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Acne affects nearly 85% of Americans at some point, and while breakouts are frustrating to deal with, they’re particularly aggravating if you feel like you’re “doing it right” but can’t find the cause.
If you’ve tried every treatment under the sun but are still struggling with frequent breakouts, your diet – or more specifically, a food sensitivity – may play a role.
Dermatologists and medical professionals have increasingly begun to understand the role that food allergies and sensitivities play in general inflammation and acne development. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at how food intolerances can contribute to the formation of blemishes. We’ve also compiled a list of ways that you can treat and prevent future breakouts for good.
Acne, zits, or pimples occur when pores become clogged with oil, dead skin cells, and other tiny dirt or debris.
This causes the pore to become inflamed and possibly infected, with external manifestations in the form of whiteheads, blackheads, and pus-filled pimples.
The primary factors that contribute to the formation of acne are inflammation, excess sebum production, and bacterial infections.
Sebum is the naturally-occurring mixture of oil, fatty acids, and waxy substances that occur on the surface of the skin to keep it moisturized. Sebum is produced by the body’s sebaceous glands naturally, however, excess sebum can build up on the skin and lead to clogged pores.
When dead skin cells and other dirt combine with sebum and clog the pores, a pimple or acne often develops.
Unfortunately, the amount of sebum we produce is largely beyond our control.
This is because factors like hormonal changes, genetics, and even stress can vary or increase sebum production – and contribute to acne.
Harmful bacteria can also become trapped in your pores, often causing more severe breakouts, papules, or pustules.
Acne caused by a bacterial infection can appear more inflamed and irritated, with blemishes that are painful to the touch and pus-filled above or below the surface of your skin. If this type of acne occurs, blemishes can develop into nodules and cysts—these are large bumps that form deep underneath the surface of the skin—which can be difficult to treat.
Consistently experiencing or struggling to treat acne may be an indication that something beyond dirt or bacteria are contributing to your breakouts.
One cause of persistent acne is food allergies or sensitivities.
Although more research is needed to determine the direct cause of food allergies and acne, dermatologists largely agree that diet, food, and acne are all connected for many people.
Research shows that the body’s inflammatory response as part of a food allergy or sensitivity response may contribute to inflammatory papules and pustules, and newer research suggests acne may be a truly inflammatory disease, “challenging the current nomenclature of noninflammatory versus inflammatory acne lesions and suggesting that the nomenclature is outdated and incorrect” according to one review.
Either way, inflammation is at play with acne, and for some people, foods or ingredients can contribute.
Food allergies and sensitivities are slightly different.
An allergy is an immune system response that occurs when we consume certain foods.
The reaction can be mild or severe and usually appears shortly after eating an allergy-causing food. You also don’t need to consume a large amount of the food to experience a reaction.
On the other hand, a sensitivity occurs when the body has difficulty processing certain foods. This can irritate the digestive system and cause an uncomfortable feeling. People with food intolerances or sensitivities are usually able to consume large amounts of the reaction-causing food without the risk of severe symptoms.
It may also take a while for symptoms to appear.
A food intolerance or allergy can manifest on the skin in a number of different ways. These reactions can occur within minutes or a couple of hours after eating a specific food.
Common signs of a food allergy may include:
Food sensitivities may also show up in more subtle ways, such as:
If you suspect that you have a food allergy, it’s best to seek professional medical advice to discuss the best course of action.
Certain foods are known to cause inflammation and stress—two factors that contribute to the formation of acne.
Refined grains (carbohydrates) and sugars may increase the risk of experiencing more frequent breakouts. Common foods containing refined grains and sugars include:
When blood sugar rises, the body starts to produce insulin in an attempt at balance. However, higher insulin levels also lead to the release of hormones called androgens. These hormones may increase sebum production and contribute to oil build-up on the skin.
Excess sebum can clog pores and combine with other impurities which can cause blemishes to form, and inflammation can worsen.
Research has shown that people who regularly consume milk products are four times more likely to develop acne.
Dairy products can raise insulin levels, which may increase the amount of oil that the body produces. This can contribute to the formation of acne. Cow’s milk also contains amino acids which can stimulate an insulin-like growth factor called IGF-1—a substance that has been linked to more frequent breakouts. IGF-1 can also prompt an inflammatory response in the body which can affect existing blemishes. These can become painful and red, and also appear more irritated.
Processed meat and red meat have been shown to increase the body’s inflammatory response.
Studies have shown that processed meats may contain harmful substances that can contribute to inflammation.
Not only can this anger existing blemishes, but it can also lower the oxygen content of your sebum. This leaves skin more exposed to harmful acne-causing bacteria like P.acnes that typically thrive in low-oxygen environments.
When these bacteria get into pores and hair follicles, it can infect them and cause breakouts or cause existing breakouts to become more severe.
Many studies have linked frequent or consistent breakouts with a diet that’s high in calories, fats, refined carbohydrates, corn, and soy oils.
Research has shown that regularly eating fast food may increase the risk of developing acne by 17%!
These foods usually have a high glycemic index (GI) and cause blood sugar to rise rapidly, and insulin levels to follow. This also prompts the body to release androgens which may increase sebum production that can trigger acne.
The oiliness of fast food may also indirectly cause blemishes to develop, especially when it comes into contact with the skin.
The best way to treat acne caused by food intolerances or allergic reactions is to find the root cause of the problem. Then, put steps in place to treat existing blemishes and prevent future breakouts.
Adjusting your diet and removing aggravating foods is a great first step in finding what’s causing your acne.
When you follow an elimination diet and cut out certain foods, monitor your skin for changes over the following 2-4 weeks for changes – and hopefully improvements.
Remember: your changes may not work the first time around!
Since the elimination process may require some guesswork – is it sugar, or dairy, for example – it could take some trial and error to learn what your body isn’t loving.
Begin to substitute certain “offending” food categories with healthier alternatives. This may include:
Broadly speaking, these healthier alternatives can improve overall well-being at the same time they may also help you to clear allergy-related acne.
A food allergy test can help you narrow the potential cause of your breakouts and other symptoms.
This test requires a blood sample.
The test measures the volume of immunoglobulin G (IgG) antibodies for a variety of food types found in your blood. IgG antibodies are designed to protect the body from bacterial and viral infections. But they can also target normal foods, like peanut protein or shellfish.
The level of antibodies in your blood can help your doctor determine which foods are likely to prompt an immune response.
One of the most effective ways to treat breakouts is by incorporating the right skincare ingredients into your routine.
Retinoids are derivatives of vitamin A, a powerful substance that’s well-known for its ability to help the skin regenerate.
Retinoids stimulate the production of new skin cells to speed up healing and even push dirt and detritus from pores towards the surface of the complexion. This accelerated skin cell turnover process smooths fine lines, wrinkles, and blemishes including pimples.
This is a topical antibiotic that may help improve the appearance of blemishes like blackheads, whiteheads, and pimples.
Clindamycin’s antibacterial properties are intended to prevent harmful bacteria from causing infections and making breakouts worse. It can also help to reduce inflammation.
This may help prevent nodules and cystic acne from developing while promoting the healing of existing breakouts. Its anti-inflammatory properties can reduce pain and swelling that often occur alongside breakouts.
Vitamin C is an antioxidant that can also help to stimulate the production of new skin cells to replace damaged cells and help the complexion rejuvenate.
Azelaic acid has exfoliating and anti-inflammatory properties that can help to reduce acne. As a skincare ingredient, azelaic acid inhibits and even kills harmful bacteria that can cause infections.
This can also help remove impurities from the surface of the skin and prevent blemishes from forming.
Niacinamide is a vitamin B3 derivative that may help reduce inflammation, moisturize the skin, and improve elasticity.
It inhibits the proliferation of cytokines, substances that prompt an inflammatory response throughout the body. This lowers the risk of acne becoming inflamed and developing into a more severe breakout.
A reduced inflammatory response helps reduce redness and irritation. Niacinamide is also intended to help the skin control sebum production and may prevent blemishes from developing.
If you’ve tried store-bought treatments and you haven’t seen results after six to eight weeks, it might be a good idea to speak to a dermatologist about prescription acne medications.
Oral acne treatments like antibiotics, birth control, and even oral retinoids like isotretinoin can:
Some medications, like isotretinoin, are potent and often used as a last resort because they may cause side effects. A licensed and experienced dermatologist can help you find the right formula and will also monitor your outcomes
At Nava MD, our goal is to help people achieve clear and healthy skin, with the help of a dermatologist, from the comfort of home.
Not only can these products strengthen your skin from the inside out, but they may also help clear acne caused by lifestyle factors
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This article is intended for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice.
Consult a healthcare professional or call a doctor in the case of a medical emergency