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Image: Woman holding a mirror. Through the reflection, she's looking at the camera. She has some acne.

What's the Real Connection Between Acne, Food, and Hormones?

If you are a fellow acne sufferer, you’ve probably read plenty of articles on how to tackle those dreaded spots. 

I am sure a few of those articles have also mentioned the importance of paying attention to your diet and hormones if you are struggling with acne, especially if your symptoms are still present into your adult years. 

I read those articles, for years, and tried to break down exactly how to get rid of my acne, starting from the inside. One of the biggest, recurring themes was the connection between acne and our diet as well as acne and our hormones.

And I also noticed that not only did diet directly impact acne, but it indirectly affected acne sufferers by having a huge impact on our hormones. We all know hormones are the main acne contributor; it’s the main reason why acne usually first appears as we go through puberty, but also flares up during menstruation. 

However, we are now connecting the dots to how our diet is impacting hormone fluctuation as well, which in many cases makes acne worse. More and more evidence is suggesting the true role that our diet plays in not only our health but the health of our skin as well.

If you are also still struggling with this irksome condition, read on to learn more about the connection between acne, food, and hormones. 

What causes acne? 

Most forms are acne are often caused by a combination of factors including oily skin, clogged pores, bacteria on the skin, and overall inflammation in the body. Hormonal changes are, of course, a huge factor and usually are the reason acne develops in the first place when we go through puberty.

This type of acne is usually polycystic ovary syndrome, which is caused by the menstrual cycle causing fluctuations in our hormones and leading to excess oil production. 

Another factor that can lead to acne is medication use, such as steroids and lithium. What we put on our body is just as important as what we put in it. Hair products, makeup, and skincare can directly contribute to clogged pores. Additionally, genetic factors, pollution, smoking, and stress can all be contributors as well. 

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Diet and acne 

And of course, another major factor that contributes to acne is the food we eat. Some foods can cause inflammation throughout the body which can trigger acne outbreaks. Diet can directly affect our hormones and cause them to make acne even worse. 

Food high in sugar, for example, can cause a rise in natural insulin levels, which alters hormones that can then affect our skin. Additionally, milk and whey protein have also been linked to acne as well as a variety of other foods. 

Hormones and acne 

Hormonal acne is pretty self-explanatory, as it is acne tied to the fluctuations in our hormones. While it first appears during puberty, it also often follows us into our adult lives.

It is especially common in women, as monthly cycles also contribute to fluctuations. It is estimated that 50% of women between 20-29 struggle with acne and 25% of women aged 40-49. 

Specifically, hormone fluctuations may aggravate acne severity by increasing overall skin inflammation, oil production in pores, clogged skin cells in hair follicles, and producing the acne-causing bacteria, Propionibacterium acnes. 

The diet-hormone connection 

Hormones are complex, and when they are out of balance, they can cause weight gain, sleep issues, and acne. While the exact connection between diet and hormones isn’t fully known, there are studies showing that what we eat can show up on our skin. 

Some of the most common triggers for hormonal acne are:

-Use of stimulants such as caffeine and depressants like alcohol 

-Diet high in sodium and processed sugar 

-Consuming artificial ingredients such as white flour and genetically modified ingredients 

6 Foods that contribute to acne 

1. Refined Grains and Sugars 

In many cases, people with acne are found to eat a diet higher in refined carbohydrates and sugar, compared to those who don’t struggle with acne. One study found that people who consistently consumed sugar had a 30% greater risk of developing acne and those who regularly ate pastries and cakes had a 20% greater risk. 

Foods rich in refined carbohydrates include:

-Bread, crackers, and cereals made with white flour

-Pasta and white rice

-Soda and other sugary beverages

-Sweeteners such as cane sugar, maple syrup, honey, or agave. 

The increased risk of acne is likely because of the effects refined carbs have on our blood sugar and insulin levels. Refined carbs are quickly absorbed into the bloodstream, which rapidly raised sugar levels. When our blood sugar rises, insulin levels rise with it to help move the blood sugar out of the bloodstream and into our cells. 

While this increased blood sugar is not healthy in general, it is particularly concerning for those battling acne. Insulin makes our hormones more active, which can contribute to acne development due to increase oil production in our glands.

So, whether acne is caused by our consumption of refined grains and sugars directly or this is impacting your hormones, it is probably an important food group to ditch in the quest for better skin. 

2. Dairy products 

While many studies have found links to teenage acne and dairy products, it is also a concern for those suffering from adult acne. One study found that adults who regularly consumed milk or ice cream products were four times more likely to develop acne. 

Despite continued studies showing that there does indeed seem to be a correlation between dairy and acne, it is not clear why dairy causes it. One possibility is that dairy also increases insulin levels which, as we just discussed, can have an effect on blood-sugar levels, which can contribute to increased acne. Additionally, cow’s milk contains amino acids that stimulate the liver to produce more IGF-1, which has been linked to the increased development of acne. 

3. Fast food 

As we briefly touched on above, acne is continually linked to a Western-style diet, which is rich in calories, fat, and refined carbohydrates. This diet is usually associated with large amounts of fast food items as well such as hamburgers, hot dogs, french fries, sodas, and milkshakes. 

One study surveyed over 5,000 Chinese teenagers and young adults and found that high-fat diets were associated with a 43% increased risk of developing acne and eating fast food on a regular basis increased acne production by 17%, as well. 

It is possible that fast food increases the frequency of acne because the foods affect gene expression and alter our hormone levels, which both promote increased production of acne. 

4. Omega-6 fats 

Omega-6 fats, which are also found in high levels in a Western diet, have also been linked to increased levels of inflammation and acne. Omega-6 fats are found most commonly in corn and soy oils, which are staples in a typical Western diet. 

While omega-3s are good for us in higher doses, the imbalance of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids can push the body into an inflammatory state, which can worsen acne. 

5. Chocolate 

I know I won’t be making any friends with this bullet, but studies have shown a link between chocolate and acne. One recent study showed that acne-prone adult males who consumed 25 grams of dark chocolate daily had increased production of acne over a two-week period.

Another study concluded that males who were given cocoa powder daily had a significant effect on acne lesions after one week of consumption. Chocolate could be a culprit of increased acne because it increases the reactivity of the immune system to acne-causing bacteria.

However, unlike the rest of this list, chocolate has actually been found to have a positive link to hormonal balance. When consumed in moderation, dark chocolate can help improve overall hormone health. Since there is conflicting information on this is it probably still best to eliminate it when first trying to get acne under control. 

6. Foods you are sensitive to 

At the root of acne is one common thread: inflammation. This is why a common treatment for severe acne is anti-inflammatory drugs, like corticosteroids. Food can directly contribute to inflammation through food allergies and sensitivities, also known as hypersensitivity reactions. 

Food sensitivities occur when our immune system mistakenly identifies food as a threat and therefore launches an immune attack against the food. This results in high levels of pro-inflammatory molecules circulating throughout the body, which can aggravate acne. 

Since everyone is different and there are countless foods that we can be sensitive to, the best way to determine if you have a food allergy is by completing an elimination diet under the supervision of a medical professional.

Elimination diets work by temporarily removing certain foods from your diet in order to determine if they are having a negative impact on your health. Once you have gotten your acne under control you work to slowly re-introduce one of the eliminated foods at a time.

If you notice a resurgence in your acne when the food is added back into your diet it is safe to assume you have an allergy or food sensitivity to that particular food. 

How to treat hormonal acne 

While eliminating all the above foods should help you see noticeable improvements in your skin, there are some additional treatments you can try to naturally get rid of that pesky hormonal acne. Natural treatments are a great option as they are free from side effects that often come with harsh chemical formulas. 

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Tea Tree Oil

Tea tree has become very popular in skincare products for its naturally anti-inflammation properties. Products with just 5% tea tree oil were found to help relieve mild to moderate acne. Tea tree oil is available in a wide range of skincare products including cleansers, toners, and even spot treatments. 

We love the Throughoughly Clean Tea Tree Oil Face wash from Dessert Essence. Equipped with Eco-Harvest® certified tea tree oil, castile soap, and coconut oil making it ideal for people with oil-prone and acne-prone skin. 

Alpha hydroxy acid

Alpha hydroxy acid (which is more commonly labeled AHAs) are plant acids derived mostly from citrus fruits. AHAs can help to remove excess dead skin cells that are clogging pores. Additionally, AHAs have been found to help minimize the appearance of acne scars. 

AHA is usually found in skincare products such as masks and creams. They are often found in retinoids for their superpowers in reducing dark spots. 

We love Solution from Glossier. Unlike physical scrubs the Solution uses a blend of 10% of acids, including AHAs, to “unglue” dead skin cells and clear them away leaving your complexion smoother and softer. 

Green Tea

Green tea is also revered for its anti-inflammatory properties. While you could opt for just drinking a few cups of green tea a day to reap the benefits, green tea is also showing up on our beauty counters for topical treatments. Look for lotions or gels that contain at least 2% green tea to get the full benefits. 

The Jasmine Green Tea Oil-Control from Herbivore is a great product to try. The organic jasmine water is infused with anti-oxidant-rich green tea and pair with willow bark and aloe vera for maximum benefits.


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Jackie Lutze has been writing about cruelty-free beauty for years and loves finding the best vegan products to help readers build their ultimate beauty routine. 

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