Moms everywhere promised, “You’ll grow out of it once you hit your 20s.” Moms everywhere lied.
Newsflash: As much as 25 percent of men and up to 50 percent of women find that they’re still fighting pimples long into their 20s, 30s, and 40s. As years go by, wrinkles are enough to worry about—it’s pretty unfair to have to struggle with acne, too.
But there’s good news for those who don't want to treat acne with potent chemical creams or potentially dangerous prescription drugs with gnarly side effects. The popular prescription Accutane, for instance, list some of the side effects as nausea, vomiting, potential birth defects, clinical depression, and suicidal behavior. Risk clinical depression for clear skin? No, thanks.
Instead, an anti-acne diet can be just what the doctor ordered. More and more evidence proves that what we put in our mouths has effects on the rest of the body, after all. Here's what you need to know about eating to get rid of persistent pimples.
The problem with the chocolate bar study
Back in the 1960s, doctors studied the effects of chocolate on acne. The study, funded by the Chocolate Manufacturers' Association of the United States of America, pitted a chocolate bar against a sugary placebo bar. Unsurprisingly, both groups that participated had no noticeable difference, positive or negative, in outbreaks of acne or pimples.
Clearly, the study had a few flaws. The main issue? The chocolate bar and the placebo bar actually aren't that chemically different. Both were high in sugar and carbohydrates, and had a high glycemic index, meaning that technically, there was no control group. In other words, even though this study refutes the idea, chocolate and other high glycemic foods can cause pimples.
Cut the sugar
The simplest way to eat your way to clearer skin? Nix sugar and processed carbohydrates.
When researchers studied indigenous cultures in Papua New Guinea, they realized that acne was virtually non-existent in a population of 1,200 people. Literally—scientists never observed one single pimple over the three year course of the study! Anthropologists chocked it up to—you guessed it—the culture's relatively clean diets that contained zero processed foods.
Ingesting sugar and simple carbohydrates raises blood sugar, which causes the pancreas to secrete more insulin to try and equalize blood sugar. An overload of insulin in the blood stream encourages the body to produce testosterone—and testosterone in turn encourages a spike of sebum production, causing skin to overproduce oil that ultimately clogs pores.
Load up on protein
Instead of filling up on the bread basket, it could serve your skin to chow down on more protein. In a study of 43 men with acne, those who followed a high protein, low-glycemic diet had a 21 percent lower incidence of pimples than the control group. Researchers also noted that hormonal levels dropped in the high-protein group, which could account for their clear skin.
Here's why this happens: Protein is converted more slowly to glucose than carbohydrates, so eating a steak doesn't spike the blood sugar as quickly as a piece of bread does. This means that insulin levels will stay more even and balanced if you choose protein over carbs. If you're fighting acne, consider swapping out starchy carbs for a protein source like lean meats or legumes.
Rethink that glass of milk
Sixty-five percent of people have difficulty digesting dairy products, but even if you're not technically lactose intolerant, guzzling milk might not be the best idea. Limiting dairy consumption might help skin clear up, especially if breakouts occur on the regular.
Many cows are treated with hormones and antibiotics, and most milk that we drink comes from cows that are pregnant and lactating. That means that the natural hormone levels in the milk we're drinking are staggeringly high.
Either the additional hormones or the increased inflammatory response that dairy can cause in humans might be the reason why dairy has been linked to the proliferation of acne, according to Harvard researchers. Err on the safe side by testing your body's response—simply cut dairy out of your diet for six weeks and see if breakout frequency or intensity changes.
With the plethora of non-dairy options out there, those living life dairy-free can still enjoy coconut cream in their coffee, almond milk ice cream, and even vegan cashew cheese. (Check out some of our favorite dairy-free recipes here!)
If you slip up, treat your skin accordingly
So you totally overhaul your diet and stick to a low-glycemic, high-protein, dairy-free regimen, and after a few months your skin starts to look totally amazing. And then, one fateful date with a cracker and cheese plate dashes your dreams of supermodel skin. Don't fret! Just treat it.
Use a face wash with salicylic acid or tea tree oil, and try using an astringent like witch hazel to cleanse pores and soothe skin. Zap nagging pimples with a light treatment gel that will calm redness and kill bacteria, and finish with a light moisturizer that won't clog pores but will keep skin hydrated (dry skin can cause pimples, too!)
Illustration by Katherine Prendergast