Do Anti-Acne Diets Work?

There is so much information out there about acne and diet. Some experts claim certain foods can cause acne, and cutting those foods from your diet can improve acne. Others say there is no link between food and acne—that diet has nothing to do with the health of your skin.

Where does the truth lay? Probably somewhere in the middle. Let's look at what the science says.

Refined Carbohydrates

pretzles, bread, and other carb-filled pastries

Marko Milanovic / Stocksy United

Not all carbs are equal and, according to a few studies, the wrong types could have an effect on your skin.

Researchers have found that high glycemic index foods (think white bread, potatoes, and sugary junk foods) seem to make acne worse. A diet rich in low glycemic index foods, which includes wheat bread, wheat pasta, legumes, and other whole grains, seems to improve acne.

Much more research needs to be done though, as the info we have is still preliminary.


photo of three bars of chocolate, one dark, one milk, and one white

Luka / Getty Images

This sweet treat has been blamed for many a case of acne. How many of us have been warned to stay away from chocolate if we want clear skin?

Good news for all you chocoholics out there: chocolate does not cause acne. In fact, more data is coming out showing that chocolate (the darker the better) is actually good for you.

Dark chocolate is full of healthful antioxidants.

Fried Foods

Ebi Furai (Fried Shrimp) on a plate

Malcolm P Chapman / Moment Open / Getty Images

Does eating oily foods translate to oily skin? Chalk this one up as another acne-causes myth.

There's no way to disguise French fries, fried chicken, and other deep-fried morsels as health food, but they don’t make your skin more oily. They won't make acne worse either.

Milk and Dairy Products

milk in a glass
krisanapong detraphiphat / Getty Images

For some people, dairy products may actually worsen acne (lowfat products in particular). Several studies have shown a link between acne severity and consumption of milk and other dairy products.

It's still a stretch to say that milk causes acne, and giving up all dairy probably won't cause acne to disappear. Still, if you’re a big milk drinker, you may want to cut back on the dairy for a while and see if it has any effect on your skin.

Organic Diet

Fruits and vegetables on display.

Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

Those organic grapes, tomatoes, and apples are amazingly tasty. And it's fun to browse the farmer's market for new and unique organic fare.

But will loading your diet with organic foods help to clear your skin? While there are many different reasons to go organic, clearing up acne isn't one of them.

No matter what some organic proponents say, the research just doesn't back this up. Eating organic foods may reduce the amount of pesticides you take in, but there is no indication that it has any effect on acne breakouts.

So, if the price of organic food gives you sticker shock, forgoing it for regular produce won't hurt your skin.


White sugar pouring into cup

Diamond Sky Images / Getty Images

While some people swear eating sugary foods makes their acne worse, the research linking sugar to acne development is pretty weak.

A handful of small studies suggest there may be a link, detractors are quick to point out that the pool of participants was quite small. Also, they relied on participants self-reporting acne breakouts—not a very objective way to classify changes in the skin.

From the information we have right now, it seems sugar doesn't play any role in acne development.

Vegetarian and Vegan Diets

Fruits and vegetables speared on the ends of forks including a kiwi slice, cabbage chunk, pepper, a strawberry, and a grapefruit wedge

Jose R. Aguirre / Getty Images

Interestingly, a diet rich in meat may raise your chances of developing acne through a complex chain reaction.

There is a protein-complex within the human body that some researchers believe is responsible for turning on this chain reaction that stimulates the skin's oil glands and makes acne breakouts more likely to develop. The trigger to get this process started is the amino acid leucine.

Foods like beef and chicken are naturally high in leucine.

So far, there isn't any definitive proof, as this is just a theory. But it is an interesting look at how the skin works.

We do know, though, that acne development is very complex and it's highly unlikely that just changing one aspect of your diet is going to completely clear up a case of acne. Your best bet for treatment is still a proven acne medication

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  • Burris J, Rietkerk W, Shikany JM, Woolf K. Differences in Dietary Glycemic Load and Hormones in New York City Adults with No and Moderate/Severe Acne. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2017;117(9):1375-1383.

  • Burris J, Rietkerk W, Woolf K. Acne: the role of medical nutrition therapy. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2013;113(3):416-30.

  • Katta R, Desai SP. "Diet and Dermatology: the Role of Dietary Intervention in Skin Disease." Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. 7.7 (2014): 46-51.

  • Mahmood SN, Bowe WP. "Diet and Acne Update: Carbohydrates Emerge as the Main Culprit." Journal of Drugs in Dermatology. 2014 Apr;13(4):428-35.

By Angela Palmer
Angela Palmer is a licensed esthetician specializing in acne treatment.