versions of foods when possible.
  • Skip the white sugar, syrups, and honey you add to foods and beverages.
  • Try natural sugar substitutes like stevia and monk fruit.
  • Eat balanced meals with lean protein, vegetables, and whole grains.

With some small diet adjustments, reducing daily sugar intake can be quite achievable.

The Bottom Line

In summary, while many people believe sugar worsens acne, the overall evidence is not conclusive enough to prove a direct link. Limiting sugar may theoretically help acne in some cases, but is unlikely to lead to significant improvement for most. More research is needed to understand how components of the modern Western diet, including sugar intake, may interact with acne pathogenesis.

For those wishing to reduce sugar intake as part of an overall healthy diet, focusing on whole, unprocessed foods like fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, nuts and seeds is a good approach. Staying hydrated and limiting sweet beverages is also beneficial. But dramatic restrictions of sugar intake are likely unnecessary for the majority of acne patients.

Consulting with a dermatologist and registered dietitian can provide guidance on the most effective acne treatment plan for your individual situation. Achieving and maintaining clear skin involves a holistic approach, including appropriate skincare, stress management, sleep, nutrition, and in some cases medication. While dietary changes may play a small role, they should not replace standard medical therapy for acne.