Experts say simple diet tweaks make all the difference in your quest for clear skin.
If you’re struggling with acne after your teen years, or even after your child’s teen years, you are not alone. Dozens of studies have discovered a rise in reported adult acne—particularly in women—especially after age 25.
Acne can not only be embarrassing at any age, but it can also lead to anxiety, isolation, and other mental health issues. YouTube stars Nina and Randa Nelson know this all too well, as the presence of adult acne affected their confidence and put a hold on their careers as models and entertainers. The twins never suffered from acne until their twenties, and they tried everything to heal their skin, from antibiotics and topical creams to expensive facial treatments.
However, after taking matters into their own hands and spending hours researching and consulting doctors, their acne began to subside within days and was completely cured in weeks, due to simple dietary changes.
The twins began eating a plant-based diet, full of whole grains, plant proteins, and fresh produce, and eliminated potentially inflammatory foods such as dairy, vegetable oils, and processed snacks. Their YouTube video on how how they cured their cystic acne went viral, which eventually led to them publishing The Clear Skin Diet, with the help of several medical and mental health professionals.
“You can’t necessarily control your climate, the amount of pollution around you, or even the stress of your job, but you can control your food,” Nelson said. “Having that one factor to control really made a difference.”
While acne is often linked to environmental factors such as ingredients in certain makeup products or excess bacteria on dirty phones and pillowcases, research has shown the condition of our skin can also be a reflection of our overall health and usually needs more than skin care products and medication to be cured.
“Our skin is our largest organ, and it is often the first part of our body to show any signs of distress, hormonal imbalance or nutrient deficiency,” said Nathalie Rhone, MS, RDN, CDN, New York-based dietician and owner of Nutrition by Nathalie. “Personally, I believe that adult acne has become so prevalent because of all the hidden crap and hormones we are eating in our food on a daily basis, which completely throws our gut microbiome out of whack, causing hormonal imbalance and inflammation.”
Dr. Jessica Wu MD, a Los Angeles-based dermatologist and author of Feed Your Face, said she is seeing more patients struggling with adult acne than she was 20 years ago. She does note, however, this may be due in part due to greater awareness of adult acne and wider availability of treatments. Dr. Wu and Rhone both believe adult acne can be healed through diet and have shared their list of what to eat (and what to avoid!) with us.
What to Emphasize
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
“Omega-3’s are natural anti-inflammatories, so they help calm angry breakouts,” Wu said. Omega-3s are also an essential component of hormone regulation and balancing in women. Some excellent sources of these healthy fats are salmon, flaxseeds, sardines, almonds, and walnuts.
View Recipe: Paleo “Oatmeal” With Peaches and Flax
Dr. Wu emphasizes eating a fiber-rich diet, as fiber prevents constipation, which can aggravate acne. Rhone attributes a mostly plant-based diet to achieving radiant skin and some of her favorite beauty foods include papaya, watercress, red bell pepper, broccoli, spinach, blueberries, avocado, sweet potato, nuts and pomegranate seeds.
View Recipe: Thai Sweet Potato Noodle Bowls
Rhone said eating foods that help strengthen and repair our gut lining is essential for clearer skin. Those with gut issues often suffer from acne due to the skin’s response to irritation and inflammation in the digestive tract. Some of her favorite gut-healthy foods are bone broth, sauerkraut, asparagus, pineapple, garlic, onion, apple cider vinegar, dandelion greens, kimchi and ginger.
View Recipe: Kimchi Fried Rice
Zinc is a less popular mineral than iron or calcium, but Dr. Wu believes it is one of the keys to youthful, glowing skin. Wu advises skipping the supplements, as they can lead to zinc toxicity, and prefers to go straight to the source, with high-protein foods such as lentils, red meat, kidney beans, and oysters.
View Recipe: Grass-Fed Beef Sirloin Kebabs
What to Avoid
Both Rhone and Wu advised to eliminate dairy in one’s quest for clear skin, as it can cause inflammation. Rhone also noted the added hormones in dairy can negatively affect our own hormones and create an imbalance. Wu suggests trying plant-based milks (such as soy or almond milk), but to make sure you’re still getting enough calcium in your diet.
View Recipe: Dairy-Free Creamy Cauliflower Soup
Even that low-calorie cocktail or glass of red wine can be an instigator for acne, according to Rhone. She noted alcohol not only leads to dehydration, which affects your skin, but it’s also linked to inflammation and an imbalance of gut bacteria. Wu suggests prioritizing drinking enough water and keeping your skin hydrated by drinking one-half to one ounce of water per pound of body weight each day (so, if you weigh 150 pounds, you should be drinking anywhere from 75-150 ounces per day.)
View Recipe: Cucumber-Lime-Lavender Spritzer
Processed and Fast Foods
Both Rhone and Wu mentioned the importance of avoiding refined grains and sugars as part of a clear skin diet plan. Chemicals, additives, dyes, and other non-food items added into processed foods can lead to inflammation, as the body doesn’t know how to respond to these substances. Wu noted refined sugars and starches cause inflammation in the body by negatively impacting our blood sugar. Many processed and fast foods are made with high levels of vegetable oils, which in excess can also cause inflammation in the body—especially if your Omega-3 intake is low.
View Recipe: Whole-Grain Animal Cracker Cookies
Sweetened Caffeinated Beverages
Yes, this includes your morning Starbucks run. Wu said the combination of caffeine, dairy, and sugar is a recipe for wreaking havoc on your skin. Caffeine is dehydrating, while dairy and sugar are inflammatory, packing a big punch when it comes to searching for clearer skin. Soda should also be avoided.
View Recipe: Golden Milk Tea