Can sugar-y foods give me acne?


“Why do you have polka dots on your face?” -every child I ever babysat. Their honest curiosity always cut to the quick. My pimply skin was not intentional, nor welcome. I did practically everything I could to combat it: washed my face, rarely wore makeup, and tried every mask and cream out there. No matter what I tried, the pimples triumphed. I know I’m not the only one who has experienced similar issues. The American Academy of Dermatology states that 85% of people between the ages of 12 and 24 suffer from acne.

While we know that there are many factors that can interact with our skin’s appearance, one culprit that is often cursed is sugar-y foods. I know at some point we've all heard someone complain, “My skin is totally breaking out from all that sugar I ate yesterday!"

During my pimply stages, I never thought much of changing my diet. Instead, I was more focused on rubbing my face with whatever the commercials advertised. But maybe I should have been more concerned?

In 2009, a study in China compared the association between diet and acne on university students. Students were more likely to have acne when they reported eating desserts such as ice cream or cake, as well as drinking fruit juices. What do dessert and juice have in common…?

Stop! Before you jump to sugar, let’s take a look at a study conducted a few years prior. This one focused on the glycemic index of foods and their association with acne.

Wait, pause. What does glycemic index mean? To put it simply, the glycemic index is a number given to foods. The higher the number, the more sugar will float around in our blood after we eat the food. Foods with a glycemic index of <10 are considered low (less sugar in your blood), while foods <20 are considered high (lots of sugar in your blood). A list of foods and their glycemic indexes can be found here. High glycemic foods include white breads, white rice, potatoes, and yes, sugar-y foods such as soft drinks, desserts, and candy.

Alright, continue. In 2007, acne-ridden men were put on a low glycemic-load diet. This means they avoided the previously mentioned foods. Can you guess what happened? Yep. After 12 weeks, they had less acne. But get this: they also lost weight, and improved their acne-related hormones.

In 2012, a similar study was conducted in Korea. The subjects were instructed to substitute high glycemic index foods with lower glycemic index foods such as fruits and veggies, whole grains, and beans. After 10 weeks, their acne improved, too!

So, do sugar-y foods give you acne? If they have a high glycemic index, they just might. How does this happen? When your blood sugar is raised from high glycemic foods, it can cause the glands in your skin produce more oils, which can clog your pores and lead to acne. Additionally, high blood sugar can suppress a hormone known as Sex Hormone-Binding Globulin (or SHBG, for short). You don’t want this good stuff to go away! SHBG has been known to reduce acne.

Ok, Paige, so what you’re saying is that if I want CoverGirl skin, I can never eat white bread or pasta or ice cream or cake or anything wonderful ever again? Girl, please. 

Based on what these studies have shown, including more low glycemic index foods in your diet like whole grains and veggies may help clear up your skin a little bit (not to mention they’ll give you tons of vitamins, minerals and fiber!). But remember: moderation is key. Don’t be afraid to indulge every now and then, and instead focus on MORE: more fruits, veggies, and whole grains. You’ll feel and look great.

What have you discovered keeps your skin glowing? Leave a comment!


  2. Law M, Chuh A, Molinarit N, Lee A. An investigation of the association between diet and occurrence of acne: a rational approach from a traditional Chinese medicine perspective. Clin Exp Dermatol. 2009; 35: 31-35. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2230.2009.03360.x
  3. Smith R, Mann N, Braue A, Mäkeläinen H, Varigos G.The effect of a high-protein, low glycemic-load diet versus a conventional, high glycemic-load diet on biochemical parameters associated with acne vulgaris: a randomized, investigator-masked, controlled trial. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2007; 57(2):247-256. doi:10.1016/j.jaad.2007.01.046
  6. Kwon H, Yoon J, Hong J, Jung J, Park M, Suh D. Clinical and histological effect of a low glycaemic load diet in treatment of acne vulgaris in Korean patients: a randomized, controlled trial. Acta Derm Venereol. 2012; 92:241-2146. doi: 10.2340/00015555-1346

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