There’s so much talk about “you are what you eat,” and people tend to put a lot of emphasis on this when trying to find the reasons (and solutions) for their skin concerns.
Everyone expects food to be a game-changer, and while I wish it were that simple, unfortunately, I don’t believe it is. Food is just one part of the complicated equation that is your skin.
In this post, I’ll share what I know to be true about food and your skin based on my experiences.
I learned this one very early on in my career. I had a client who had a lot of bad cystic acne, and it was through her that I realized hormonal acne could be directly affected by the amount of dairy you consume.
She was the one who noticed that her acne seemed to get worse the more dairy she ate. She literally would eat a scoop of ice cream, and the next day a new cyst would appear.
Based on her experience, I started suggesting to other clients with cystic acne that they try cutting out all forms of dairy. Once they tried this, many of them started to notice their skin clearing up. Of course, every person’s tolerance for dairy is different.
Some people can’t eat any dairy without getting breakouts, whereas others can tolerate a little dairy before it causes problems. And of course, there were certainly people who determined that dairy was not exacerbating their acne, and cutting it out made no improvement whatsoever.
Bottom line, If you have breakouts (especially around your chin and jawline), cutting out dairy is certainly worth a try, and hopefully this will be your solution.
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This isn’t too common, but I have certainly heard of it happening throughout the years. What happens is, someone will get a sudden skin rash (appearing as red sores) around the mouth.
After getting allergy tested, they then determined it was from eating strawberries. Based on the experiences of my clients who have this, it also seems to be genetic.
So this one is from my own personal experience. I’m a big condiment girl. Meaning when I eat a burger, people joke and say, “Renée, want some meat with that ketchup?” as I load it on really thick. So when I take a bite of a burger, all the ketchup oozes onto the area around my mouth.
This causes a problem for me by essentially creating an acid burn on my skin that leaves it red and really irritated for a day or two. However, this only happens when my skin’s barrier is particularly compromised, like if I’ve been using more retinol than normal, doing vitamin A peels, or using a lot of acid exfoliators.
This does not occur when my barrier is intact, which is normally the case. I try to be much more careful about acidic foods touching my skin when my skin is acting sensitive.
Phytophotodermatitis is a condition in which the chemicals in citrus fruits cause a chemical reaction on the skin when exposed to UV sunlight. It’s also called “lime disease”.
Worst case, the result can be blistering and burns, but in mild cases, it will simply form brown pigment. The spots eventually fade on their own but can linger for months.
This one isn’t always black and white, but it’s still worth mentioning. I have had a few clients that saw a marked improvement in their acne when cutting out sugar, but unfortunately I hear more often that it didn’t change a thing.
The thought here is that foods with a high glycemic index (think white bread, pasta, starchy foods and sweets—pretty much everything we love to binge) are rapidly absorbed by our bodies.
This leads to higher serum glucose levels and elevated levels of insulin (a sugar spike). Insulin and IGF-1 have been shown to increase oil production and elevate androgens, a group of hormones that are thought to play a role in acne development.
If you struggle with breakouts, it’s certainly worth a shot to see if your skin responds favorably to this dietary change. Generally, if you’re going to cut out sugar, I would give it at least two full weeks before you determine if there is a correlation.
This one I know ALL too well. Like clockwork, if I eat salty foods such as BBQ, Chinese or Thai (all my favorites), I am sure to wake up with swollen eyes in the morning.
I look like I’ve been crying all night! My face gets puffy, too, but it’s far more noticeable under my eyes. The cause of this is simply that sodium encourages water retention.
So there’s been much discussion about this one, but there just isn’t any clinical evidence that I have seen showing that gluten triggers breakouts. Research also doesn’t support that a gluten-free diet will clear up your existing acne.
I have had many clients who have cut it out and reported back that their skin didn’t clear up, so it’s just not a theory I can stand behind.
Of course, this doesn’t mean gluten can’t affect the body. I certainly know people who have been tested to discover they have a gluten sensitivity, and when they cut it out, they feel so much better. But, a cure for acne? No. I don’t believe this to be the case.
People with celiac disease (an intolerance to gluten) are more likely to have eczema, but eliminating gluten won’t always improve it.
Some research has shown that eczema—a condition that makes skin red, itchy and inflamed—is three times more common in people with celiac disease.
In studies, relatives of celiac disease patients were also two times more likely than control subjects to have eczema, which means there may be a genetic link between the two conditions.
I don’t personally have much experience with eczema since most people with this condition seek out a dermatologist for solutions instead of an esthetician, so I just go by research.
Eczema is a really tough condition to manage, and it’s always worth trying anything that could potentially improve it. If you have eczema, try cutting out gluten for at least two weeks to see if it improves.
There is so much buzz and, subsequently, extensive research going into understanding what is known as the “gut microbiome.”
This refers to the bacteria, fungi, and other microbes found within your gastrointestinal tract that help with digestion, your immune system, and many other functions.
That said, I don’t believe you can take a probiotic and expect it to completely clear up any skin condition, whether it’s acne, rosacea or eczema.
But having an imbalance within your digestive tract could possibly exacerbate these types of inflammatory conditions. Therefore, treating an imbalance in your gut could have a positive impact on your skin.
Without a doubt, the free radical theory of aging is real. Loading up your body with good-for-you, nutritious foods high in antioxidants is one of the best ways to stay healthy and maintain youthful-looking skin in the long-run.
Okay, not technically a food, but people put so much emphasis on drinking water for everything from plumping the skin to curing acne.
It’s important for your overall health to stay well-hydrated, but the truth is that drinking water is the least efficient way to hydrate your skin.
Essentially, the water you drink will never make it from your intestines all the way to your epidermis (the outermost layer of your skin). You’re much better off applying products topically to get that plumping effect.
We’ve all heard that a glass of wine a day can provide health benefits, but whether or not this is true, I’m sorry to say that it’s not benefitting your skin in any way. These are a few of the ways alcohol can negatively impact your skin:
I know, I know—this isn’t something anyone wants to hear. I normally don’t suggest to people that they completely cut out their beloved coffee, but since we’re talking about how food and drink affect the skin, I thought coffee was worth mentioning.
While caffeine doesn’t cause acne, it could make breakouts worse by increasing levels of cortisol in our bodies.
This is especially true if you drink coffee when you’re already feeling stressed. In fact, caffeine can actually double your body’s stress response. Increased cortisol levels can trigger sebaceous glands to produce more oil, creating the perfect breeding ground for acne.
If you drink coffee late in the day, it could interfere with your quality of sleep, which won’t do your stress levels any favors.
It’s also worth thinking about what you add to your coffee.
I already mentioned that both dairy and sugar have the potential to trigger breakouts, so if you add a lot of either, it could be impacting your skin.
Of course, none of these are hard-and-fast rules. As with everything food-skin related, the relationship between coffee and acne is complicated.
In the end, it really comes down to how much coffee you drink, what time of day you drink it, and what you add to it. And like any information that I’m sharing, it’s also possible that none of these will have an effect on your skin.
If you have acne, I do think cutting out caffeine for a while (or at least cutting down) could be valid. If you see a positive impact, experiment a little to find out what the ideal caffeine intake is for your body.
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I hear this almost every day: “I don’t know why I still struggle with breakouts when I eat such a clean diet.” Well, the truth is, acne is a disease of the skin for which there is no known cure.
After all this time treating acne, I’ve been able to identify these 11 common causes of blemishes, but it’s almost never possible to say exactly which combination of factors is causing someone’s acne. And trust me, when it comes to acne-prone skin types, nature has a twisted sense of humor.
You can do everything right and still break out sometimes. The true underlying cause of blemishes, while still mysterious, likely involves genetics and can sometimes boil down to a simple case of bad luck.
If there was a one-size-fits all cure for acne, we would all certainly know about it.
I certainly have had clients who eat really poorly, yet their skin remains beautiful. French fries, burger and other greasy foods, while not the healthiest of options, don’t seem to cause skin problems.
We’ve all had that friend who can eat whatever they want and just “splashes water on their face” in the morning yet has flawless skin. Definitely not fair, but that’s just the reality of acne.
I share this because, even though it’s thrown around a lot these days, the word “glow” is really vague. Eating a healthy diet is, of course, important, and if you eat well and see a glow, that’s great.
Let me be perfectly clear: the things I’ve shared in this post are my beliefs and observations based on thirty years of treating skin. The connection between food and skin is far from black and white. It’s important to know that we are all unique, and every person’s skin will respond differently based on what it’s exposed to.
One last thing, if you want to explore the food-skin connection, you might consider keeping a food diary to keep track of everything you eat. You could very well discover some patterns that help you learn what does and doesn’t work for your skin. It may be hard to pinpoint, but it’s worth trying.
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