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Adult Acne Is Real: Here Are the Foods That Can Cause It

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Experts say foods high in fat, sugar, and dairy ingredients can raise the risk of acne in adults. Getty Images
  • Researchers say foods high in fat, sugar, and dairy ingredients can raise the risk of adult acne.
  • Foods such as milk chocolate, french fries, and sugary drinks are among those that can increase acne risk.
  • Experts say adults who experience acne breakouts should make changes in their diet, like eating more fruits and vegetables.

Fatty foods, dairy, and sweetened treats can raise the risk of acne in adults.

A study by French researchers found that foods such as milk chocolate or sugary drinks could trigger acne in adults.

“The results of our study appear to support the hypothesis that the Western diet (rich in animal products and fatty and sugary foods) is associated with the presence of acne in adulthood,” the authors wrote.

More than 24,000 adults in France took part in the study. They were asked to keep a 24-hour dietary record over a 2-week period.

The participants were asked to note everything they ate and drank as well as the amounts consumed.

The researchers concluded that fatty, dairy-based, and sugary foods can trigger an acne outbreak.

Drinking five glasses a day of either milk or a sugary drink increased risk of acne by more than 50 percent.

One portion of fatty foods such as french fries or a sugary food like a doughnut increased the risk of acne by 54 percent, the researchers reported.

Dr. Joseph Zahn, an assistant professor of dermatology at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., says the study results aren’t surprising.

“The fact that fatty foods, sugary foods (those foods that are high glycemic), as well as dairy foods (particularly low fat dairy) cause acne doesn’t surprise me in the least,” Zahn told Healthline.

“There have been a number of studies in the recent past which have suggested this particular link, and many of my patients have personally noted acne flares when eating such foods,” he said.

“Though the exact reasons aren’t clear at this time, the current school of thought regarding why these particular foods may cause acne to flare is that they may play a role in regulating certain hormones, such as insulin or androgens, which we already know cause acne to flare,” Zahn explained.

The researchers suggest a diet high in sugar as well as the consumption of milk causes a rise in levels of circulating insulin.

This, in turn, stimulates cell production while also inhibiting cell death, promoting inflammation and the development of acne.

In addition, an increase in insulin levels also encourages the production of hormones that produce sebum, which can cause acne.

“Insulin is a hormone secreted by our pancreas to address glucose levels in our blood. It would make sense that having a high sugar diet or one that is processed would affect insulin levels and other hormones within our bodies as well, some of which also apparently regulate acne,” said Dana Hunnes, PhD, a senior dietitian at the University of California Los Angeles Medical Center.

“Dairy has its own innate hormones, estrogens, progesterones, likely even some testosterone (as even human females produce some testosterone) that is likely exacerbating our own endogenous hormones and increasing the likelihood of a breakout,” Hunnes told Healthline.

Study participants who reported having current acne consumed significantly more milk, sugary beverages, milk chocolate, and fast foods than the participants who reported never having acne.

The group with current acne also ate significantly less meat, vegetables, and dark chocolate.

Lauri Wright, PhD, an assistant professor in public health at the University of South Florida, says if dairy foods trigger an individual’s acne, they can find their calcium elsewhere.

“Dairy is an important source of calcium and protein, and generally can be a part of a healthy diet. If individuals with acne find dairy to be a trigger food, they can substitute nut milks instead,” Wright told Healthline.

She argues that more research needs to be done to determine a diet that could help prevent acne, but she says cutting back on sugar is a good place to start.

“​A diet low in sugar and saturated/trans fats is protective against many diseases. For health, limiting sugar and saturated/trans fats while incorporating healthy fats, lean meats, whole grains with a foundation of fruits and vegetables is optimal,” she said.

Milk chocolate increased the risk of an acne outbreak by 28 percent, while dark chocolate was linked to a 10 percent reduction in the risk.

Experts say there’s some truth to the claim that chocolate can cause breakouts.

“Milk chocolate contains whey, a milk-derived protein. Intake of whey protein has been associated with increased levels of acne. Some individuals will be more sensitive to whey, dairy, and sugar (no matter the amount) than others. When we look at the composition of chocolate, it also contains sugar,” Kristin Kirkpatrick, a registered dietitian and manager of wellness nutrition services at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute in Ohio, told Healthline.

Zahn agrees that people can respond differently to foods like chocolate, and not everyone will experience acne if they eat it.

“Acne can be flared by many different foods, and each person has their own unique triggers. I’m not surprised that some people flare in response to milk chocolate or any kind of chocolate,” he said.

“We just aren’t sure yet what part of the food causes the outbreak, if it’s the food itself or a secondary effect of the food, such as increasing levels of certain hormones,” Zahn added.

Zahn says acne in adults appears to be on the rise, although the reasons why are yet to be determined.

“It’s possibly related to rising amounts of stress, fluctuating hormone levels, or new medications, or even other reasons we don’t fully understand yet,” he said. “It’s a common problem, and many adults aged 30 to 50 still have acne.”

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