Does Bad Nutrition Cause Acne?

Prone to breakouts? We have a tip. Changing your diet could improve your skin

Learn how your diet can contribute to your skin problems

There is no "one size fits all" cause for acne. Acne occurs when dirt and other buildup blocks the skin's pores, giving the oils that naturally protect our skin nowhere to go. This oil buildup acts as a breeding ground for bacteria, which can multiply and turn into the puffy red bumps we know as common pimples.

But what causes that reaction in our skin?

Age-old advice suggests that bad nutrition is directly linked to acne breakouts. We've been told for years to avoid pizza, ice cream, and other junk food for the sake of our skin—but is nutrition really the culprit?

After extensive research, it's been tough for medical professionals to draw a strict connection between nutrition and acne. Bad nutrition, at its heart, does not cause acne—but it can definitely make flare-ups worse for someone who already suffers from a hereditary acne problem.

Along with good skin care regimens, using products such as foundation formulated specifically for acne-prone skin, and treating blackhead flare-ups with a blackhead remover or blackhead masks, you can improve your skin simply by tweaking what you eat.

Let's take a look at some of the foods that can make a preexisting acne problem worse.


Dairy is a common culprit for people suffering from severe acne issues. According to Healthline, regular milk consumption increases the body's insulin levels, which can worsen the severity of acne. Cow's milk, specifically, also contains amino acids that can prompt the body's "fight or flight" response to bacteria buildup (in other words, dairy from cows tends to make the body react more strongly to conditions that cause acne).

Refined Carbohydrates (Sugar)

Studies have shown that people with more severe acne tend to consume more refined carbohydrates and sugars than people with little or no acne. This does not mean that carbs cause acne—instead, it goes back to the notion that certain types of food can make acne issues much worse for people who already deal with them. For example, two siblings who carry the same genetic predisposition to spotty skin may both have pimples, but the sibling who eats tons of pasta, white rice, brownies, and sugary sodas will likely suffer from more severe acne.

Fast Food and Junk Food

How often has popular media made the connection between fast food and acne? Americans tend to consume fast food and junk food in much larger quantities than the rest of the world, which may be one reason our nation's teens suffer from flare-ups so frequently. This may be because a diet based on the high fat, grease, sugar, and salt content of common fast food staples—like French fries, chicken nuggets, and soda—tells our bodies to produce the hormones that fight off bacteria. In other words, the hormones that lead to acne.

Fat and Grease

Omega-6 fatty acids, which are commonly found in soy oils and corn oils, tend to cause inflammation in our bodies. Inflammation is not a friend of acne—inflamed, swollen skin has a much harder time dealing with bacteria and oil buildups, which makes it a popular stomping ground for pimples and zits. Some doctors have suggested that offsetting your diet with Omega-3 fatty acids (found in things like fish and fish oil) can reduce that inflammation, which likewise reduces the intensity of inflammation-related acne flareups.

Food Allergies

This might seem like a no-brainer, but eating foods that you are allergic or sensitive to can have a significant impact on your skin quality. Hives are one of the most common signs of an allergic reaction, but acne can also be a sign of a more subtle food intolerance. When someone is sensitive or allergic to a food, their body mistakenly thinks that a certain food is a threat to the body—therefore, the immune system goes on the offensive to find the threat and deal with it. We see this reaction in the form of small reactions like hives, redness, and itching—or in more severe allergies, life-threatening conditions like anaphylactic shock. For people who are already predisposed to acne, eating foods that they're sensitive to can translate to more frequent or more severe flare-ups.

So what's the solution?

Bad nutrition doesn't outright cause acne, but it can make acne worse. To that end, you can lessen or control acne flare-ups by improving your diet. Exchanging junk food and greasy fast food for heart-healthy, anti-inflammatory meals can drastically improve your skin quality (as well as a ton of other health benefits!).

For people with food intolerances, you can try elimination diets (with your doctor's supervision) to identify what you're sensitive or allergic to, then create a specialized diet that avoids or cuts out those foods.

Some nutrients and minerals may also help keep your skin clear, like turmeric, probiotics, green tea, and Vitamins A, D, and E. A regular skin care routine will keep your skin healthy, while a nutritious diet can help keep it clear of acne. Especially for teenagers, people going through hormonal changes, or people who carry a genetic predisposition for acne, solid nutrition can help reduce and control acne flare-ups—even if nutrition isn't the exact cause.

Resources — Medical News TodayHealthline, The Atlantic