In the thirty years that I’ve been an esthetician, thousands of clients have sought me out to help them get to the bottom of their skin issues. I start every new client relationship (and every appointment) with a consultation. This is an important step because it helps me understand someone’s lifestyle and habits—both of which have an impact on our skin. A big part of this conversation is diet and how certain foods might be affecting someone’s skin.
There’s so much talk about “you are what you eat,” and people tend to put a lot of emphasis on this when trying to find the reasons (and solutions) for their skin concerns. Everyone expects food to be a game-changer, and while I wish it were that simple, unfortunately, I don’t believe it is. Food is just one part of the complicated equation that is your skin.
In this post, I’ll share what I know to be true about food and your skin based on my experiences.
Consuming Dairy May Cause Acne—Especially Cysts on the Chin and Jawline
I learned this one very early on in my career. I had a client who had a lot of bad cystic acne, and it was through her that I realized hormonal acne could be directly affected by the amount of dairy you consume. She was the one who noticed that her acne seemed to get worse the more dairy she ate. She literally would eat a scoop of ice cream, and the next day a new cyst would appear.
Based on her experience, I started suggesting to other clients with cystic acne that they try cutting out all forms of dairy. Once they tried this, many of them started to notice their skin clearing up. Of course, every person’s tolerance for dairy is different. Some people can’t eat any dairy without getting breakouts, whereas others can tolerate a little dairy before it causes problems. And of course, there were certainly people who determined that dairy was not exacerbating their acne, and cutting it out made no improvement whatsoever.
Bottom line, If you have breakouts (especially around your chin and jawline), cutting out dairy is certainly worth a try, and hopefully this will be your solution.
Learn why dairy causes cystic acne.
Note: I have spent a lot of time in France, and the French certainly do not deny themselves dairy with all those wonderful cheeses. When talking to French teens, I’ve asked them if they ever get breakouts, and based on what they have told me there isn’t a lot of acne in French boys and girls. My hypothesis for why acne may not be as prevalent in France is that their dairy is less processed and their cows are given fewer hormones.
Eating Strawberries Can Result in Skin Rashes Around the Chin and Mouth
This isn’t too common, but I have certainly heard of it happening throughout the years. What happens is, someone will get a sudden skin rash (appearing as red sores) around the mouth. After getting allergy tested, they then determined it was from eating strawberries. Based on the experiences of my clients who have this, it also seems to be genetic.
Highly Acidic Food Can Cause Irritation on the Skin it Touches—Especially if You Use Exfoliating Acids, Retinol, or Retinoids
So this one is from my own personal experience. I’m a big condiment girl. Meaning when I eat a burger, people joke and say, “Renée, want some meat with that ketchup?” as I load it on really thick. So when I take a bite of a burger, all the ketchup oozes onto the area around my mouth. This causes a problem for me by essentially creating an acid burn on my skin that leaves it red and really irritated for a day or two. However, this only happens when my skin’s barrier is particularly compromised, like if I’ve been using more retinol than normal, doing vitamin A peels, or using a lot of acid exfoliators. This does not occur when my barrier is intact, which is normally the case. (Read all about how your skin can be extra reactive when your barrier is damaged.)
I try to be much more careful about acidic foods touching my skin when my skin is acting sensitive.
Citrus Fruits Combined With Direct Sunlight Can Cause a Reaction, Resulting in Skin Discoloration
Phytophotodermatitis is a condition in which the chemicals in citrus fruits (limes, lemons, and even celery) cause a chemical reaction on the skin when exposed to UV sunlight. It’s also called “lime disease” (not to be confused with Lyme Disease). Worst case, the result can be blistering and burns, but in mild cases, it will simply form brown pigment. The spots eventually fade on their own but can linger for months.
I have personal experience with phytophotodermatitis as you can see in this post.
Sugar May Exacerbate Acne Conditions
This one isn’t always black and white, but it’s still worth mentioning. I have had a few clients that saw a marked improvement in their acne when cutting out sugar, but unfortunately I hear more often that it didn’t change a thing. The thought here is that foods with a high glycemic index (think white bread, pasta, starchy foods and sweets—pretty much everything we love to binge) are rapidly absorbed by our bodies. This leads to higher serum glucose levels and elevated levels of insulin (a sugar spike). Insulin and IGF-1 have been shown to increase oil production and elevate androgens, a group of hormones that are thought to play a role in acne development.
If you struggle with breakouts, it’s certainly worth a shot to see if your skin responds favorably to this dietary change. Generally, if you’re going to cut out sugar, I would give it at least two full weeks before you determine if there is a correlation.
Eating Foods High in Sodium Can Result in Morning Under-Eye Puffiness
This one I know ALL too well. Like clockwork, if I eat salty foods such as BBQ, Chinese or Thai (all my favorites), I am sure to wake up with swollen eyes in the morning. I look like I’ve been crying all night! My face gets puffy, too, but it’s far more noticeable under my eyes. The cause of this is simply that sodium encourages water retention.
Here are my expert tips to help puffy eyes.
Eating a Gluten-Free Diet Won’t Improve Acne
So there’s been much discussion about this one, but there just isn’t any clinical evidence that I have seen showing that gluten triggers breakouts. Research also doesn’t support that a gluten-free diet will clear up your existing acne. I have had many clients who have cut it out and reported back that their skin didn’t clear up, so it’s just not a theory I can stand behind.
Of course, this doesn’t mean gluten can’t affect the body. I certainly know people who have been tested to discover they have a gluten sensitivity, and when they cut it out, they feel so much better. But, a cure for acne? No. I don’t believe this to be the case.
Gluten and Eczema
People with celiac disease (an intolerance to gluten) are more likely to have eczema, but eliminating gluten won’t always improve it.
Some research has shown that eczema—a condition that makes skin red, itchy and inflamed—is three times more common in people with celiac disease. In studies, relatives of celiac disease patients were also two times more likely than control subjects to have eczema, which means there may be a genetic link between the two conditions.
In a piece published in the Journal of Dermatological Treatment in 2017, 169 people with eczema were surveyed. More than half of those who cut gluten from their diets reported seeing an improvement in their eczema symptoms.
I don’t personally have much experience with eczema since most people with this condition seek out a dermatologist for solutions instead of an esthetician, so I just go by research. Eczema is a really tough condition to manage, and it’s always worth trying anything that could potentially improve it. If you have eczema, try cutting out gluten for at least two weeks to see if it improves.
Certain Foods Such as Red Wine, Citrus, and Spices Can Trigger Rosacea Flare-Ups
While the gut-skin connection still requires a lot of research, some studies have shown that people with rosacea are more likely to suffer from some kind of gastrointestinal disease as well. This includes celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and irritable bowel syndrome, to name a few. This suggests that there is a connection between rosacea and an imbalance in the gut.
There’s still a lot of work to be done before this research can be applied to the treatment of rosacea, but what we do know for now is that certain foods can trigger rosacea symptoms. I’ve personally seen this in my rosacea clients and have noticed that the more active someone’s rosacea is, the more likely it is to be triggered by foods.
These foods have been shown to trigger rosacea symptoms:
- Red wine (it has a high histamine content, which can dilate blood vessels)
- Spicy foods (such as hot sauce or salsa)
- Citrus Fruits
The last four foods on this list might not seem like they have a lot in common, but they all contain a compound called cinnamaldehyde. This is what’s thought to trigger rosacea symptoms by causing a warming sensation.
If you have rosacea, there’s no guarantee that eating these foods will cause a flare-up (or that cutting them out will help), and certain people will be able to tolerate different amounts. But being aware of possible triggers can be a helpful way for you to manage your rosacea symptoms. It’s worth keeping track of what you eat to figure out if you have a bad reaction to any of these foods. Again, everyone is different, and it takes some time and patience to learn what works best for you.
Since rosacea is thought to be affected by an imbalance in the gut, you can also try eating fiber-rich foods (which act as prebiotics) as well as probiotic foods to promote a healthy gut.
Taking an Oral Probiotic for Gut Health is Probably Helping the Skin in Some Small Way
There is so much buzz and, subsequently, extensive research going into understanding what is known as the “gut microbiome.” This refers to the bacteria, fungi, and other microbes found within your gastrointestinal tract that help with digestion, your immune system, and many other functions. I recently wrote a blog post all about improving the skin’s microbiome topically, but I do believe it’s probably helpful to treat it from the inside, too.
That said, I don’t believe you can take a probiotic and expect it to completely clear up any skin condition, whether it’s acne, rosacea or eczema. But having an imbalance within your digestive tract could possibly exacerbate these types of inflammatory conditions. Therefore, treating an imbalance in your gut could have a positive impact on your skin.
Note: When it comes to probiotic supplements, it’s important to know that most only contain a few different strains of bacteria. There are thousands of bacterial strains within our digestive tract, and researchers wonder whether taking just a few strains could potentially cause an imbalance for some people. There are still a lot of unknowns here and research will likely reveal more in time, but it’s always a good idea to talk with your doctor to determine if a probiotic is beneficial for you.
I do take a probiotic supplement every morning and while I haven’t noticed any changes either with my skin or body, I take it anyway because I think it’s probably benefiting me in some way. Dr. Whitney Bowe has a book all about the microbiome so if you want to explore this area more, it’s a good read.
It is in Your Skin’s Best Interest to Eat a Healthy Diet Rich in Antioxidants
Without a doubt, the free radical theory of aging is real. Loading up your body with good-for-you, nutritious foods high in antioxidants is one of the best ways to stay healthy and maintain youthful-looking skin in the long-run.
Examples of antioxidant-rich foods that will benefit your skin include the following:
- Avocados (contain glutathione, a master antioxidant, as well as healthy fats)
- Berries (loaded with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants)
- Almonds (high in vitamin E)
- Sweet potatoes (high in vitamin C, potassium, and carotenoids)
- Kale (high in vitamins A, K, and B6)
- Broccoli (high in vitamin C, folic acid and carotenoids)
- Grapes (contain more than twenty antioxidants)
- Citrus fruits (high in vitamin C)
- Spinach (contain carotenoids)
- Carrots and other orange fruits and vegetables (rich in carotenoids)
- Cantaloupe (high in vitamins A and C)
- Tomatoes (rich in lycopene. Pro tip: lycopene becomes more bioavailable/is more easily absorbed by the body when they are cooked with some olive oil. This is because the nutrient is fat-soluble and it’s best absorbed when paired with a fat)
Drinking Water Doesn’t Hydrate Your Skin Like You Think it Does
Okay, not technically a food, but people put so much emphasis on drinking water for everything from plumping the skin to curing acne. It’s important for your overall health to stay well-hydrated, but the truth is that drinking water is the least efficient way to hydrate your skin. Essentially, the water you drink will never make it from your intestines all the way to your epidermis (the outermost layer of your skin). You’re much better off applying products topically to get that plumping effect. These three things will make a big difference in your skin’s hydration levels.
Drinking Alcohol DOES Affect Your Skin—But Not in a Good Way
We’ve all heard that a glass of wine a day can provide health benefits, but whether or not this is true, I’m sorry to say that it’s not benefitting your skin in any way. These are a few of the ways alcohol can negatively impact your skin:
- Cause blemishes
- Create redness in the skin and cause capillary fragility/damage
- Make the skin age faster
- Cause severe dehydration (water loss), which can damage the skin’s protective moisture barrier
- Make the skin look puffy
Read more about how alcohol affects the skin.
If You Have Acne, You Might Want to Look at Your Coffee Intake
I know, I know—this isn’t something anyone wants to hear. I normally don’t suggest to people that they completely cut out their beloved coffee, but since we’re talking about how food and drink affect the skin, I thought coffee (and caffeine in general) was worth mentioning.
While caffeine doesn’t cause acne, it could make breakouts worse by increasing levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) in our bodies. This is especially true if you drink coffee when you’re already feeling stressed. In fact, caffeine can actually double your body’s stress response. Increased cortisol levels can trigger sebaceous glands to produce more oil, creating the perfect breeding ground for acne. If you drink coffee late in the day, it could interfere with your quality of sleep, which won’t do your stress levels any favors.
It’s also worth thinking about what you add to your coffee. I already mentioned that both dairy and sugar have the potential to trigger breakouts, so if you add a lot of either, it could be impacting your skin.
Of course, none of these are hard-and-fast rules. As with everything food-skin related, the relationship between coffee and acne is complicated. For example, one study found that antioxidants in coffee could actually improve your skin.
In the end, it really comes down to how much coffee you drink, what time of day you drink it, and what you add to it. And like any information that I’m sharing, it’s also possible that none of these will have an effect on your skin. If you have acne, I do think cutting out caffeine for a while (or at least cutting down) could be valid. If you see a positive impact, experiment a little to find out what the ideal caffeine intake is for your body.
Fun Fact: I don’t ever drink coffee. One sip in this lifetime was enough for me to know I didn’t like it. Way too bitter for my tastebuds!
You Can Eat a Clean, Healthy Diet and Still Have Skin Problems
I hear this almost every day: “I don’t know why I still struggle with breakouts when I eat such a clean diet.” Well, the truth is, acne is a disease of the skin for which there is no known cure. After all this time treating acne, I’ve been able to identify these 11 common causes of blemishes, but it’s almost never possible to say exactly which combination of factors is causing someone’s acne. And trust me, when it comes to acne-prone skin types, nature has a twisted sense of humor. You can do everything right and still break out sometimes. The true underlying cause of blemishes, while still mysterious, likely involves genetics and can sometimes boil down to a simple case of bad luck.
If there was a one-size-fits all cure for acne, we would all certainly know about it. For now, we’ll have to settle for understanding the science behind how breakouts form.
You Can Have a Diet Filled With Junk Food and Still Have “Good” Skin
I certainly have had clients who eat really poorly, yet their skin remains beautiful. French fries, burger and other greasy foods, while not the healthiest of options, don’t seem to cause skin problems. We’ve all had that friend who can eat whatever they want and just “splashes water on their face” in the morning yet has flawless skin. Definitely not fair, but that’s just the reality of acne.
Eating a Clean, Healthy Diet Doesn’t Make Your Skin “Glow”
I share this because, even though it’s thrown around a lot these days, the word “glow” is really vague. Eating a healthy diet is, of course, important, and if you eat well and see a glow, that’s great. However, I have a very particular definition of “glowing skin” based on these four traits, and I can tell you none of these traits are attained through diet.
My friend and fellow esthetician Joanna Vargas recently wrote a book called Glow from Within, which is a great read.
When it Comes to Food and Your Skin, There are Exceptions to All Rules
Let me be perfectly clear: the things I’ve shared in this post are my beliefs and observations based on thirty years of treating skin. The connection between food and skin is far from black and white. It’s important to know that we are all unique, and every person’s skin will respond differently based on what it’s exposed to.
One last thing, if you want to explore the food-skin connection, you might consider keeping a food diary to keep track of everything you eat. You could very well discover some patterns that help you learn what does and doesn’t work for your skin. It may be hard to pinpoint, but it’s worth trying.
I hope you found this information helpful and that my post gives you some good things to try. If you want to learn more about the food-skin connection, this is a great resource.
Celebrity Esthetician & Skincare Expert
As an esthetician trained in cosmetic chemistry, Renée Rouleau has spent 30 years researching skin, educating her audience, and building an award-winning line of products. Trusted by celebrities, editors, bloggers, and skincare obsessives around the globe, her vast real-world knowledge and constant research are why Marie Claire calls her “the most passionate skin practitioner we know.”