How Does Food Influence Acne?: The Scary Truth about Dairy Products, Sugar, and Iodine

Nutrition, Personal/Inspirational, Skin Care
How milk and dairy products influence acne

Milk: It does your acne no good

Today we feature a question from our awesome reader Michelle, submitted via the Facebook page:

Hi there,

I’ve been following your blog for a while, and I was wondering about your thoughts on how diet could be connected to acne. I’m 30 yrs old and have suffered with acne since before puberty. Over the past few years it has been a little bit better, but still an always present struggle… 


Recently, I tried my first cleanse. It was a pretty serious cleanse. One month long. The entire month no gluten, no wheat, no dairy, little meat, no added sugar, nothing processed, no caffeine. Over that month I of course felt better and lost a few lbs, but what really excited me was that my face completely transformed.  


On the cleanse my skin looked less red and blotchy. Also, my skin is constantly oily.  Post cleanse though, this oil disappeared. Even late at night, no oil. And finally, by the end of the month, I barely had any blemishes on my face.


Now I’m trying to figure out, what exactly is influencing this huge change. …Do you have any thoughts about the results I’m seeing?  Is there anything in the research literature which discusses this?

Thanks so much!


Dear Michelle,

Wow, thanks for your great question!  That’s one of my favorite aspects of running this blog – sometimes I think I must have the most intelligent, well-informed beauty blog readers in the world!

Across different cultures, there are numerous examples of how diet affects acne:

  • The Inuit (in Alaska).  Amongst Eskimos who consume a traditional diet, there is almost no acne.  Those who start to consume a more “American” diet, with lots of fried foods and unrefined carbohydrates, start to break out.
  • The Zulu (in Africa).  Like the Eskimos, the Zulu only started to get acne after adopting a western diet.
  • Rural Brazil.  Brazilians in cities get acne at rates typical to the rest of the world.  Yet a study of nearly 10,000 preteens and teenagers found acne in rural Brazilian communities at less than 3 percent.  The likely reason?  A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, wild game, and other foraged foods – and a lack of access to flash-fried, packaged, and overly-processed foods.

The source I referenced here is dermatologist Dr. Jessica Wu’s book, Feed Your Face, which I highly recommend to any FutureDerm readers who are interested in learning more about how nutrition affects the skin.

What about actual studies?

Overall, the evidence says to eat a diet with:

  1. Limited or no milk or dairy products;
  2. A low glycemic index;
  3. A low content of iodine.

The reasons for #1 and #2 are explained in this diagram:

How dairy products and sugar influence acneIf you are looking for specific studies, you’ve also come to the right place.  When it comes to linking milk consumption and acne, there is arguably no better source than F. William Danby at the Harvard School of Public Health. Danby and his team studied more than 47,000 women, asked to complete questionnaires relating to their diet as teenagers and to say whether they had ever been diagnosed with severe acne. The study found no link between food such as chocolate and chips and acne, but found one between women who had acne and those who had drunk a lot of milk.  Danby proposes this is due to the DHT (androgens) in the milk, which increase oil production (Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 2008).

There are far more studies that demonstrate the effect of foods with a high glycemic index on acne.  In one particularly poignant study, people placed on a low glycemic index for 12 weeks experienced dramatic clearing of the skin – and lost three pounds on average (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2007).  It seems the elevated blood sugar-insulin-androgen link to acne really is that profound.

What about iodine?

Iodine is found in milk, egg yolks, kelp (seaweed), and, of course, iodized salt.  Not everyone will break out after iodine exposure.  Amongst those that do, iodine-related acne is identifiable because it causes severe eruptions of cystic acne (Archives of Dermatology, 1961).

My best advice to those with cystic acne is to write down everything you eat for a week, as well as the condition of your skin.  See if you can notice a link within 24-48 hours of an eruption to milk, egg yolks, kelp (seaweed), or excess sodium.

If yes, you may very well want to limit iodine within your diet.  However, do not cut out iodine completely – iodine deficiency causes both goiter and hypothyroidism, which is why salt is enriched with it in the first place.

So what do I eat to avoid acne?

  • Foods low on the glycemic index, such as whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts, and most vegetables (full lists are available, such as in the book The Glycemic Load Diet or online at Healthy Weight;
  • Limited amounts of milk and dairy products;
  • Foods rich in zinc, such as red meat and lentils (zinc may decrease acne);
  • Lots of food with anti-inflammatory omega-3’s, such as fresh fish;
  • Avoid candy, sugary breakfast cereals, baked goods, cookies, pastries, and the like.

For complete recipes, the best books I have found with anti-acne recipes are Today show nutritionist Dr. Joy Bauer’s Food Cures, and Dr. Jessica Wu’s Feed Your Face.  As the link between nutrition and skin care grows stronger, I’m sure there will be even more great resources!

Bottom Line

Does science say your diet affects acne?  ABSOLUTELY.  Thus far, “opting out” milk and low-glycemic index foods seems to be more important than “opting in” zinc and omega-3’s.  However, for your clearest skin, both are important.

Hope this helps,

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10 thoughts on “How Does Food Influence Acne?: The Scary Truth about Dairy Products, Sugar, and Iodine

  1. Rae says:

    When they said that acne has nothing to do with the food we eat, I always kind of doubted that. Food will always have an effect, even if it’s indirect.

  2. Susan says:

    I heard that iodine is necessary to fight breast cancer and food for the thyroid gland. You really have to be getting a lot of it in order to have problems I would think. I’m not a doctor but I would be careful. If you are using dairy products that have hormones you might want to switch but the egg yolk is very important. My doctor stressed how import this is. I would think sugars and processed foods are the culprits. Be careful and check with a doctor first. I have a low thyroid and need the iodine so make sure you are doing your body a favor and add in the foods a little at a time and find out what the culprit might be. Wheat is a big one for me.

  3. futurederm says:

    @Susan – I agree with you, especially about the hypothyroidism link to iodine. That is why I was careful to mention it in the article – I don’t want people excluding iodine from their diets just because they want to avoid breakouts. That said, I am curious about what your doctor said about iodine and breast cancer – I had not read research studies about a link, and I’m curious as to how. Though breast cancer has been linked to excess androgens, it’s usually estrogen, not testosterone, unless iodine raises precursor(s) to both. I’ll look into it more. Fascinating either way.

  4. futurederm says:

    @Brady – Yes, absolutely, I did mean HIGH glycemic index foods, not LOW glycemic index foods. Ack! I’m currently in the process of shopping for writers, and here I should be in the market for an editor – !

    That said, I do love – would you ever consider doing a guest post? You can include a link to your site! I’d love to feature one and I’m sure my readers would love it too! If yes, it’s nicki[at]futurederm[dotcom].

  5. San Diego Surgeon says:

    I couldn’t agree more. Very comprehensive and helpful post. There’s no denying of the facts that our food intake has something to do with acne. Eating more greens, getting enough sleep and rest are the still the best thing to do right?

  6. Dr. Danby says:

    Good morning, all.
    There is more on iodine.
    Iodine is NOT a cause of acne.
    Unfortunately the old inaccurate articles keep showing up.
    J Am Acad Dermatol. 2007 Jan;56(1):164-5.
    Acne and iodine: reply.
    Danby FW.
    Comment on
    J Am Acad Dermatol. 2005 Dec;53(6):1102.
    PMID: 17190637
    If you send me a real email address I will send along a PDF.

  7. Sonja says:

    Hi there,

    First of all, I really love your site. Its refreshing to see someone use science to talk about skincare. I have a question though. Is the link between milk and acne mostly based on the fact that they have hormones in them (since it was so explicit in the model you showed)? I am asking because I live in Europe, and it is forbidden to give cows hormones (and the milk of cows who receive antibiotics is not sold), so the link between diary and acne might not be as strong here in Europe as it is there in the US (where most research on this subject is done)?

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