We have a friend who made it her life’s mission not to eat spicy foods, which she claims trigger her acne breakouts. The one woeful time that she accidentally ordered a spicy (it looked like it was non-spicy on the menu) bowl of Taiwan noodles and slurped it all up, she looked into the mirror after and – with no surprise – saw a spot starting to form on her skin.
Asian mums also often warn against eating “heaty” foods that they’ve declared would cause pesky pimples on the skin. But, how much truth is there here? Do certain foods really “cause” acne? What does diet have to do with it?
Read on, because we’ve found five common foods that may very well be triggering your acne breakouts!
Do certain foods really cause acne?
There aren’t actually enough studies to show a clear cause-and-effect relationship between diet and acne; however, there are several studies that do highlight an association between certain foods we put into our bodies and acne breakouts.
Refined carbohydrates like white bread, for instance, are known to cause inflammation throughout the body, including the skin, which can trigger acne breakouts.
Besides inflammation-causing foods like those that score high on the glycerin index (we’ll get into that later), our diet can affect acne by causing the hormones in our body to fluctuate.
Take high-in-sugar foods like sodas, desserts, cakes, or pastries; when you eat food that is high in sugar content, your body’s insulin level spikes, which can result in inflammation as well as increased production of hormones that stimulate excess sebum.
“Research has shown foods high in sugar increase the production of IGF-1, a peptide hormone that stimulates growth, but also can cause an overproduction of sebum, aka excess oil,” explained Jenna Hope, a nutrition consultant and the founder of Jenna Hope Nutrition Consultancy, to Byrdie.
And, as we all know, excess oils on the skin can easily clog pores and cause acne.
So, although there aren’t enough studies to prove a causal relationship between diet and acne, there are patterns. Certain foods are associated with acne breakouts, and keeping track of what we put into our bodies might just help us keep our breakouts at bay.
Foods that might be triggering your acne
The best cai png (economy rice) ingredients go with white rice, but be careful because this pearly carbohydrate is a likely culprit for pesky acne breakouts.
White rice has a high-glycemic index of about 70 on a 100 scale. Compared to broccoli, which has a low-glycemic index of about 15, white rice causes blood sugar levels to spike faster and higher.
Such sugar surges can easily cause inflammation as well as other undesirable health consequences like weight gain and insulin resistance associated with type II diabetes; it’s an overall “nay” for acne-prone skin.
It’s not just white rice either, but any other foods that have a high glycemic index (GI) such as white bread, cornflakes, instant oats, potato, and bagels.
You can check out Health Hub for a list of common foods and their GI values. Avoid foods like white rice with a high glycemic index, and replace these with foods that are on the lower end of the glycemic index such as wholemeal pasta and muesli.
Bubble milk tea
If bubble milk tea’s your reward at the end of a hard week, you might want to check your skin twice to find out whether the milk-rich beverage affects your acne-prone skin. The ingredient to zoom in on when it comes to acne? Milk.
In a study of 78,529 children, adolescents, and young adults, it was found that drinking at least one glass of milk per day is associated with a “higher odds ratio” for acne.
The same study also reported that drinking low-fat and skim milk was related to an increased likelihood of having acne, as compared to whole milk.
“Skim milk can make acne worse. It contains bovine growth hormones that are fat-dissolvable. Since there’s no fat in skim milk, they don’t dissolve. Those hormones, left in the body, can result in acne,” shared Bobby Buka, a New York dermatologist, in an interview with Byrdie.
Based on this study alone, the amount of milk you drink and the type of milk – skim or whole – might be affecting your skin when it comes to acne breakouts.
What about other milk-containing foods like cheese and yoghurt? A few scientific studies have observed that these dairy products don’t have a significant association with acne. We guess that means we’re going to keep ordering classy cheese platters to celebrate the special occasions in life.
Mala is a staple sharing dish around the lunch table, but if you’re afraid of your acne flaring up, maybe dial down on the spice level for a little while.
Spicy foods are said to be notorious when it comes to the battle against breakouts, and the reason might simply be that eating these foods can cause your body temperature to rise, make you sweat, and sebum to build up on your skin – all of which can lead to acne.
Even though there are no studies that show a relationship between spicy foods and acne, the American Academy of Dermatology Association does note that excessive sweating during a workout, coupled with the accumulation of dirt and oils on the skin, can lead to breakouts.
Chilli might not be the problem, but sweating? Likely.
In addition, according to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), chilli is also classified as a “heaty” food that can tip your body’s natural yin-yang balance and lead to skin redness and acne when taken in excess. Other “heaty” foods include the local-favourite king of fruits, durian, chocolate, and red meat.
There’s always room for dessert… unless you’re trying to fend off an acne flare-up, that is. Whether it’s chendol, mango pomelo sago, or bingsu from the rows of dessert shops lining Bugis Street, these high-in-sugar pick-me-ups are, by no means, good for acne-prone skin.
In a study of more than 24,000 adults published in JAMA Dermatology, it was observed that increased consumption of high-sugar foods was associated with current acne.
For instance, those who had acne at the time of the survey were more than twice as likely to report drinking at least five servings of sugary drinks compared to those with no acne history.
The bitter pill to swallow is that your high-sugar desserts might not be the best choice when you’re trying to clear acne on your skin.
So, the next time you have a craving, opt instead of low-in-sugar sweet treats like dark chocolate. The rule of thumb: the higher the percentage of cacao, the lower percentage of sugar!
Sometimes, it’s not even that we’re in a rush during lunchtime, it’s just that we’ve got a sinful fast food craving that we can’t seem to shake – and the McDonald’s down the road makes it way too easy to satisfy.
Fast foods are typically high in refined carbohydrates, and – watch out, because this is a category of food that ranks infamously high on the glycemic index.
Bear with our recap: high GI foods like white rice (and fast foods) cause a spike in the body’s insulin levels, which can then lead to inflammation and acne flare-ups.
Besides having a high GI score, fast foods are also often processed.
Since small research trials show that diets with smaller amounts of processed foods are associated with less acne, pay special attention after you’ve eaten any fast foods. This way, you’ll know for sure whether these delicious-but-sinful meals are taking a toll on your acne skin.
Keep a food diary
We could go on all day about the different types of foods that could potentially trigger acne, but the truth is that figuring out what foods to keep out of your diet and prevent acne flare-ups is a highly-individual process.
What you can do is familiarise yourself with the types of foods that are commonly thought to trigger acne and take note of how your skin reacts. Acne sufferers benefit from keeping a food diary, according to experts.
Keep a detailed record of every meal and write down any changes you see in your acne-prone skin. By observing patterns, you’ll be able to find out what foods are likely causing your skin to break out and keep these culprits out of your diet for clearer skin in the future!
It is essential to consult a professional before making significant changes to your diet. While dietary changes can make a difference for certain individuals, don’t neglect other acne-management approaches like skincare, exercise, and medication.
Featured image credit: vanessachiawx, whatlizhaseaten/TikTok