Will Going Vegetarian or Vegan Clear Acne?

In This Article

If you were to believe everything you read, a vegetarian or vegan diet would be a healthy, natural, and sure-fire way to clear your acne. A vegetarian doesn't eat any type of meat—no beef, pork, chicken, or seafood.

So, can doing that prevent breakouts? Maybe. According to a few studies, acne may be linked to a high amount of animal protein in the diet.

Woman picking up vegetables at a wooden table
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The Link: Meat and Acne

Your body contains a protein-complex called mammalian target of rapamycin complex 1 (mTORC1). mTORC1 is responsible for healthy cell growth and function. Some researchers believe that mTORC1 turns on the pathway (or chain reaction) for the body to create acne breakouts.

mTORC1 is activated by nutrients, especially amino acids like leucine. Meat, like beef and chicken, happens to be naturally high in leucine. However, it's not just in meat—certain proteins popular with vegetarians, like whey, egg, and soy are also high in this amino acid.

Here's where it gets interesting: mTORC1 can be "overstimulated" by high amounts of leucine. When the mTORC1 pathway is over-activated, it can affect sebum (or oil) production, skin cell growth, and inflammation. 

Leucine has another trick up its sleeve: It acts as a building block for the sebaceous glands to create sebum (or oil). All of these factors are linked to acne development.

The over-activation of mTORC1 can also increase androgen hormones. Androgen hormones are known to be a big player in acne development. Plus, over-activation of this mTORC1 pathway has already been linked to certain diseases, like type-2 diabetes and cancer.

The mTORC1 pathway is a very complex one, though. So, to fully flesh out the theory that meat consumption actually contributes to acne breakouts, more research needs to be done.

So far, there isn't a smoking gun. After all, eating a steak high in leucine doesn't automatically mean you'll break out with pimples.

The jury is still out whether eating meat could affect your acne risk. There hasn't been enough research done on the link between meat and acne to say conclusively one way or the other.

Going Vegan for Acne Control

Like vegetarians, vegans don't eat meat, but vegans also stay away from any foods that come from an animal—dairy products, eggs, and sometimes honey.

Some evidence suggests that dairy plays a role in acne development and severity. Skim milk and cheese seem the most likely culprits.

Just like with meat, these contain high amounts of leucine. Some studies suggest that the hormones in milk may also play a role. Others point to the high levels of insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) in milk. Interestingly, IGF-1 also stimulates mTORC1.

Dairy consumption hasn't been shown to cause acne in people who typically have clear skin. Rather, milk may cause a worsening of existing breakouts for some people.

Other animal-based foods like eggs, lard, and honey haven't been shown to have any influence on acne development, or they haven't been studied.

Again, a vegan diet hasn't been proven to clear acne. Cutting back on dairy products might improve breakouts in some cases for some people. However, a completely vegan diet doesn't seem to be necessary in any case.

When Diet Fails

Diet may play a role in acne development, but it's likely a supporting player rather than the star. 

You can have the healthiest diet ever, vegetarian, vegan, or otherwise. You can eschew sugar, cut out all junk foods, eat only organic foods... and still have acne. 

We all know people who eat meat and dairy products and never get so much as a pimple, and there are committed vegans who struggle with acne daily.

How our diets work on the body and skin is very complex and not completely understood. We do know there isn't a direct one-to-one link between any type of food and acne breakouts. 

So, obviously, it's not as simple as saying "meat causes pimples," or "dairy makes you break out." Drinking a glass of milk doesn't guarantee a breakout tomorrow; eating two slices of bacon won't cause two pimples to appear.

For some people, certain foods may influence acne development and make existing breakouts worse. For others, though, diet doesn't seem to impact acne one way or the other.

If becoming, or staying, vegetarian or vegan is important to you, there's no reason why you shouldn't (at least where acne is concerned). There are many different reasons why people choose a plant-based diet, be it for health reasons, to lose weight, or moral ideals. 

But if you're a card-carrying carnivore considering a switch to vegetarian fare solely because you're hoping to clear your skin, you'll likely be disappointed. Some people might see an improvement in their skin, but the chance that simply changing your diet will make acne completely disappear is slim.

Take Control of Your Acne 

Already treating your acne and wanting to give your treatment a little boost?

You now know that going vegetarian or vegan isn't a necessary step to take to clear your skin. You can get acne under control without major dietary changes. People do so all the time.

For mild acne and blackheads, over-the-counter acne products may be all you need.

For the most effective OTC results, consider using a product that contains benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid. Use it for about 10 weeks and see if you get the improvement you want.

If your acne is moderate to severe, or if you've tried OTC products for a time without any results, skip the over-the-counter products and make an appointment with a dermatologist. Plenty of prescription medications, both topical and oral, can help clear your skin.

A Word From Verywell

Just remember, dietary changes may help improve your skin in some cases, but the fastest and most effective way to clear acne is with proven acne medication. 

If you want to change your diet for other reasons, remember it's always a good idea to check with a doctor, and possibly a nutritionist, to ensure you're making healthy changes.

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Article Sources
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  2. Dodd KM, Tee AR. Leucine and mTORC1: a complex relationship. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2012;302(11):E1329-42. doi:10.1152/ajpendo.00525.2011

  3. Ju Q, Tao T, Hu T, Karadağ AS, Al-khuzaei S, Chen W. Sex hormones and acne. Clin Dermatol. 2017;35(2):130-137. doi:10.1016/j.clindermatol.2016.10.004

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