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New research links a diet high in sugar and dairy to increased rates of acne. Getty Images
  • A new study links a diet high in dairy or sugar to higher rates of acne.
  • Researchers also found that pollution and other environmental factors might take a toll on your skin.
  • Experts say cutting down on dairy and sugar in favor of a high-fiber diet with omega-3 fatty acids can help lead to a blemish-free face.

In the search for clear skin, many have turned to strict diets, avoiding dairy, sugar, or caffeine. But is there any evidence that your diet will wreak havoc on your complexion, or is it just another skin care myth?

Well, now a new study adds to mounting evidence that what you eat can affect whether or not you break out.

Researchers found that people with acne are far more likely to eat dairy products on a daily basis, according to new research presented at this year’s European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology (EADV) Congress in Madrid.

The study is the first of its kind to look at both external and internal factors that affect acne.

In order to do that, the researchers examined data on more than 6,700 participants across North America, South America, and Europe.

Instead of looking at single environmental or lifestyle factors, they looked at the total picture by focusing on exposomes.

The exposome is the measure of all the exposures — lifestyle, dietary, and environmental — of someone in their lifetime and how they can affect health.

“We conducted this research to improve the understanding of dermatologist diseases and the role exposomes, the internal and external factors, play,” lead researcher and professor Brigitte Dréno told Healthline.

Researchers found that nearly 50 percent of the people with acne studied consumed dairy products daily, compared to less than 40 percent of those who did not. They also found a significant association for daily consumption of sweet beverages like soda or juices and eating foods like pastries and chocolate.

The study didn’t definitively find that eating sweets or dairy caused acne, just that they’re linked.

But Dréno explained that proteins from dairy may affect genetic information in the skin, which may result in inflammation or affect oil production, and potentially, that may lead to acne.

Acne is estimated to affect about 1 in 10 people globally, and it’s been found to affect about 54 percent of all adult women at some point in their lives.

Dr. Fran E. Cook-Bolden, board-certified dermatologist and cosmetic surgeon with Advanced Dermatology PC and clinical assistant professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Health Systems, pointed out that even without added sugar, dairy contains a lot of sugar via lactose.

“There are two reasons behind why dairy is associated with acne, and I want to start out by mentioning a quote: ‘Sugar is poison.’ Dairy contains lactose, a form of sugar,” Cook-Bolden told Healthline.

Cook-Bolden pointed out that there’s increasing evidence of how sugar can negatively affect our bodies.

“We have lots of evidence, although the exact mechanism has not been mapped out, that sugar stimulates inflammation, not just in acne but in a lot of different diseases, but certainly in acne, and that causes breakouts,” she said.

Cook-Bolden also pointed out that it’s not just desserts that contain sugar. Many seemingly savory foods, like cheese or bread, have a high glycemic index.

A high glycemic index can cause the body to produce lots of insulin, which experts believe may be linked to worse outbreaks. Instead, Cook-Bolden suggests switching to foods with a lower glycemic index.

“Omega-3s have anti-inflammatory properties. They can actually calm down acne breakouts,” said Cook-Bolden. “There are many nut milks you can use as dairy alternatives, like almond.”

But it’s not just what you eat. Your skin may be affected by where you live and how you live.

Dréno said that exposure to pollution and stress was also more often observed in study participants experiencing acne. Unsurprisingly, the study revealed that harsh skin care practices were also used more frequently by people with acne.

Cook-Bolden said much of the environmental-related theories around acne are still being researched.

“A lot of that is anecdotal, things we see in our practice every day, but there’s no evidence-based medicine in terms of pollution or changes in season that are directly related to acne,” Cook-Bolden said.

If you have acne and can’t get rid of it no matter how you change your diet or skin care routine, you may want to meet with a dermatologist. In some cases, acne can be a symptom of an underlying condition, such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).

“When you have situations like very severe acne or sudden onset acne, we ask questions that may point in that direction, such as: ‘Are your periods regular? Has there been a change?’ And also ask about diet, because you want to rule out other factors such as sugar and dairy,” Cook-Bolden said.

New research finds a strong association between eating dairy and foods or beverages high in sugar and adult acne.

Researchers also found a similar association for environmental factors like pollution, seasonal changes in weather, and even harsh skin care practices.

Experts say reducing sugar intake, eating foods with a low glycemic index, and consuming healthy omega-3 fatty acids can help control or even prevent acne outbreaks.