If you're a part of the 59 percent of Americans who drink coffee every day and also one of the more than 17 million Americans who have acne, you may have heard about the possible link between the two.
If a friend or co-worker swore that giving up coffee was the only thing that helped clear up their skin, don't panic. Anecdotes are no substitute for scientific evidence.
The relationship between coffee and acne turns out to be a fairly complex issue.
First things first — coffee doesn't cause acne, but it can make it worse. It depends on what you're putting in your coffee, how much you're drinking, and a few other factors.
What does the research say?
The relationship between what you eat and acne remains controversial. Studies that asked people to identify what they think is contributing to their acne have identified coffee as a possible trigger.
There haven't been any studies done to conclusively say whether or not drinking coffee makes acne worse, but there are a few important factors to consider.
As you probably already know, coffee contains a lot of caffeine. Caffeine makes you feel alert and awake but also leads to a heightened stress response in the body. In fact, a large cup of coffee can more than double your body's stress response.
Stress doesn't cause acne, but stress can make existing acne worse. Stress hormones, such as cortisol, may increase the amount of oil produced by your sebaceous glands.
On top of this, drinking a lot of coffee or drinking coffee late in the day takes a toll on your sleep. Less sleep means more stress, which could in turn worsen your acne.
The effects of caffeine on sleep varies from person to person. If you're sensitive to caffeine, try to cut off your caffeine consumption by the early afternoon to avoid sleeping problems.
If your morning routine includes a latte or café con leche, know that there's quite a bit of evidence linking milk to acne.
One large study looked at the relationship between milk and acne in over 47,000 nurses who had been diagnosed with acne when they were teenagers. The study found that the nurses with the highest level of milk intake had acne more often than nurses with the lowest level of milk intake.
Researchers believe that the hormones in milk may play a role in triggering acne. One shortcoming of this study was that it relied on adult nurses to remember what they ate as teenagers.
Follow-up studies in teenaged boys and girls found very similar results. Skim milk (nonfat milk) was shown to be worse than full-fat or low-fat milk.
Girls who drank two or more servings of nonfat milk every day were 22 percent more likely to have severe acne and 44 percent more likely to have cystic or nodular acne than those who only had one glass of nonfat milk every day.
These studies don't definitively prove that milk triggers acne, but there's enough evidence to strongly suspect that dairy milk plays a role.
How much sugar are you putting in your coffee? If you're the type of person to order the trendiest latte at Starbucks, you're probably getting a lot more sugar than you realize. A grande pumpkin-spiced latte, for example, has 50 grams of sugar (double your maximum daily recommended intake)!
There's already been plenty of research done to show the relationship between sugar consumption and acne. Diets high in sugar increases the amount of insulin released by the body.
What follows the release of insulin is an increase in insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1). IGF-1 is a hormone known to play a role in the development of acne.
Pairing your sugary latte with a scone or chocolate croissant can make this affect even worse. Diets rich in carbohydrates with a high glycemic index have the same effect on your IGF-1 levels.
To make it more complicated, it turns out that the antioxidants found in coffee have actually been shown to improve your skin. Coffee is the world's biggest dietary source of antioxidants.
A 2006 study compared blood levels of antioxidants (vitamins A and E) in 100 people with acne and in 100 people without acne. They found that the people with acne had significantly lower blood concentrations of these antioxidants compared to the control group.
More research is needed to find out the effect of the antioxidants from coffee on the severity of acne.
Should you ditch your morning latte?
Coffee doesn't cause acne, but drinking a lot of it, especially coffee loaded with milk and sugar, can make your acne worse.
If you're still worried that coffee is making you break out, there's no need to quit cold turkey. Before you ditch your daily cup, try the following:
- Avoid adding refined sugar or sugary syrups or switch to a sweetener, like stevia.
- Use a nondairy milk, like almond or coconut milk, instead of cow's milk.
- Don't drink coffee or other caffeinated beverages in the afternoon or before bed to ensure you get a good night's sleep.
- Switch to decaf.
- Skip the pastries and donuts that are often paired with a cup of coffee.
Everyone reacts to coffee and caffeine differently. If you want a more concrete answer, try cutting coffee for a few weeks and see if your skin improves. Then, you can slowly reintroduce coffee and see if your acne gets worse again.
If you still have acne after trying out these tips, see a dermatologist. It may take some trial and error or a combination of a few different treatments, but modern acne treatments can help with virtually every case of acne.