Nutrition & Acne: Is There a Link?

Acne is one of the most common dermatological conditions. It impacts approximately 94% of individuals globally. So, who hasn’t experienced it in one way or another?

Found on the face, back, or chest, acne comes in all forms, from pimples to blackheads, whiteheads, and cysts. In severe cases, scarring can unfortunately occur and cause long-term damage.

While there are varying influences and causes, research shows a link between nutrition and the severity of acne. To learn more about how your diet can exacerbate or improve acne, keep reading. But bear in mind this is a relatively new area of research, and more studies are necessary to develop a complete understanding of how diet interacts with the skin.

So, What Are the Dietary Sources Linked to Acne Irritation and Management?  

Glycaemic Index (GI) and Glycaemic Load (GL)

Studies support the significance of the Glycaemic Index (GI) and Glycaemic Load (GL) in the management of acne.

The GI is a tool that measures how quickly or slowly foods increase Blood Glucose Levels (BGLs). All foods containing carbohydrates (think: bread, pasta, fruit, and vegetables) will have a GI value. The GL is the number of carbohydrates in a certain food. So, remember the higher the number of carbohydrates, the higher the GL.

Foods with high GI and GL increase the production of certain signalling hormones in the body, including insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1). IGF-1 is proven to increase sebum production and inflammation in the skin – two of the most important contributors to acne. Studies indicate that adopting a low GI and GL diet significantly improves acne over a 10-week period and reverses the effects of IGF-1.

But foods low in GI and GL are beneficial for everyone regardless of their experience with acne. So, consider incorporating the below into your daily diet and keep note of the others!

Low GI

  • Wholegrain bread
  • Rolled oats
  • Sweet potato
  • Soba noodles
  • Wheat pasta
  • Barley
  • Most non-starchy vegetables
  • Most fruit, excluding watermelon, rockmelon, and tinned lychees

High GI

  • White bread
  • Jasmine rice
  • Sushi rice
  • Instant noodles
  • Plain sweet biscuits
  • Soft drinks
  • Energy drinks


Probiotics are live bacteria found in the gut microbiome but can also be found in certain foods and supplement forms. They improve the balance of bacteria in the gut and aid various health conditions. Current research suggests that increasing probiotic intake may help to decrease inflammation in epidermal cells (specifically a molecule called interleukin-8) and decrease sebum production. Whether it also helps balance the skin microbiome is currently unclear. Opting for fermented foods such as miso, sauerkraut, kimchi, tempeh, yoghurt, and kefir will serve your overall health with long-lasting benefits and may help your skin to boot.


Zinc is a micronutrient with anti-inflammatory benefits, which contribute to the growth and repair of body cells (including healthy skin cell turnover), wound healing, and the functioning of the immune system. Easily incorporated into your daily diet, be sure to prioritise red meat, poultry, legumes, wholegrains, seeds, and nuts.


Antioxidants are compounds found in certain foods, which help in neutralising free radicals (they’re the ones that can damage cells and cause illness and ageing).

Nutrients that fall under antioxidants include vitamins A, B, C, and D, as well as selenium, copper, and zinc. Non-nutrient antioxidants include phytochemicals found in a variety of plant foods. Plant foods contain the highest levels of antioxidants, so reach for as many different coloured fruits and vegetables, as well as nuts and seeds, avocado, extra virgin olive oil, soy products, green tea, red wine (moderation is key!), legumes, wholegrains, and seafood to get your daily dose.

Omega-3 Poly Unsaturated Fatty Acids

Omega-3 Poly Unsaturated Fatty Acids (PUFAs) influence anti-inflammatory benefits and are associated with reducing acne. PUFAs include Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA), derived from fish, and Alpha-linolenic Acid (ALA), obtained from plant sources. EPA and DHA are more potent sources of PUFAs due to having a much higher bioavailability, whereas ALA needs to undergo conversion, reflecting its much lower bioavailability.

If you experience acne, studies support limiting your intake of saturated and trans fats. This means avoiding fatty meat, coconut oil and milk, full-fat dairy, discretionary foods (biscuits, chips, soft drinks, and alike), and fried foods.

While exact quantities of food required for acne benefits are not yet determined, consuming chia seeds, flaxseeds, walnuts, as well as plating up 2-3 serves of oily fish per week (think: salmon, fresh tuna, mackerel, and tinned sardines) will power up your general health. Also, higher doses of omega-3 fatty acids, particularly through high-dose fish oil supplements, may be beneficial, too.


Dairy can aggravate acne for some. But research suggests it’s the whey protein in the dairy rather than the fat or lactose content. Like high GI or GL foods, whey protein increases the production of IGF-1.

If you find dairy worsens your acne, opt for dairy alternatives that will continue to allow your body to receive adequate amounts of key nutrients, like calcium and protein. We recommend products like fortified soy milk, almond, or oat milk. But it’s important to keep your protein and calcium intake in mind to make sure you reach your targets.

Keep in mind plant sources have low bioavailability, so achieving an adequate intake through plant sources alone is impossible. We recommend vegans opt for an omega-3 supplement (such as an algae supplement).


Is chocolate really that bad for acne? As chocolate does have a high GL and is high in saturated fat, it can trigger acne for some; but that doesn’t mean you have to avoid it at all costs. Instead, opt for dark chocolate (ideally over 70%) where possible and only treat yourself now and again.


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