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Does Greasy Food Really Cause Acne?

Unknown woman with a box of pizza

If you are struggling with acne, you may be on the hunt to find the root cause of your breakouts so that you can put an end to them for good.

You may be washing your face diligently, applying acne creams, and avoiding stress. You may have also heard that your diet could be the hidden cause of your acne.

There are many foods and drinks that are often blamed for pimples. Sugar, chocolate, and coffee have sometimes been pointed to as the cause of unhealthy skin. But there is little evidence of a connection between these foods and acne.

But what about greasy food?

If your skin is not only acne-prone but also oily, a diet that has too much oil may seem like a probable cause for your skin woes.

So will cutting out french fries and pizza really turn your skin around?

Let’s take a closer look at this claim that greasy foods can cause acne to develop.

How Acne Develops

To find out if a diet of greasy fried foods is causing or contributing to acne, let’s delve into the process that causes a pimple to form in the first place.

The development of a pimple begins under the surface of the skin, inside what we call the pore. Pores are actually the tiny hair follicles that are located all over the human body. In fact, the only areas of the skin that don’t have these tiny hair follicles are the palms of the hands, bottoms of the feet, and the bottom lip.

Inside each pore is an oil-producing gland called a sebaceous gland. The oil that sebaceous glands produce is called sebum. Sebum is healthy and can be beneficial to the skin. It helps to keep your skin moisturized. Everyone needs some sebum in their skin to keep it smooth and hydrated. If your sebaceous glands don’t produce enough sebum, for example, your skin will be very dry and uncomfortable.

However, the opposite is also true. Your sebaceous glands may produce too much sebum. When this happens, the surface of the skin looks greasy and slick. There are a number of different reasons why sebaceous glands may overproduce sebum and make skin oily.

The first is genetic. Some people just have naturally oily skin. Their pores produce more oil than average and this can’t really be changed. This is what we refer to as an oily skin type, and there are other skin types such as dry, normal, or combination skin.

Next, hormonal changes also may cause the sebaceous glands to produce too much sebum. Typical hormonal changes that can affect the skin’s oil production include puberty, pregnancy, and menopause. Again, there is not too much that can be done to stop these changes since they are a part of normal hormone fluctuations.

There are also circumstances that can trigger your skin to produce more oil than usual. These include stress, certain medications, and medical conditions that cause abnormal changes in hormone levels.

Too much sebum on its own does not cause acne, but it certainly makes it more likely to develop. This is because excess sebum can sometimes end up mixing with dead skin cells and blocking the opening of the pore. This clog then becomes either a blackhead (open comedo) or whitehead (closed comedo), depending on if the pore’s opening is completely or partially blocked.

Blackheads and whiteheads are the first stages of acne formation. A pimple will then develop if the skin cells around the clogged pore become inflamed and infected with an acne-causing bacteria called Propionibacterium acnes.

This bacteria can live on the skin without causing acne most of the time. But it can also grow out of control when there is extra sebum for it to feed on. This relationship between Propionibacterium acnes and sebum is the reason why oily skin so frequently leads to not only blackheads and whiteheads, but red and inflamed pimples.

Infographic on acne formation

So we know that skin that produces too much oil often causes acne. But can the oil in the food we eat affect our skin in the same way?

Greasy Food

So if too much oil leads to clogged pores and pimples, then should you avoid fast food, fried food, and anything greasy?

Luckily, the short answer is no—eating greasy food cannot cause acne.

In fact, oil in the foods we eat has no known effect on the oiliness of our skin. And not only does it not contribute to oil production in the skin, but it also has no role in the development of acne, either. Acne is caused by clogged pores and pimple-causing bacteria, not fried chicken and potatoes chips.

But, there are a couple exceptions where the grease in foods could affect your skin.

First, if you are eating greasy or oily foods, you certainly want to avoid getting any of the grease from the food onto your skin.

This may seem like a no brainer, but sometimes oil from the food you eat may linger on your fingertips long after you’ve left the table. If you absent-mindedly touch your face or neck, you could transfer that oil to the more porous skin there, and end up clogging your pores.

And secondly, even if you manage not to touch your face in greasy situations, grease may still make its way onto your skin. This typically would apply only to someone who spends a lot of time around oil-fryers or where greasy foods are cooked, such as in the food service industry. In this type of workplace, you may have to contend with small particles of oil in the air. If you cook or work in a kitchen where a lot of oil is used, this oil in the air could end up sitting on top of your skin and blocking your pores.

While this is a rare situation for most people, those who it applies to should know that it can be a factor in their acne. So the solution for them is to wash their face immediately after leaving that environment.

So with eating greasy food cleared of any role to play in acne, it may be tempting to conclude that whatever you eat is fine and won’t affect your skin’s condition.

But is that really the case?

Sure, eating greasy food won’t cause acne, but will it create other problems?

And can you eat any type of food without thinking about the potential consequences for your complexion?

Diet and Skin Health

The exact role of the foods we eat (and don’t eat) in the way our skin behaves isn’t exactly clear. But there is some evidence that certain foods are far better than others when it comes to beautiful and resilient skin.

While we have established that your skin’s natural sebum production is the result of genetics  and hormones—not greasy foods— there are some ways that diet may influence oil production and acne.

Research is now showing that eating foods that cause a spike in blood sugar could play a part in acne. When your blood sugar rises suddenly, your body experiences inflammation. A rise in blood sugar also can trigger increased sebum production. This combination of extra sebum and inflammation are prime conditions for acne to develop.

So what type of foods cause this blood sugar spike in the first place?

Well, as you may have guessed, sugar is a major culprit.

But there are actually many other foods that you don’t usually think of as sugary that can raise your blood sugar. These foods are called high-glycemic.

High-Glycemic Diet

High glycemic foods are carbohydrates or foods that contain carbohydrates. When you eat carbohydrates, your body breaks them down into sugars during digestion. Carbohydrates are a part of a healthy diet, but some types of carbohydrates are better than others. The glycemic index rates carbohydrates based on how quickly your body breaks them down and delivers the sugar to your bloodstream. High-glycemic foods are those that are processed most quickly, and therefore cause your blood sugar to spike temporarily immediately after eating them.

This temporary spike in blood sugar causes inflammation throughout your body and is what you want to avoid. Foods that are considered high-glycemic include white bread, potatoes (including french fries and chips), white rice, and many processed snacks and desserts.

Some studies have shown that when these foods are avoided or eaten only in moderation, there is a positive effect on acne. It seems that eating a low-glycemic diet prevents your body from experiencing quick rises in blood sugar that cause inflammation and increased sebum production.

So for those who are already dealing with acne, choosing more low-glycemic food may make a difference in the severity and frequency of their breakouts. Keep in mind, however, that these studies did not find that a high-glycemic diet triggered acne in and of itself.

Glycemic index infographic


It also appears that there may be a connection between dairy milk consumption and acne. There has been some ongoing suspicion that drinking milk could lead to increased breakouts. And recently, there have been studies that seem to indicate that the participants who consumed the most dairy milk were also most likely to have acne.

This seems to apply to all types of cow’s milk, including skim, low-fat, and whole fat milk. Strangely, however, there is no evidence that other products made from cow’s milk, such as cheese and yogurt, have the same effect on acne.

The link between drinking dairy milk and developing acne is not clear. More research is needed to find out if drinking milk can really cause acne breakouts or make them worse. There is also little known as to why or how milk could cause this apparent relationship. Some think that it may be the hormones contained in cow’s milk that cause inflammation in the human body. That inflammation could lead to clogged pores and pimples.

Should You Change Your Diet to Cure Acne?

So while greasy foods are not to blame for acne, the conclusions are not as clear for high-glycemic foods and dairy milk.

So if you are currently dealing with acne, you may be wondering if changing the food you eat could change your skin?

The truth is there is no easy answer.

But, if you suspect that your diet could be contributing to your acne, it doesn’t hurt to try to modify your diet and see if there’s an improvement.

Unhappy woman touching face in front of mirror

You could start by keeping a food and skin diary for a few weeks. Write down everything you eat and drink, and note any breakouts or other changes in your skin daily.

Does there seem to be any correlation between a certain food or beverage and your breakouts?

If you start to notice a pattern, you can then try going without that one particular food or drink for a few weeks.

For example, if you currently drink dairy milk every day, replace it with a nut or other plant-based milk, or just eliminate it altogether for a couple weeks. During this time, pay close attention to your skin. Then, when you do have some dairy milk again, check to see if a breakout happens soon afterward.

Even if you don’t find that dairy milk triggers your breakouts, you may want to give a low-glycemic diet a try. This diet is showing increasing potential as a way to improve acne.

A low-glycemic diet is made up of healthy foods that don’t cause your blood sugar to rise quickly. Instead, they are digested slowly and can provide you with steady energy.

Choosing low-glycemic foods rather than high-glycemic foods is actually better for you in every way, not just for those who have acne. Low-glycemic foods are often whole, natural, and full of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Often, replacing the current high-glycemic foods that you eat regularly with low-glycemic options is relatively simple. There are plenty of easy to follow lists of low-glycemic foods that you can choose from.

By following a low-glycemic diet, not only will you avoid the inflammation that may lead to breakouts, but you reduce your risk of developing diabetes and heart disease as well. It’s definitely a great choice that can only serve to improve your health inside and out.

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