When I was a teenager, the advice I got about acne was clear and consistent:

  • Avoid oily foods and chocolate because they trigger breakouts and make existing acne worse
  • Wash your face often
  • Try a topical, over-the-counter remedy such as those containing benzoyl peroxide (Clearasil) or salicylic acid (Stridex).

By the time I got to medical school, the message had changed. I learned that the diet-acne connection was considered a myth, and that what we eat has little to do with making acne better or worse.

But a new study has once again turned the tables. It suggests that diet might contribute to acne — at least in adults.

Why does acne develop?

For many — including me — thinking about teenage acne is a painful exercise. But it’s worth understanding why acne develops in the first place.

Acne is thought to develop because of a combination of factors: the production of too much oil in the skin, clogged skin pores, bacteria in the skin, and inflammation. Hormonal changes — which occur during puberty, or with a condition called polycystic ovary syndrome — and the menstrual cycle can have a big impact on acne, because they affect oil production in the skin. Some medications can cause acne (especially steroids and lithium), and hair products, makeup, and other products we put on our skin can contribute to clogged pores. Genetic factors, pollution, smoking, and stress have also been suggested as causes or contributors to acne.

And then there remains the possibility that diet matters. Certain foods can promote inflammation throughout the body, and it’s possible this triggers acne outbreaks. In addition, diet can affect hormones that, in turn, could make acne worse. For example, milk and foods with a high sugar content can cause a rise in insulin levels, altering other hormones that can affect the skin. Some research has linked milk and whey protein with acne.

Despite these possible connections between diet and acne, there is no consensus that changing your diet is an effective way to deal with acne.

Adult acne: This just in

A new study, published in the medical journal JAMA Dermatology, compared the results of 24-hour dietary surveys of more than 24,000 adults (average age 57) who reported having acne currently, having it in the past but not currently, or never having had it. The researchers found a correlation between the chances of having current acne and consumption of

  • high-fat foods (including milk and meat)
  • sugary foods and beverages
  • a diet high in the combination of high-fat and high-sugar foods. Compared with those who never had acne, respondents with current acne were 54% more likely to consume this type of diet.

Higher intake of high-fat, high-sugar foo

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