If you’re like me, you grew up hearing all kinds of questionable advice about what you should and shouldn’t eat if you want clear, glowing skin. The “chocolate causes acne” myth is one that is oft-repeated, but blessedly, it’s been found to be more urban legend than empirically proven fact.
When it comes to the human body, few things are as simple as “X causes Y” — cutting out or adding any given food is unlikely to be the magic bullet for beautiful skin. But there are some links between diet and skin health that are backed by reliable evidence.
“Patients commonly ask about dietary modifications to help improve their skin or control certain skin diseases,” said Dr. Tiffany J. Libby, a Rhode Island-based board-certified dermatologist. “The short answer is that diet can absolutely affect your skin, and we are learning more about the responsible pathways for how it does so.”
As a result, there are some foods you’re not likely to catch certain dermatologists eating for lunch. We spoke to several skin docs about the foods they do and don’t eat for the sake of their skin. Keep in mind that there’s no one-size-fits-all prescription for skin health, but keep reading for guidelines these dermatologists use in their own lives.
Today’s milk mustache could be tomorrow’s breakout. Several of the doctors we spoke to say they severely limit their intake of dairy products, if not cut them out altogether.
“Dairy products, especially high-fat milk, and cheese, contain hormones that can trigger acne in some people,” said Dr. Yoram Harth, a board-certified dermatologist. “Milk contains an androgen precursor that can increase oil production and clog pores, while cheese contains a high amount of saturated fat, leading to inflammation in the body and skin.”
There is actually a pretty substantial body of research that links acne and dairy consumption, especially milk itself — whole, low-fat and skim milk included. Researchers haven’t figured out why, exactly, but some hypothesize that the proteinwhey is to blame. If you struggle with breakouts, you might want to consider cutting back on (or eliminating) milk and other dairy-based foods.
It probably doesn’t come as much of a shock to hear that many dermatologists advise to stay away from oily, fried foods like doughnuts, fried chicken and french fries.
“Fried foods are often high in unhealthy fats, particularly trans fats and saturated fats,” said Dr. Asmi Sanghvi, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. She mentioned, first and foremost, that these kinds of fats can impact your overall health ― but the effects might show up on your skin, too.
“From a skin health perspective, research has shown that diets high in unhealthy fats may contribute to inflammation in the body, including the skin,” Sanghvi said. “Inflammation is a common factor in many skin conditions, including acne, psoriasis and eczema. A diet high in unhealthy fats may also contribute to the breakdown of collagen and elastin in the skin, leading to premature aging and the development of wrinkles.”
This one isn’t terribly surprising, but several of the doctors we interviewed specifically called out soda as something they never or rarely consume. The primary reason for that, Sanghvi said, is the high sugar content present in most sodas.
“Consuming large amounts of sugar can lead to increased inflammation throughout the body, which can exacerbate skin conditions such as acne, rosacea and eczema,” Sanghvi said. “Sugar can damage collagen and elastin fibers in the skin, which can contribute to wrinkles and premature aging.”
Sanghvi said sugar-free sodas aren’t a good alternative, because ”artificial sweeteners interfere with the body’s normal signals that control hunger and satiety,” increasing the risk that you might consume more sugar. She recommends skipping stevia, aspartame, sucralose and sugar alcohols like xylitol and maltitol in favor of natural sweeteners like monk fruit, honey or maple syrup.
Of course, anything that’s high in sugar can cause inflammation and contribute to signs of aging, not just soda. But, if you’re a big soda drinker, the beverages contain something else you should watch out for.
“Many sodas contain caffeine, which can dehydrate the body and leave the skin looking dry and dull,” Sanghvi said. “Dehydration can also lead to an impaired skin barrier, which can make the skin more susceptible to environmental damage and skin irritations.”
Sanghvi advises people to skip sugary drinks, including soda, as much as possible and hydrate with water instead.
Refined Carbohydrates (Pasta, Bread)
Almost every doctor we spoke to mentioned that they try to limit their consumption of refined carbs like pasta, bread and white rice. Libby pointed out that these foods, like sugary drinks and desserts, have a high glycemic index.
“High glycemic index [foods] (i.e., white rice, white bread, sugary beverages, etc.) and dairy are examples of proposed dietary triggers for acne,” Libby said.
High glycemic index foods are ones the body is able to break down quickly, which can lead to spikes in blood glucose. There is some evidence linking low glycemic diets to reductions in acne; the American Academy of Dermatology Association notes that studies have not yet proved a causal relationship between high glycemic diets and acne, but there may be a link. Doctors and researchers hypothesize that high glycemic foods can cause inflammation as well as increased production of sebum (an oil produced by your skin).
“I, and I don’t think I’m alone, love my pastas, but try to eat them in moderation as these certainly fall in the high glycemic index chart for foods,” Libby said. “I try to look for foods that fall lower on the glycemic index (< 55) such as most fruits and vegetables, beans, minimally processed grains, pasta, low-fat dairy foods and nuts.”
Cured And Processed Meats
Dr. Roberta Del Campo, a Miami-based board-certified dermatologist, pinpointed cured and processed meats as a group of foods that she avoids. Cured and processed meats, like hot dogs, sausages, bacon, pepperoni and salami, are frequently red-flagged by medical professionals because they’re linked to serious illnesses like heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and several different cancers. If that weren’t reason enough to skip sausages, Del Campo says the nitrates in cured and processed meats can have a negative effect on skin health, as well.
“I avoid eating foods that are high in nitrates such as bacon, ham and hot dogs,” she said. “Nitrates are known to increase inflammation throughout the body. Skin is our biggest organ and inflammation can wreak havoc on it.”
Inflammation is the body’s natural immune response to injury or infection, and depending on the cause, it can manifest in the form of swelling, pain, fatigue or even psoriasis. The direct relationship between cured meats and skin health hasn’t been extensively studied in clinical settings, but knowing what effects they can have on overall health, there’s good reason to be wary.
Fermented Foods, Citrus and Spinach (For Some People)
If you have a skin condition that causes itching, like eczema or rosacea, some seemingly innocuous foods could be contributing to your symptoms. Fermented foods like kimchi and kombucha, citrus fruits, and even eggplant and spinach are all nutritionally rich foods, but they’re also high in histamines — the compound that’s activated in your body when you’re having an allergic reaction. Typically, the body breaks down histamines with an enzyme called diamine oxidase, but if you’re taking in histamines faster than your body can break them down, it may exacerbate preexisting skin conditions. Dejarra Sims, a San Diego-based naturopathic doctor with a focus in natural skin care, explained what some of her patients experience.
“Upon eating citrus they will have increased or new pimples, increased itching with hives and eczema, and increased redness and flushing with rosacea,” she said. For those who do have this sensitivity, “most will know immediately once I teach them to start paying attention to their diet and see a resolution of symptoms within one to two hours after eating.”
For most people, however, histamine-rich foods won’t have any effect, in which case you can eat all the oranges and kimchi your heart desires.
Want a quicker fix to boost your glow? Check out these skin care products under $50 that actually work, according to experts and reviewers.
HuffPost may receive a share from purchases made via links on this page. Every item is independently selected by the HuffPost Shopping team. Prices and availability are subject to change.
Maelove The Glow Maker serum
Maelove's Glow Maker serum has long being considered an affordable alternative for those who covet the ultra-pricey SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic acid serum. This cult favorite has the same balance of active ingredients, including vitamin C, vitamin E, ferulic acid and hyaluronic acid. It drenches the skin in healing antioxidants that can help improve brightness and texture while infusing it with hydrating and nourishing botanicals.
Promising reviews: "Wow. I'm 61, and after two weeks of using this my cousin who I have not seen in 3 years told me my skin looked so smooth and bright." — Debbie J.
"Amazing product! I've seen a massive difference since I started using The Glow Maker! It makes my skin glow and has helped with dark spots. I am going to continue purchasing!" — Robert S.
This French drugstore-brand moisturizer is everywhere these days, beloved by influencers, models, makeup artists and our own staff writer Tessa Flores. It has a sensitive-skin-friendly formula that includes calming aloe vera, protective beeswax, nourishing soy proteins and skin-softening shea butter.
Promising review: “I’m 43 and live in Colorado and I’m not kidding when I say I have tried 20+ moisturizers in the past few years trying to find something that works in the winter for my super fair, super sensitive skin. I tend to break out easily with certain ingredients and fragrances, also often deal with flaking/redness. It has been so hard to find something that is moisturizing ENOUGH that doesn’t break out or irritate my skin, but still actually works. I’ve tried so many Sephora lines as well as Biossance and Caudalie, numerous drugstore brands in all price ranges, but this cream is amazing. Moisturizing enough to use as a night cream but not so greasy that you can’t wear it during the day under makeup, and super soothing for redness and irritation.” — KaritaG
Black Girl Sunscreen moisturizing sunscreen lotion SPF 30
SPF is a non-negotiable regardless of skin tone, but it's not easy to find formulas that don't leave a white cast. Makeup artist Kierra Lanice Wray just recently recommended Black Girl Sunscreen's lightweight hybrid formula. It's made with zinc oxide, aloe, lavender and shea butter and leaves skin dewy, soft, smooth and healthy — as well as protected.
Promising review: "I absolutely love this sunscreen and will forever repurchase it. It leaves my extremely dry skin looking super dewy. It is a necessary step before applying my makeup! The only downside for me personally is that i wish it was more than spf 30 but im looking to try their new hybrid formula that's spf 50." — Dom
Dr. Shari Sperling, a board-certified dermatologist at Sperling Dermatology in New York and New Jersey, told HuffPost previously, "Retinol helps promote cell turnover, stimulate collagen, reduce discoloration and restore your skin’s natural texture and tone. Differin, which used to be prescription-only but is now available over the counter, is a great product for acne and anti-aging." Use it to spot treat acne or all over to help prevent breakouts and help with overall skin health.
Promising review: "My dermatologist recommended this to me for the comedonal acne on my forehead. She said it could take up to 3 months to work, but within 7 days of using it, my forehead was mostly clear. I am thrilled and will keep using this from now on. I use a good moisturizer afterward and it hasn't been drying out my skin." — Olivia
Laneige lip sleeping mask is a wildly popular lip mask and for good reason. It creates a seal on the lips that lets the product’s hydrating ingredients soak in. Wake up to soft, hydrated and thoroughly nourished lips of your youth with minimal effort.
Promising review: "I absolutely love this lip mask. I've tried other ones and this one is just so soft and stays on well but doesn't feel sticky. The scent is nice and subtle. The chocolate one has a bit of a brown cast to it which does show more than the pinkish berry one. I LOVE LOVE LOVE the little silicone tipped spatula thingy - it is so nice to use. I like using that so much more than using my fingers. My lips have been a lot softer since I've been using this regularly. Since the chocolate is smaller, I use that one for travel mainly and use the pink more for night time when I'm home." — Pandalu
Similarly to The Ordinary's exfoliating treatment, Paula's Choice uses a potent blend of BHAs to help gently resurface acne-prone, rough and dull skin. It can help to unclog pores, smooth wrinkles and even out skin tone. It's less abrasive than other treatments, and also hydrates and smoothes out skin without causing damage or irritation.
Promising review: "I had wanted to try this for a long time so I finally got the travel sized bottle to give it a go and it’s been great. I disagree with the reviews saying it’s tiny, it is small but it’s the same ounces as my other serums but without the thick glass bottle and dropper. The travel sized bottle has lasted me a month at this point and has about a third left and I use it once a day. I would say if you used a cotton pad to apply it then it would probably go a lot quicker so I prefer to use my fingers immediately after washing my face. Anyways, this works miracles and hasn’t dried my skin out yet when using with a Hyaluronic acid serum over top. I’ve gotten compliments on my skin a lot and people thinking I’m wearing foundation when I’m not. I tried differin and tretinoin last year for several months each and never got results like this. I also am allergic to so so many cosmetics and this has yet to cause me to get the flaky rash that I so easily get around my mouth and eyes. My only tiny complaint might be that the texture can feel a smidge oily/heavy at first, but it really isn’t too bad and it sinks in after about 10 minutes to where you wouldn’t notice it more than any other skincare product. I also think I notice that less when I use it immediately after washing my face when my skin is still not totally dried out, which maybe helps it sink in quicker, I’m not sure. I highly recommend giving this a try though. For $13 you would definitely have enough product to see some results before deciding to splurge on the full size." — Rhyann Wilson
Dr. Brendan Camp, a board-certified dermatologist at MDCS Dermatology in New York, noted that this mineral sunscreen is great for people who have breakout-prone skin. This is the tinted version, but you can also grab a clear one if you prefer a natural, clean slate. It doesn't clog pores or feel heavy and has a lovely soft finish that isn't too oily. It's the perfect combination of skin care and makeup.
Promising review: "I was prone to breakouts from other sunscreens which made me not want to wear them. Elta MD is a great dermatologist recommend sunscreen that keeps your pores clear while providing break protection and a tinted appearance. Great to wear alone or as a base layer in your make up routine. Will be buying again." — Madi
Azelaic acid is a must for anyone hoping to reduce the look of dark spots and fade acne scarring, while also targeting active breakouts with the help of salicylic acid. It's a very effective, versatile serum that's available at a very reasonable price. Many reviewers also note that it works wonders for those with rosacea.
Promising review: "Great product. This cream is a perfect solution for oily parts of my face. It blurs pores and makes my skin tone even. It was a great preventive treatment for my acne as well." — Jane
First Aid Beauty hydrating serum with hyaluronic acid
Leave your skin bouncy and firm with this popular and highly-rated serum from First Aid Beauty. Camp stated that "hyaluronic acid (HA) is normally found in skin, and functions to attract water molecules to keep skin moisturized. Using an HA serum at night helps skin recover from environmental stresses from the preceding day."
Promising review: "Bye bye wrinkles. I absolutely love their products. This hyraluronic Acid is the best non greasy fast absorbent. It leaves my skin looking bright. I love the way my face feels after using it and i can still apply my makeup after using without clumping or smearing. It has also done wonders for my aging neck. Get old stinks but this is making it a little less of a problem." — Kelly McConnell
The Ordinary AHA 30% + BHA 2% exfoliating peeling solution
Hardcore skin care devotees rave about The Ordinary's 10-minute chemical peel in a bottle. It's a blood-hued exfoliating treatment that can help with acne, skin texture and dullness. It harnesses the power of both AHAs and BHAs like glycolic acid, lactic acid and salicylic acid, which exfoliate the skin and pores to help reduce congestion.
Promising review: "Was skeptical given the price. This is a miracle product. I tried it before going to bed one night, not thinking it would do much and I realized when I looked in the mirror the next morning that my skin was visibly smoother and less textured. I chalked it up to good sleep but after it happened a couple more times after using this product I realized it’s the serum that’s making my skin look so good. I had my mom try it as well and she said the thing. It does sting a little when applied (do NOT apply to wet or damp skin- must be dry) but it’s not bad at all for me. I use this weekly and my skin has never looked better!" — barb99
While a face mask might seem high-maintenance, there's a good chance you'll be able to find a way to pop it into your routine even just once or twice a week. This is a great option for those who want the luxury skin care experience but don't want to go into major debt trying to get the skin of their dreams. According to Sperling, "this mask is soothing, anti-aging, hydrating and is great for all skin types, including dry/dehydrated skin. It leaves the skin looking and feeling refreshed."
Promising review: "After a year of use I cannot say enough good things about this product. I have a mix of dry and oily very sensitive skin. Most exfoliating products either give me hives, cause breakouts, burn, or leave the skin more dry than before. This product smells fantastic (pineapple/orange), is so unbelievably gentle, and leaves skin feeling clean and moisturized. It feels like a professional facial in a bottle. It's helped reduce breakouts and even out my skin tone as well. I use 1-2 times a week on a wet face after the shower before any other products or just in the shower after cleanser. Worth every penny even if you don't have an elaborate skin care regimen." — KayliJean
Niacinamide is one of those wonderfully versatile antioxidants that generally works well with a range of skin types and addresses everything from uneven skin texture to signs of aging and excess oil production. This Inkey List serum has a whopping 20% concentration of niacinamide along with hydrating squalene and zinc to help balance it all out. As Dr. Carmen Castilla, a board-certified New York-based dermatologist, mentioned in a previous article, "the 20% niacinamide concentration is relatively high and has the potential to be irritating. However, the formulation also has squalene, a fatty acid, which can help support the skin barrier and may prevent irritation."
Promising review: "New added product for my routine! So I have used this product for about 2 months ... It works! Before my face would be super oily and shiny at the end of the day, but when I would put this on every morning my face is completely not oily! it really works very well, a good bit will be good and it will be a little tacky. Put it on after all your serums and before your moisturizer." — ClearCleanBeaut
For anyone seeking deep, restorative hydration, this barrier repair cream is a must. It's great for dry patches, irritated skin and anyone who needs to add an extra dollop of moisture to their routine. Colloidal oatmeal and beta glucan soothe, reduce redness, smooth and support skin's natural barrier. It's just as nourishing and effective as pricey creams like SkinFix and Sunday Riley, but it won't leave you panicking about the cost.
Promising review: "Love love love this moisturizer!! It has such a rich and balmy texture that relieves the dryness on my skin the second I put it on." — hafsamlb