foods that affect acne

Nutrition and Teen Acne

I am frequently asked (by friends, patients, family, and my own daughters) the following question: what is the best diet for teen acne? In other words, what foods actually affect acne? Is there an optimal teen acne diet? 
In this blog post, we'll look at how food affects acne treatment for teens. We'll examine the evidence about dairy, sugar, fried foods, and gluten; and the impact of these foods on acne. And I'll make recommendations on the best diet to help teen acne.

Acne Causes

First, let's look at the 4 main causes of tween acne and teen acne:

  • Inflammation
  • Increased oil/sebum production
  • clogged pores
  • Acne bacteria (aka C. Acnes)

What foods make acne worse?

High-glycemic index foods (foods that spike your blood sugar quickly) are linked to worsening acne. Examples of these foods include:

  • Gluten-containing foods: Breads, pastas, soda, candy,
  • Dairy: skim milk, ice cream, milkshakes,
  • Candy and chocolate (unless the chocolate has a very high cacao percetage)
  • Snack foods like potato chips, dried fruits, and fruit chews
  • Processed foods such as cereals, granola bars, sugary oatmeal
  • Fried foods (see below for more details)
  • Sodas and sugary drinks (I love a good Starbucks drink, but in moderation please)
  • Alcohol

There are two main mechanisms by which high-glycemic index foods make acne worse:
  • When we ingest high-glycemic foods, these cause an increase in our blood sugar levels. And this higher blood sugar then increases inflammation throughout our bodies including inflammation in our skin
  • Sugar spikes can increase sebum/oil production in the skin, also a major contributing factor to acne

What foods can improve acne?

The good news is that just as sugary/high glycemic foods worsen acne, there are many foods that can actually help improve acne (along with the best acne products for teens). In general, shop around the periphery of your grocery store to find those low-glycemic foods:

  • Fruits and vegetables (choose organic when possible
  • Nuts (stick with classic nuts and avoid any covered in sugar or honey-roasted): walnuts, pecans, macadamia, pistachios are all great options 
  • Meat: look for grass-fed beef/bison and pasture-raised chicken
  • Fish: thoughtfully-sourced
  • Healthy oils (avocado and olive)

What is the clinical evidence about food and acne?

Low-glycemic foods and acne

There was a large 2009 study examining acne in patients who adopted the South Beach Diet (basically the low-glycemic foods that I have listed above). 2,258 patients adopted a low-glycemic diet for weight loss. 87% of patients said they had less acne at the end of the study, and 91% said they needed less acne medication.

Milk and acne

The link between milk and acne can be quite confusing, and there has been a lot of conflicting information presented over the years.

In summary, skim milk more closely linked to acne compared to whole milk. This is possibly due to the higher glycemic-index of skim milk compared to whole milk. In general, it's beneficial to get some fat with carbs to help slow down the spike with blood sugar and insulin levels accordingly

Dairy products (yogurt, cheese, etc) not necessarily linked to acne.

It's questionable about how hormones from cow’s milk may contribute to inflammation in the body and in the skin, thereby exacerbating acne. 

I always love to go back to clinical evidence when making recommendations to patients. There was a clinical study in 2005: 47,355 adult women asked to recall what they ate during their high school years. Women who drank 2 or more glasses of skim milk (cow milk) a day were 44% more likely to have acne than others.

Greasy foods

Greasy foods aren't necessary bad in and of themselves; however, high-glycemic index foods are linked to acne. Foods like french fries, breaded chicken nuggets, and fried fish sticks can still spike blood sugar levels and worsen acne. 

Individuals who work in a restaurant environment/fast food/deep fryers can get grease from the fryers that sticks to the skin and clogs pores, thereby worsening acne through the pore-clogging mechanism. 


 When we're considering the best acne treatment for teens, diet is definitely part of the equation. Equally important is choosing the right products such as the best teen facial cleanser, best teen moisturizer, best teen sunscreen, etc). 

Although there are many similarities in the approach towards acne treatment for teen boys and acne treatment for teen girls, we should note that there are differences in the hormone balances between these two groups as well as timing of puberty onset. And of course, genetics play a role in acne, and therefore teen acne treatment must be tailored to each individual. With that being said, certain dietary factors affect acne in both teen boys and and girls and should be considered when determining the best approach to managing teen acne.


I hope that this information is helpful as you navigate best practices for managing teen/tween acne!

--Dr. Angela