Like ginger for nausea or vapor rub for colds, diets have pretty much become modern-day folk remedies for our largest organ: the skin. Who hasn’t seen an inspiring story that cites a specific diet as the game changer for acne or skin-aging concerns?
But unlike tried-and-true remedies, these claims vary in terms of verified research and results.
Here are eight popular diets people turn to for skin help and how they might work — or not.
The Whole30 diet has a simple premise: Eat nothing but “real” foods for 30 days. To do this, you focus on eating unprocessed foods with simple ingredients and avoid a laundry list of foods, including:
- additives such as MSG
- baked goods
You can eat as much as you want on this diet. But if you go off track, you have to restart.
What it means if your skin improves on this diet, according to Lortscher
On eliminating processed food and refined sugar: “Some parts of the Whole30 diet may benefit your skin. Sugar in any form influences the two major causes of acne: hormones and inflammation. As you eat refined and processed carbohydrates like white sugar, your blood sugar levels increase at a faster rate, and your pancreas responds by releasing insulin. By eliminating sugar, you may be able to decrease the amount of insulin (and as a result, oil and acne production) your body makes.”
On eliminating dairy: “These products can trigger or worsen acne, since milk contains precursors to testosterone and other androgens, which influence the hormone receptors in the skin to turn on the process that causes acne.”
On eliminating alcohol: “Although drinking too much alcohol does not directly cause acne, it’s certainly feasible that it may trigger acne. Certain steroid hormones, such as glucocorticoids and adrenal androgens, are released during stress. (And drinking a bit more than one should is another form of stress.) These hormones stimulate the oil glands in the skin, beginning a process that leads to acne. Bottom line — moderation!”
Insulin and acneInsulin is a hormone that removes sugar from the blood and puts it in the cells to use. Insulin helps bring blood sugar down. Insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) production is stimulated, which increases sebum (oil) production and acne severity.
The bottom line
Whole30 may have a positive effect on your skin, but the primary factors are its avoidance of sugar, alcohol, dairy, and simple carbohydrates with a high Glycemic Index. The ultra-restrictive avoidance list may be overkill if better skin is your only goal.
There’s a wide definition of the vegetarian diet, depending on your goals and even who you ask. While most veggie diets agree on skipping animal-based protein, some consider fish sauce in your veggie pho bowl, creamer in your coffee, and eggs in your baked goods no big deal. If you’re fine with dairy or eggs, you fall in the lacto-ovo category of vegetarianism.
As for going vegan, this is a strict no-meat and animal-byproduct diet. Sometimes this means things like skin care, clothes, accessories, and other lifestyle items are off-limits.
How going vegetarian or vegan could affect your skin, according to Lortscher
On the benefits of eliminating meat: “Although being vegetarian doesn’t cut out the main acne-triggering foods such as dairy or sugar, according to the American Heart Association, most vegetarian diets are lower in fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol. Consuming fewer calories can decrease skin oil production, thus reducing outbreaks.”
In addition, replacing saturated fats with healthier unsaturated fats can be anti-inflammatory for the body and skin, and thus lead to less acne. Studies have shown omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, which fall into the unsaturated fat category, play a large role in skin function and appearance.
On eliminating dairy: Just as Whole30 eliminates dairy, going vegetarian and vegan does too. As mentioned, the likely link between acne and dairy is the stimulation of insulin-like growth factor-1. IGF-1 is present in all milks, even organic, and can also be absorbed or stimulated by milk consumption.
What to know before going vegetarian or vegan
The science between going vegetarian and having better skin isn’t as clear-cut as word-of-mouth stories may tell. If you’re thinking about cutting meat, talk to a registered dietician. They can help you get what you need through food. Supplements may also help. Here’s what Lortscher advises:
“Your primary care provider can advise you on whether supplements are indicated for you. It may be difficult to get enough of certain nutrients, including:
Choose foods on the lower end of the Glycemic Index, as they take more time to break down, helping to stabilize blood sugar levels and keep you satisfied. For vegetarians and vegans, skip white bread, white rice, or sugary snacks.”
Lortscher’s food recommendations
- nuts and seeds
- most vegetables
- healthy grains (like barley, quinoa, and rolled oats)
- any fruits, like berries, plums, peaches, and cantaloupe
The bottom line
Be sure to work with your doctor or dietitian to maintain healthy levels of nutrients and vitamins normally found in animal-based foods.
Beware relying too heavily on white breads, rice, pasta, and other carbohydrates with low nutrient density. Diets high in added sugars (and dairy) may worsen acne.
The keto diet has become a trend in recent years, with tales of throwing calorie counting out the window and feasting on plates of bacon. The most basic, simple premise is to consume almost no carbohydrates — typically just 20 to 50 grams per day.
This causes your body to turn away from using glucose as energy. Instead, it starts digging into your fat storage for fuel. This process is called ketosis and can benefit people with certain conditions like diabetes and epilepsy. But if done incorrectly, keto can come with some serious risks.
The science behind keto and your skin, according to Lortscher
On the elimination of carbs: When you remove all carbs, you may also be skipping out on the processed foods and their triggers, however keto may not be the best choice if you’re looking to improve your skin.
On connection between BMI and acne: “[People with acne] may do best if they control their total calorie uptake, as a high body mass index (BMI) has been associated with increased severity of acne and acne aggravation by dairy products.”
On the science of keto and your skin: “With ketogenic diets, levels of ghrelin, a hunger-stimulating hormone, increase — as they do in starvation. Ghrelin may be decreased in humans with acne.
However, the subject is complex, and it has not been proven that increasing ghrelin levels by following certain diets will help acne.”
Avoid doing keto if you’re only looking for skin benefits
“We do not advocate a ketogenic diet for acne control,” Lortscher says.
“Do not follow this or any restrictive diet if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. Always check with your doctor.
The ketogenic diet is a very rigid high-fat, adequate-protein, low-carbohydrate diet that some people follow for weight loss. In medicine, a ketogenic diet is used primarily to treat difficult to control epilepsy in children.
There is some controversy concerning a ketogenic diet. In particular, minimizing vegetable and fruit consumption may rob the body of important nutrients, and any weight loss may not be maintained long term.”
If there’s anything to take away from the keto craze, it’s this: “We do want you to choose the types of carbohydrate you eat wisely,” Lortscher notes.
Instead, he recommends following “a low-Glycemic Index diet, which is more liberal in total carbohydrate intake but emphasizes foods that produce relatively little increase in blood glucose, may help improve acne breakouts in certain individuals.”
The bottom line
The keto diet may result in improvement of acne since it cuts out carbs — including refined and processed ones. But if you’re considering keto primarily for acne control, a balanced, low-Glycemic Index diet is a safer option.
With high blood sugar and dairy both being on the suspect list of acne triggers, it’s logical to ask: What if we focused on eliminating just those two culprits from our diet?
Going on a sugar- and dairy-free diet, without additional restrictions, tackles both repeat offenders on our list so far. It’s also one of the most popular elimination strategies people take for their skin.
Why going sugar- and dairy-free can work, according to Lortscher
On sugar and oil production: Added sugar can influence insulin production, causing increased oil production and acne appearance.
On dairy and hormones: Milk can influence your hormones and affect the process that causes acne. “Although the mechanism is unclear, the association with acne is marked more with skim milk than with whole milk and in those consuming more than three portions per week,” Lortscher says. “It’s possible that cheese, ice cream, and yogurt may be associated with acne, but the link appears to be stronger with milk.”
On being lactose-intolerant: “I am not aware of any evidence linking lactose intolerance to skin problems. At this point in time, I believe that in general, lactose-intolerant individuals may actually have a better chance at having clear skin, since more and more evidence points to dairy as a contributing factor to acne breakouts in some people.”
The connection between sugar and inflammationThere is some evidence for sugar causing acne. “A study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows a marked increase in C-reactive protein (CRP) levels with just one to two cans of sugar-sweetened soda per day. CRP is one of the best measures of inflammation — and inflammation is bad news for acne-prone individuals. White bread, white rice, and other simple carbohydrates are high Glycemic Index foods that increase blood sugar and may be the main culprit in acne.” — Dr. David Lortscher
The bottom line
High blood sugar levels lead to inflammation, and we already know that’s bad news for your body, including your skin.
If you’re interested in limiting or quitting sugar and dairy, you might not have to completely say goodbye to it. How often you consume it and which products you cut out may make a difference, too.
Lortscher’s tips on going dairy-free
- Stop consuming all dairy products to see if it has an effect on acne.
- Eliminate all milk, yogurt, cheese, butter, ice cream, and whey- or casein-containing products (like Muscle Milk, whey muscle protein, protein bars, etc.) for two weeks at minimum. “Some see some immediate reduction in oil production and blemishes,” Lortscher says.
You need to drink more water.
You’ve probably heard this from the internet, TV, maybe even your doctor (or your mom!). All sorts of amounts have been thrown around about how much is enough.
“According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, if you’re doing three things: making water your main choice of drink, drinking water when thirsty, and drinking water with meals, you won’t need to worry about dehydration,” Lortscher says.
Meaning: Whether it’s eight glasses, 72 ounces, or 2 liters, the volume of water you actually need isn’t as simple as an arbitrary amount.
But if we manage to hit that magical number, would it benefit our skin?
What drinking more water can do for your skin, according to Lortscher
On maintaining hydration: “Our bodies, especially our internal organs, function best when oral hydration is adequate. So, do drink sufficient water and low-carb beverages to quench thirst and replace fluids lost via perspiration, etc.,” Lortscher says.
While a 2018 review found that in some studies, signs of dryness and roughness were reduced with additional water intake, more research is needed to prove that increased fluid intake decreases signs of dry skin.
It doesn’t hurt to drink more though.
One 2015 study looked at 49 women in their early 20s to mid 30s and found that drinking an extra 2 liters of water per day positively impacted their skin, improving its hydration levels.
The bottom line
Don’t stress yourself out by trying to strive for that perfect ratio of water intake. Focus on what you’re drinking and drink when you need it. Learn what your body needs for optimal hydration: It can be less than eight glasses or more, it really depends on your diet!
Also, try to avoid sugary drinks (we already know sugar can be bad for our skin).
Lortscher’s tips for hydrating your skin
- Run a humidifier if the air is dry.
- Moisturize right after you wash your face or right after showering. The key is to apply moisturizer while your skin is still a little wet to “seal in” the water.
- Avoid extreme temperatures when bathing as well as in your environment, if possible.
If your skin is feeling dehydrated but drinking more water just isn’t doing the job, consider topical hydration to give your thirsty skin what it needs.
Even more popular than the keto diet, the paleo diet has been trending hard the last few years, with fitness and foodie bloggers alike following the craze. The concept is simple and attractive: Eat what your ancestors ate, returning to prehistoric hunter-gatherer fare full of clean protein, unrefined whole carbs, and fresh foods.
The modern problem with paleo: It seems there’s no single agreed-upon method, or definitive scientific research, when it comes to paleo and healthy skin. The modern interpretation of what a paleo diet would be tends to feature a lot of meat, with vegetables, nuts, and fruit as complementary. That’s not necessarily a good thing: Diets high in meat can increase the risk of skin cancer, and may negatively affect skin aging.
While the process of eliminating refined and processed foods may be impactful, more research needs to be done.
“Clean eating” is too vague: Similar to the Whole30 diet, clean eating focuses on unprocessed, fresh foods while eliminating processed foods, refined ingredients, and artificial additives. It also has a long list of restrictions, which aren’t necessarily backed by science, and may be challenging to follow.
While this elimination, as mentioned above, is recommended as a broad dietary change to benefit skin health, it doesn’t mean you have to follow the clean eating diet to see results.
Overall, eating cleaner and more balanced foods, as a generalized approach, can benefit your health generally and your skin specifically.
Preliminary findings suggest a diet rich in vegetables and unsaturated fats and low in dairy and sugar may lead to healthier skin. So parts of the clean eating diet may result in better skin, but to attribute it completely to the diet needs more research.
With most modern diets, the scientific research on their benefits is lacking. Many tend to be more so marketing trends than medical recommendations. If there is a connection between a diet and benefits, it could take years, even decades, before research proves the link.
If you’re concerned that what you eat can be triggering skin issues, you may want to start with the elimination diet first. Over the course of five to six weeks, you’ll slowly reintroduce food groups to see if there’s a trigger.
But if you know you’re in good shape, following a balanced, heart-healthy diet is a good way to make sure your meals are maximizing your skin health.
Kate M. Watts is a science enthusiast and beauty writer who dreams of finishing her coffee before it cools. Her home is overrun with old books and demanding houseplants, and she’s accepted her best life comes with a fine patina of dog hair. You can find her on Twitter.