Can your diet cause acne? What to eat and what to avoid6 minute read

Food doesn’t cause acne, but it can trigger it. Think this sounds like the same thing? Read on the discover the important but subtle difference—and what it means for you and your diet.

Diet and acne

Let’s think in literal terms. If food caused acne, the same food would lead to acne in all of us, all of the time. Take alcohol as an example. Differing tolerances aside, we know that too much alcohol makes everyone drunk. It’s a simple cause-and-effect relationship.

We can’t say the same for food and acne. Two people can eat exactly the same diet—but one of them will develop pimples, while the other one has skin that remains enviously clear. So, what’s going on?

The truth is that acne vulgaris is a complex condition. It involves not just your skin, but your hormones, your gut, your liver, your immune system and even your mind. These body systems interact to create four key steps:

– Overproduction of facial oil

– Abnormal shedding of skin cells

– Inflammation

– Bacterial imbalance

I sense what you’re thinking—what’s that got to do with food? Well, everything.


Food is information

You see, your food isn’t just fuel: it’s information. We know that food influences our hormonal function, interacts with our immune system and shapes our gut microbiome. The nutrients in food even interact with our genes [1].

Your food is giving your body signals all the time. If you have a genetic susceptibility that means you’re more prone to one of the four acne-generating steps listed above, the food you eat can be enough to kick that step into overdrive.

It’s not so much that the food itself causes the acne but, along with other lifestyle factors, it contributes to the biochemical messages that can wind up making a pimple on your face.

It’s important to understand that this isn’t your fault. You’ve been dealt a genetic hand you had no control over, and the way those genes are interacting with your environment has led to the development of acne. In this instance, your ‘environment’ means all aspects of your diet and lifestyle.

The good news? You can also tweak your diet and lifestyle to quieten those acne-generating steps—helping to promote the clear skin you crave. You just need to know how it all clicks together.


Is there an acne-clearing diet?

In my book The Happy Skin Solution, I guide you through a whole-body approach to tackling your acne. And along with your lifestyle and self-talk, food is an important part of the puzzle. Your best diet will be specific to you, but there are some research-backed principles than can benefit everyone.

So, if you’d like to take control of your acne, begin by eating more of the following:


Increase: Fish

A study conducted in the 1960s found that adolescents who consumed more fish and seafood had fewer symptoms of acne [2]. Oily fish can be even more beneficial due to its essential omega-3 fats, which have an anti-inflammatory effect in the body.

Try to eat oily fish such as mackerel, salmon and sardines at least twice a week. Animal sources of omega-3 fats are most effective but, if you eat a plant-based diet, you can also find omega-3 fats in chia seeds, walnuts and flaxseeds.


Increase: Colourful fruits and vegetables

Acne sufferers have been found to have lower levels of antioxidants in their blood [3]. This is interesting, as antioxidants are needed to quash the inflammation and oxidative stress that contribute to acne [4].

Colourful fruits and vegetables are rich sources of antioxidant nutrients. Opt for vibrantly coloured produce and try to eat the rainbow every day. Good choices include blueberries, blackberries, pomegranates, kale and sweet potatoes.


Increase: Fermented foods

Another study found that drinking fermented milk reduced the number of ‘inflammatory lesions’ (pimples) in patients by 38% [5]. This is likely because the good bacteria in the fermented milk helped to modulate inflammation and promote a strong gut lining—both of which are key for clear skin.

As you’ll discover below, dairy can be problematic for some people, but there are plenty of other foods that can provide a dose of good bacteria. Try kimchi, sauerkraut or kombucha. If you know you’re fine with dairy, enjoy some natural live yoghurt and kefir too. Consistency is key, so aim to have one type of fermented food daily.


The Happy Skin Solution cover


As well as increasing your intake of the above, here are some foods you might want to cut back on or eliminate:


Reduce: Refined carbohydrates

Korean researchers found that when swapping refined carbohydrates for fibre-rich alternatives, patients not only saw an improvement in their acne, but their sebum-producing glands also shrunk [6]. To recreate this, cut down on anything that’s sweet, white or fluffy. Load up on fruits, vegetables and wholegrains instead.


Reduce: Dairy

The dairy-acne connection is surprisingly complex [7]. People who have a sensitivity to one of the proteins in dairy can enjoy a dramatic improvement when they cut it out, but people who react to the other substances in milk (which, by the way, aren’t necessarily hormones) may see a more subtle change.

But how do you know which applies to you? Try cutting out all dairy for a minimum of three weeks. Reintroduce dairy products, one at a time, and see how your skin reacts. Most people think you have to swear off dairy forever if you have acne but, in my experience, you’ll likely find a level of dairy that you can tolerate.


Reduce: Trans fats

Some fats are great for your skin—but trans fats are not. These are artificial fats are typically found in fried food and shop-bought baked goods, and they’re known to aggravate acne. One of my clients knew this all too well: he would reliably break out two days after eating crisps.

So, what does this mean in practice? Choose a baked potato instead of fries. Opt for raw nuts instead of crisps. If you fancy a slice of cake, go for a homemade cake rather than a shop-bought one. (And yes, you can definitely get to a place where you can enjoy both cake and clear skin.)


It may surprise you to learn that, even as a nutritional therapist, I don’t endorse a special ‘anti-acne’ diet. The above guidelines are a good starting point, but the ultimate goal is to optimise your gut health and your lifestyle so that your diet can be as flexible as possible. It’s all about taking the right steps so you’re not so easily triggered by food.


To learn more, pick up your copy of The Happy Skin Solution.

Related Posts

Dr Thivi Maruthappu


Dr Thivi Maruthappu is the UK’s first and only dual-qualified Consultant Dermatologist and Nutritionist, and the pioneer of the (much-needed!) Nutritional Dermatology field. She runs busy NHS dermatology clinics, conducts academic research and delivers lectures worldwide. She’s also recently authored her first book, Skin Food, which aims to make holistic skincare accessible for everyone.



Porter magazine called her a ‘Global Skincare Expert’, and Caroline Hirons described her as ‘one of the best facialists in the world’. In the skincare industry, Marie Reynolds is in a league of her own. I had the privilege of experiencing one of Marie’s facials as a young journalist—and I can still remember every exquisite detail more than a decade later.

Cherries for Happy Skin From Within

Give your skin a treat

Want the jumpstart guide to eating for great skin (plus updates from me)? No spam, ever, I promise.