Fill your plate with these foods for clear skin

What exactly is the relationship between diet and acne?

Written by
Sophie Overett
Medically reviewed by
min read
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If you’ve ever had a breakout, the odds are you’ve heard the old adage that healthy foods make for healthy skin.

It’s usually said by someone who'll point towards that last square of chocolate or bowl of fries as the reason for a stubborn pimple or three or, worse, an acne flare-up, which rarely helps at the moment when you’re standing in the mirror and trying to pop your pimples.

Still, the question lingers — how accurate is the sentiment that oily food creates oily skin? And what exactly is the relationship between diet and acne? Let's find out.

Can you eat your way to clear skin?

Well, yes and no. There’s no one cause for acne, so no one thing is going to fully address it. That said, while many studies have found that we can’t treat skin health with food, we can definitely influence it [1].  

Acne is a disease affecting millions of people the world over and is caused by a hormonal trigger of excess oil (also known as sebum) on the skin’s surface, which mixes with bacteria to block hair follicles [1].  

This hormonal trigger can be created by any number of things, from the onset of puberty to menstruation to gender transition medication, to environmental or other health factors.

And, while your diet won’t act as a ‘cure’ for your skin, some studies have found up to 87% of acne vulgaris patients have noticed they’ve had less acne by taking a serious look at what they eat [2].  

What is the link between diet and acne?

The link between acne-prone skin and diet has been a cause for conversation for over a century, with recent studies finding a direct link between processed foods in Western societies and acne development.

Many nutritional scientists put this down to the fact that Western society is dominated by high glycemic diets. A high glycemic diet is one high in carbohydrates and sugars, namely processed meats, sugars, cocoa and refined grains like white bread and white rice [4].

Being high in sugar and carbohydrates means that these ingredients are rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream and lead to higher glucose levels and insulin, which has a whole range of health implications. In particular, insulin has been found to augment sebum production and stimulate androgen, the hormone that helps cause acne [3].

On top of that, Western diets are often high in milk and dairy products, which have similarly been found to have an impact on healthy skin. While milk is considered a high glycemic food, it has the added effect of having naturally occurring growth hormones in it.

After all, cow milk, like human milk, is designed to help babies grow, so drinking milk or eating dairy products can cause hormonal changes that may impact your usually glowing skin.

What foods should I avoid if I want healthy skin?

As always, a healthy diet is one that embraces balance and moderation, and when it comes to your skin health, it's no different. You might want to try reducing your dairy consumption and substituting foods that are high in sugars and carbohydrates.

Anything with refined or added sugars, including soft drinks and alcohol, can also be worth avoiding, while fatty fish and chicken are preferable over red meats, and avoiding any processed foods are more great steps towards a clear skin diet [8].

What are considered to be the best foods for clear skin?

Now that we've covered what to avoid, it's time for the fun stuff — what to add! There are many foods for clear skin that can help you feel fresher and more in control of your body, and they all fall under the category of a low-glycemic diet.

These include:

  • Foods high in dietary fibre. Many studies have found that a diet rich in high-fibre fruits, vegetables, cereals and oats is crucial to glowing skin and has the bonus effect of promoting a healthy gut [5]. In particular, wholegrain bread, legumes, apples and beans can be tasty additions to any meal [9].
  • Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids such as oily fish like salmon, sardines or squid [5].
  • Foods and drinks high in antioxidants such as green tea [5]. These are also high in vitamin E, which has been shown to have a positive impact on skin cells and help fight skin cancer.
  • Hunter-gatherer food including things like nuts, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, leafy greens, sweet potatoes, maize, and citrus fruits [6].
  • 6-8 glasses of water a day to keep your skin hydration up.

What are the most important nutrients for the skin?

Many of the above foods for clear skin include a rich range of vitamins, minerals and nutrients from those omega-3 fatty acids to vitamin A and vitamin E that help keeps your skin plump and healthy, but what are those exactly?

And what can you do when your diet can't quite give you enough of what you need?

Vitamin A

Vitamin A is so crucial to the skin that it’s actually naturally occurring in many topical skincare products.

Vitamin A is found in the liver and the skin, and the first symptoms of a vitamin A deficiency are felt in the latter — namely in dry and flaky skin, dry hair and broken fingernails [1]. Vitamin A is found in eggs, beef liver, and red, orange and yellow vegetables [12].


A vitamin with potent anti-inflammatory properties, niacinamide is a form of vitamin B3 that can be taken orally or applied topically. It's been found to have a significant reduction in acne with no major adverse side effects, making it a safe path to clear skin [7].


Zinc has long been known to be crucial to the development and function of the skin. Studies have shown that people with acne are often deficient in zinc, and zinc supplements can have a real impact on clearing up pimples [5]. 

It's found in meat, fish, poultry and cereals, and is processed along with protein, so if you're vegetarian or vegan, you can be more likely to have a zinc deficiency [13].

Vitamin B5

A water-soluble B-complex vitamin, vitamin B5 helps to keep your skin moisturised and soft and repair its skin cells as needed.

The result of this can have a healing effect on acne lesions, with one study finding that 67% of people who took vitamin B5 noticed a significant difference in their acne breakouts over 12 weeks [10].


A mineral that the body needs in trace amounts, chromium helps you to break down insulin, carbohydrates and all those other excess sugars that can worsen acne and contribute to blemishes [11].

It's found naturally in certain foods, such as wholegrains, fatty fish, leafy greens, coffee and some red wines, and helps to improve skin tone and keep the skin supple.

Vitamin C

Is there anything vitamin C can't do? From curing scurvy to protecting your memory, vitamin C is a crucial part of everyone's diet, but its benefits when it comes to skin health are close to unmatched.

From helping with collagen production to assisting with wound healing, preventing premature aging, fighting sun damage and keeping your healthy complexion, vitamin C is a key player in not just keeping your immune system on track, but in keeping your radiant skin [8].

Photo credit: Getty Images

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