We Need To Talk About Sugar and Acne

Written by Loren Savini

I’ll be honest: There are very few things I would not do in pursuit of good skin. But one of those few things? Give up any of my favorite foods. You simply will not catch me cutting out dairy, carbs, or wine from my life, no matter how clear and bouncy the internet insists it will make my skin—and that especially holds true when it comes to the sugar and acne debate.

The idea that sugar can cause acne has been perpetuated for ages. Painful chin pimple? Maybe it was that chocolate cake you had with dinner. Unexpected breakout before your wedding? Could be the increase in soda you've been chugging to get through the stress. The list—and the fear-mongering—continues.

But it's not that simple. Yes, sugar can affect your skin, but it's probably not causing your acne the way that you may think it is. To help us debunk the myths and pinpoint if sugar causes acne, we spoke to board-certified dermatologists Brooke Jeffy, MD; Michele Farber, MD; Naana Boakye, MD; and Neil Farnsworth, MD; who broke down exactly how sugar (and your favorite foods overall) can impact our skin health. 

Experts in this article

How does your diet affect your skin?

Let’s preface by saying: Anything you put in your body will affect your skin in some way. "The key to healthy skin lies within your gut health," Dr. Boakye says. It may sound a little odd, but there are actually ecosystems in your gut and skin called microbiomes, which consist of "organisms such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses that keep your intestines and skin healthy." If you’ve ever heard of the skin-gut connection, this is what people are talking about. "The gut microbiome communicates directly with the skin microbiome, so what you consume in your diet plays a key factor in your skin health,” says Dr. Boakye.

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For example, if your body doesn't process gluten super well, eating a baguette could cause system-wide inflammation, including within your skin. Inflamed skin is compromised skin, and compromised skin creates the perfect environment for acne to happen. "Research has shown that if an individual consumes a diet low in fiber, it can exacerbate an array of inflammatory diseases such as acne, rosacea, psoriasis, and eczema," says Dr. Boakye.

And, of course, if you are eating a ton of sugar or dairy (or anything with a high glycemic index), your insulin—a hormone that helps you to process that sugar and turn it into energy—will spike. Hormones, as you may recall from your puberty days, play a huge role in your skin health, and some people are more sensitive to these hormone fluctuations than others. That’s not to say you should give up the foods you love simply in pursuit of better skin, though, especially because the results can’t be guaranteed—which brings us to the big question:

Does sugar cause acne? 

"There is no scientific evidence that sugar directly causes acne," says Dr. Boakye. What is known, however, is that sugar consumption can inadvertently increase the risk of breakouts through a number of indirect reasons. "Sugar increases the amount of inflammation in our body overall, including in the skin," says Dr. Jeffy. This inflammation negatively affects the skin barrier, making us more prone to breakouts. 

Sugar intake also spikes insulin, which leads to increased oil production in the skin, says Dr. Jeffy. This excess oil then traps dead skin cells in the pores and can lead to inflammation and breakouts. So, no, sugar doesn't directly cause acne, but it certainly creates an environment that makes acne more likely to happen.  

Will quitting sugar clear my acne? 

Quitting sugar might help your skin a little, but overall, acne is multifactorial, so cutting sugar and calling it a cure might only be a small part of a multi-step solution. "Hormone-driven changes due to lifestyle, age, and diet play a role [in acne], as do choices we make such as how, when, and what we apply to the skin," Dr. Jeffy says. If you're not getting enough sleep, grappling with a lot of stress, are exposed to too many pollutants or allergens, or are genetically predisposed to breakouts, cutting sugar won't magically turn your acne around. 

Plus, sugar is one of life's many joys, so keep doing you, especially because “it would be difficult to completely control acne through diet, particularly for more moderate to severe breakouts," says Dr. Farber. Instead, rather than cutting all sources of sugar and potentially messing with your system, Dr. Farber recommends seeing your dermatologist for the right product lineup—both over-the-counter and prescription—to help treat your acne successfully the first time.

Are certain types of sugar worse for your skin than others? 

If you are concerned about your sugar intake and how it can influence your skin, it's important to note that, generally, refined sugars are thought to be harder on your skin than natural sugars (think grape soda vs. actual grapes). "Refined sugars have a high glycemic index, which can lead to increased insulin levels and cause acne development," Dr. Boakye says. But again, moderation and balance are key here for your skin health (and health overall). 

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How can I clear up a breakout caused by sugar? 

Breakouts caused by sugar are the same as any other breakout—there’s no special pimple that pops up after housing a bag of sour gummies. If you’re working with blackheads or whiteheads, you can incorporate exfoliating ingredients like salicylic acid or glycolic acid into your weekly skin-care routine, and if you’re dealing with inflammatory acne (the kind that aches and throbs), you should skip the drugstore and head to your dermatologist for prescription options, says Dr. Farber.

Final takeaway

While there is no evidence that sugar can directly cause acne, it does trigger a hormonal cascade that can create an environment ripe for excess oil and clogged pores. But quitting sugar alone won't magically get you perfectly smooth skin. Acne is multifactorial, so eating anything in moderation (dairy, gluten, sugar), along with stress management, good sleep, and a solid skin-care routine, will make the change you can see. Plus, we'd never ask you to give up chocolate croissants altogether—we’re not that cruel. 

Hero Illustration by Janet Mac