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Adult Acne Part 1: The link with nutrition

Adult Acne Part 1: The link with nutrition

5 minute read

By Nutritional Therapist Lucy Drennan

About Acne

Acne may be associated with teenage years and infected, unclean skin, but more often than not, it can also occur in adults without poor hygiene not as the cause. This can make adult acne difficult to treat and it can be confusing what’s triggering it but there are some key aspects to nutrition that are important to understand in helping you to manage it.

What causes acne?

Adult acne is caused mainly in two different ways. One, acne that has been in hibernation since teenage years that has been triggered to present again in adulthood. Or two, adult onset-acne that occurs around the age of 25 years old.

There are three main causes of acne - genetic predisposition, hormonal dysregulation, skincare products.



It is well known that acne may be inherited from our parents, especially if they also had been affected by acne, but this isn’t always the case. Furthermore, this needn’t be distressing as there are other factors you can control to help improve your acne.



In both males and females, when we go through puberty, we start to produce more testosterone (more is produced in males than females). Testosterone is responsible for growth in the body and can contribute to the enlargement of the oil glands just under the skin which in turn produces more oil. With this excess oil in the skin combined with surrounding dead skin cells, the hair follicle can easily become blocked which triggers inflammation and a red spot forms. This is precisely and fundamentally how acne is formed.



There are external factors that also cause acne such as build up of bacteria on mobiles, make-up brushes or sponges, pillowcases or headbands, as well as some skincare or hair products.



Having a healthy lifestyle and balanced diet will of course reduce your chances of developing acne. However, acne is a clinical medical condition and food and diet should not replace medical treatment but can be considered to help alongside advice from your GP.

Before the 1960s, dermatologists standard advice was to avoid sugar, carbonated drinks, chocolate and fat. Then in the 1970s, research came out that diet and acne were not linked. 

Since then, further research continues to prove that diet does not directly cause acne. However, some research supports the idea that some foods may aggravate acne. It’s important to understand what foods you may be consuming that trigger acne but I don’t believe foods should be completely avoided unless you’ve been told by your GP. 

Here are some of the more known foods and the research behind their link to acne:



Interestingly, the link with dairy and acne is more significant from skimmed milk but evidence is limited and overall is weak. As a basic explanation, it is thought that dairy can trigger acne because of the carbohydrate sugar component in dairy that may increase the hormone insulin which can drive the oil glands to produce more oil.

In my personal opinion, if you find that you are one of the small group of people that notices a clear link between consuming dairy and your acne worsening, then it may be advised to reduce or remove dairy from your diet. However, in general, I believe most people can tolerate dairy and with a balanced diet it does not affect their acne.



Similar to dairy, the link with acne and sugar is still inconclusive. When we eat foods high in sugar, it is absorbed rapidly causing spikes in our blood sugar level. This increased level of blood sugar stimulates more insulin to be produced which can increase oil production in the body. As above, this is individual but it’s worth limiting your intake if you notice that consuming sugar triggers acne or makes your acne worse.




In today’s society, it is really common for people to experiment with taking supplements in an attempt to improve their acne. Whilst research is clear on some vitamins and minerals, anyone considering taking supplements should do so temporarily and then seek advice from a health professional.

The following are suggested recommendations to consider as a starting point but everybody is different and if you are unsure or concerned about any of these, please seek further professional advice.

  • Vitamin A - 5,000IU daily

  • Omega-3 - 2,000mg of total omegas daily

  • Zinc - 50-100mg daily

As previously stated, acne is classified as a medical condition and it should be treated with both medical intervention and diet in mind. Most dermatologists and GPs will now advise that acne is not treated by diet alone, but most will agree diet may have a role in helping improve the presence of acne. Implementing a balanced diet will help reduce your chances of developing acne and specific foods should only be avoided if a clear distinction is made.


Stay tuned for part 2 where I discuss skincare for acne skin.

*Disclaimer: if acne is affecting mental health or is persistent or painful, it’s important to seek medical treatment from a GP.

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