A Nutritionist Shares 5 Foods to Avoid for Clear Skin

by Jessica Bippen, MS, RD


Jessica Bippen, MS, RD, shares the top five foods to avoid for clear skin. Consider it your resource for clear, healthy, glowing skin from the inside out.

You can spend your paycheck on expensive facials, use every serum, and jade roll all you want—but your topical skincare regimen will only get you so far. Remember that what you put in your body directly impacts skin health. So if you struggle with dry, dull, and/or acne-prone skin, your diet may be to blame.

If you’re committed to finally achieving clear skin, you must take a closer look at what foods you’re eating on a daily basis. Here’s a guide on what to eliminate to get that much closer to the skin of your dreams.

5 Foods To Avoid For Clear Skin

Woman biting into sugary chocolate bar, which may cause breakouts

1. Sugar and Refined Grains

Want to know number one thing you can do to promote clear skin? Cut out the added sugar. Refined grains also fit into this category because they break down into simple sugars in the body. Sugar in any form—from a candy bar to white bread—can trigger hormones and inflammation, both of which contribute to acne.

The science behind this process involves the hormone insulin and its relationship to insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1). When you eat sugar, your blood sugar levels spike. Your pancreas then responds by releasing insulin into your bloodstream to help reduce the amount of sugar in your blood. When insulin flows into your bloodstream, IGF-1 and androgen hormone production occur, increasing sebum production and chances of breaking out. By eliminating sugar, you can reduce the amount of insulin needed, and as a result, also decrease the amount of oil and breakouts on your skin.

In addition, research shows that sugar increases C-reactive protein, which is one of the best measures of inflammation in the body. By reducing your sugar intake, it’s thought to reduce inflammation associated with acne.

Dairy products, including cheese, milk, and yogurt, are foods to avoid for clear skin

2. Dairy

Breaking news: It may be worth giving up the pint of Ben and Jerry’s in the name of clear skin. Several studies found a link between milk products and acne severity in teenagers. Additionally, research shows that young adults who regularly consume milk or ice cream over three times per week are four times more likely to suffer from acne.

How does milk cause breakouts? This question is still up for debate, but again, it’s likely linked to hormones. Milk is known to increase insulin levels, which, like sugar, may make acne worse. Precursors to testosterone and other androgens in milk may influence IGF-1 in the skin, which has been linked to the development of acne.

Man pouring unhealthy oil into pan on stove

3. Unhealthy oils

Western diets are significantly higher in omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3s, which isn’t good news for the pursuit of clear skin. While both essential fatty acids are important for healthy skin, most people consume four times the amount of omega-6s to omega-3s. Unfortunately, these omega-6 fats typically come from unhealthy oils found in processed and fast foods.

An overabundance of omega-6s correlate with increased levels of acne. However, there’s good news: Supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids may reduce acne severity. While the smart thing to do is swap out unhealthy cooking oils and reduce your intake of processed and fast foods, you can also increase your intake of omega-3 rich foods. These include chia seeds, walnuts, flax seeds, hemp seeds, and salmon.

Woman pouring sugar into her morning coffee, which could lead to breakouts

4. Coffee

While coffee may not directly cause breakouts, you may find that cutting back on your coffee habit can benefit your complexion. The overconsumption of caffeine is associated with stress, which we know can wreak havoc on your skin. And while research shows that stress may not directly cause acne, it can exacerbate existing breakouts. While it’s generally safe to drink up to five cups of coffee per day, caffeine still may not work for your own mind, body, or skin.

You may also want to take a closer look at what you add to your daily brew. Loading up on sugar and milk are potential culprits as to why your skin isn’t looking its best. Try reducing or eliminating sugar and swapping cow’s milk for a plant-based alternative!

Man preparing dough, which contains gluten and may lead to acne

5. Gluten

While research is sparse concerning gluten and breakouts, there are definitely links between these controversial proteins and skin issues. Anecdotally, many people claim that—among several other health issues—they cleared their skin by kicking gluten to the curb. It’s possible that those who see improvements after eliminating gluten are primarily gluten-intolerant or -sensitive. Others who have removed gluten, in turn, may also eliminate the number of processed foods and refined grains they’re consuming that are linked to acne.

That being said, research shows that gluten triggers the body to release a protein called zonulin. Zonulin loosens the tight junctions in the lining of the intestinal tract, and is thought to contribute to leaky gut. Leaky gut has been shown to trigger skin issues, among other health conditions.

Bottom line

The foods you eat can have a direct effect on how clear and radiant your skin appears. If you’re struggling with consistent breakouts, you may want to consider taking the elimination approach to pinpoint what food works (and what doesn’t) for your skin.

As a registered dietitian, I recommend cutting out these foods to avoid for clear skin for at least two weeks. From there, you can slowly reintroduce one food back at a time over the course of two to three days. If you notice your skin breaking out or reacting otherwise, it’s a strong indicator that that food doesn’t agree with you. Along the way, you may find that a clear complexion outweighs the momentary pleasure of snacking on pantry staples, sweet treats, and other guilty pleasures.

Finally, remember that nourishing your body is only one part of the clear-skin equation. Stress, hormones, hygiene, gut health, sleep, and genetics each play a vital role. If you don’t notice desired results after eliminating these problematic foods, you may need to address other areas of your life that impact skin health.

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