Does Sugar Cause Acne?

July 11, 2023


Valerie Agyeman, RDN

Sugar and its potential impact on acne have sparked curiosity and debate among those seeking clearer, smoother skin. While sugar scrubs are commonly used to exfoliate the skin’s surface, consuming sugar regularly may have a different impact on acne.

Have you ever noticed that your skin breakouts worsen after indulging in sugary desserts for a few days? Many individuals with acne suspect that sugar might be a trigger for their breakouts. However, reducing sugar intake is not frequently recommended as a treatment for acne due to limited conclusive evidence and the complex nature of acne development.

Scientists are gradually unraveling the relationship between sugar and acne. Although current research yields somewhat inconsistent results, there is promising evidence suggesting that consuming high amounts of sugar and refined carbohydrates may trigger or worsen acne breakouts, but it varies from person to person. Let’s explore the reasons behind this connection.

The Science Behind Sugar and Acne

The scientific understanding of the relationship between sugar and acne is still evolving. Several theories have been proposed to explain the potential link. High sugar intake can lead to spikes in blood sugar and insulin levels, which may stimulate the production of insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) and sebum, both of which can contribute to acne. Additionally, sugar consumption can potentially promote inflammation in the body, disrupt hormone balance, and generate compounds called advanced glycation end products (AGEs) that may lead to damage to the skin. However, individual responses may vary, and more research is needed to fully understand the complex relationship between sugar and acne.

How Does Sugar Can Cause Acne?

The body rapidly digests and absorbs sugar and refined carbohydrates. This results in a drastic increase in blood sugar (also known as glucose). Elevated blood glucose triggers a reactive and exaggerated release of the hormone insulin into your bloodstream. High levels of insulin in the blood trigger the release of growth hormones that increase sebum production, unregulated cellular growth, and androgen production. Cue the pimples.

Should You Avoid Sugar If You Have Breakouts?

Reducing your consumption of high glycemic load foods, such as sugar and refined carbohydrates, is a strategy that can be beneficial for preventing and treating acne. While the exact amount of sugar or refined carbohydrates that influences acne development is still unclear, decreasing intake of these specific foods can have positive effects on your overall health and well-being. In fact, it may lead to noticeable improvements in your skin. That said, the impact of sugar on acne can vary from person to person, and there is no universal solution. As part of a comprehensive approach to managing acne we recommend working closely with a skin specialist like a Dermatologist. Experimenting with reducing high-sugar and high-glycemic foods while focusing on a balanced diet rich in whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds can also potentially improve acne symptoms.

Does Glycemic Index (GI) Play A Role?

The glycemic index (GI) is a scale that ranks carbohydrates based on how quickly they raise blood sugar levels. Some studies suggest that high-glycemic foods, which cause a rapid spike in blood sugar, may contribute to the development or worsening of acne.

The theory behind this potential connection is related to the hormonal response triggered by high-glycemic foods. When these foods are consumed, they can lead to an increase in insulin and insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) levels in the body. Elevated levels of these hormones may influence sebum production, skin cell growth, and inflammation, which are factors involved in the development of acne.

However, it’s important to note that research findings are mixed, and not all studies have demonstrated a significant association between glycemic index and acne. Other factors, such as genetics, overall diet, and individual differences, can also play a role in acne development. If you’re concerned about the impact of glycemic index on your acne, you may consider incorporating more low-glycemic foods into your diet which have a slower impact on blood sugar levels.

High-GI Foods To Avoid If You Have Acne

Most of the better quality studies on sugar and acne examined the effects of eating a high glycemic index diet on acne development and severity. The GI is not used often since it doesn’t take serving sizes or nutritional benefits of various carbohydrates into account. Conversely, Glycemic Load (GL) measures how certain foods impact blood sugar based on standard serving sizes of specific foods. Foods that score high on the GL also may significantly increase your blood sugar compared to low-GL foods.

Here are some examples of high-GL foods:

  • Products made with white flour (breads, bagels, pastas, and desserts): These foods are often processed and refined resulting in a loss of fiber and nutrients. They are quickly broken down into glucose, causing a rapid rise in blood sugar levels.
  • Soda: Regular soda contains high amounts of added sugars which contributes to its high glycemic load.
  • Juice: Many fruit juices have a high concentration of natural sugars without the fiber found in whole fruits. This lack of fiber allows for quick absorption of the sugars, resulting in a high glycemic load.
  • Desserts and candy: These items are typically high in added sugars, which can quickly raise blood sugar levels and contribute to a high glycemic load.
  • Sugar: Pure sugar, whether added to foods or consumed on its own, has a high glycemic load as it is rapidly absorbed by the body.
  • Sweetened cereals: Many breakfast cereals contain added sugars. These sugars are rapidly digested and absorbed, leading to a high glycemic load.
  • White rice: White rice has been processed and stripped of its bran and germ, resulting in a lower fiber content and faster digestion. This causes a quick release of glucose into the bloodstream and a higher glycemic load compared to whole grains.
  • Dried fruits: While dried fruits can be nutritious and provide essential vitamins and minerals, they can also have a high glycemic load due to their concentrated sugar content.

Some studies on this topic suggest that a high-GL diet may increase the development and severity of acne. One systematic review published in JAAD International found that high glycemic index, increased glycemic load, and carbohydrate intake had a modest yet significant pro acnegenic effect. Another study found that research participants following a low-GL diet had lower levels of sebum (oil secretions) production in their skin. Excess sebum production is a known risk factor for acne development.

Eat These Foods For Better Skin

Nutrition greatly impacts all parts of the body including the skin. Changes in skin texture, color, dryness, temperature, and overall appearance are among the first signs of nutrient deficiency and other health concerns. 

A balanced eating routine with a variety of fruits, vegetables, lean protein, healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates provides nutrients to support the skin’s growth and recovery. Supporting this process of growth and recovery is super key to a healthy, nourished skin. It’s also important to avoid eating patterns that may negatively affect this process and introduce ingredients that can cause harm to the skin.

Here are the best foods for skin health:

  • Citrus fruits, such as oranges and lemons, are excellent sources of vitamin C, which is crucial for collagen production. Collagen is a vital protein that provides structure to the skin, bones, muscles, and connective tissues. It promotes cell renewal, aids in cell repair, and helps prevent sagging skin, a common sign of aging.
  • Bright orange and yellow fruits and vegetables contain beta-carotene, which is converted into vitamin A in the body. Vitamin A acts as a potent antioxidant, protecting skin cells from UV damage and premature aging. It also supports cell growth and stimulates collagen production, contributing to healthier skin.
  • Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, specifically DHA and EPA. These fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties, which can help reduce inflammation in the body. Inflammation can damage skin cells and contribute to skin conditions like acne, rosacea, and psoriasis.
  • Cucumbers, with their high water content, can contribute to your daily hydration needs. Proper hydration is essential for skin health as it keeps the skin hydrated, supports elasticity, and aids in the removal of waste and toxins from the body, which can harm the skin.
  • Leafy green vegetables, such as spinach and kale, contain lutein, an antioxidant that helps reduce oxidative and UV damage to skin cells. By reducing premature aging caused by environmental factors, lutein contributes to healthier and more youthful-looking skin.
  • Incorporating these nutrient-rich foods into your diet can provide essential vitamins, antioxidants, and omega-3 fatty acids that support skin health, collagen production, and protect against various skin issues and signs of aging.

The Bottom Line

Achieving optimal skin health and managing acne involves a range of factors, such as genetics, diet, skincare routine, hormonal balance, stress management, and sleep. Genetics determine an individual’s susceptibility to acne. A balanced diet, personalized skincare routine, hormonal equilibrium, effective stress reduction, adequate sleep, and minimizing exposure to irritants all contribute to promoting healthy skin. Regular exercise further enhances skin health. Seeking guidance from a dermatologist ensures personalized advice and suitable treatment options for your specific skin care needs. If you’re seeking ways to improve your skin’s health, consider investing in your nutrition with Culina Health.

Any general advice posted on our blog, website, or application is intended for reference and educational purposes only and is not intended to replace or substitute for any professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or other professional advice. If you have specific concerns or a situation arises in which you require medical advice, you should consult with an appropriately qualified and licensed medical services provider.

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