Acne and Nutrition

While certain foods may not be directly responsible for pimple and acne outbreaks, there are those nutrients that undoubtedly help repair damaged skin, contain flare-ups and maintain a healthy, glowing complexion.

Having to live with acne at any age is both frustrating and distressing. But don’t despair as you can turn to a healthy diet and supplementation where necessary, to achieve a beautiful skin and improved self-confidence.


Acne is a skin condition characterised by red pimples on the skin, mostly affecting the face, chest and back. These pimples occur when the pores of the skin become clogged with the skin’s natural oily secretions, as well as dead skin cells and bacteria. Infection of the sebaceous glands causes inflammation with subsequent redness and swelling of the pimples.


Acne and pimples most often occur during times when hormone levels change, such as during puberty, pregnancy and around the menstrual cycle. This is due to changes in hormone levels that decrease the fluidity of the skin’s natural oily secretions. Thick, viscous sebum from the skin’s sebaceous glands easily blocks the pores or ducts through which these oils are secreted onto the skin’s surface.


Teenagers plagued by acne are often told to avoid sweets, cool drinks and ‘junk food’ or highly processed foods, which are believed to contribute to acne outbreaks. To date, however, no specific food has been scientifically proven to cause or trigger acne.

But this does not mean that there is no connection between acne and the diet. A more thorough understanding of the skin, how nutrition affects the skin, as well as the link between diet and inflammation, are pointing to some likely connections between acne and diet.


We know that sugar cannot cause acne, as there are many individuals with clear skins, who consume vast amounts of sugar daily. However, individuals that are prone to acne can indeed be affected by increased levels of sugar in their diet. Sugar is a major culprit in contributing to acne through two mechanisms:

  • A high sugar intake is linked to increased levels of inflammation in the body, which aggravates the redness and swelling of acne, or infected sebaceous glands.
  • Pimples that are red, swollen and sensitive sometimes involve a fungal infection of the skin. Fungal infections thrive on sugar, which explains how sugar consumption can delay the healing of acne due to the infection.

The use of the term ‘sugar’ of course does not only refer to cane sugar that we add to hot beverages and foods. There are many other refined carbohydrates that have the same effect on blood glucose levels as sugar, such as refined starches and of course foods with added sugars. Hidden sugars are found in sweetened beverages such as ice teas, fruit juices, flavoured waters, vitamin waters, breakfast cereals and ready-to-eat meals, and many condiments such as tomato sauce, sweet chili sauce and salad dressings.


Water hydrates the skin, which is important for skin softness and elasticity. Water also plays a key role in the body’s natural cleansing process, flushing out water-soluble toxins through urine. Sufficient water intake plays a further role in detoxification. Dehydration is the leading cause of constipation, which delays the excretion of toxins and metabolic waste from the digestive system.

Dehydration also has a direct impact on the skin’s condition and may contribute to the risk of pores becoming blocked with dead skin cells and oily secretions.

Vitamin A

Vitamin A plays a role in the skin’s formation and also skin repair. Vitamin A is often prescribed for the treatment of acne.

Foods sources

Dietary sources of vitamin A include cod liver oil and other fish liver oils, liver, egg yolk and full cream dairy products. Beta carotene, the natural precursor of vitamin A, is found in carrots, as well as dark green leafy vegetables.


Most of the B-vitamins play key roles in the maintenance of the skin, as well as in the repair of damaged skin. Cracks in the corner of your mouth and rough-looking patches of skin may be linked to a lack of B-vitamins. Supplementing with B-vitamins may speed up the repair of damaged skin.

Food sources

Vitamins B2, B5 and B6, of particular importance for skin health, are found in dairy products, fish, poultry, dark green vegetables, eggs, beef and wholegrain cereals.

Vitamin E

When the skin is injured, scarring often occurs. Vitamin E from your diet helps heal damaged skin and reduce the risk of scarring.

Food sources

Avocado, wheat germ, wheat germ oil, whole-wheat foods, nuts, seeds and green leafy vegetables. Vitamin E squeezed from a capsule can be applied twice daily onto newly formed scars or recent skin injuries (provided the wound is dry and not open or weeping) to promote skin healing and reduce the risk of scarring. Older scars cannot be removed or reduced by applying or ingesting vitamin E.

Omega-3 and 6

Omega-3 and omega-6 oils from our diets play an important role in balancing the oily secretions of the sebaceous glands in the skin. They also support skin elasticity and skin hydration.

Food sources

Omega oils are found in high concentrations in oily fish, flaxseeds, flaxseed oil and walnuts. The beneficial omega-6 oils that contain gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) include evening primrose and starflower oil.


Selenium has antioxidant properties that help protect skin from damaging free radicals. It also supports the repair of damaged skin, so it is often recommended as nutritional support for acne treatment.

Food sources

Brazil nuts, other nuts, seeds, wholegrain cereals, onions and lean meats.


Zinc is a key nutrient required to support the repair of damaged skin. Zinc is also important for the healthy functioning of the immune system. Low zinc levels may reduce the body’s ability to fight infection. So zinc supplementation is vital for the treatment of acne.

Food sources

Zinc is found in oysters and other shellfish, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, pulses, nuts, dairy products and wholegrain cereals.



During puberty, the body is in a key building phase, where nutritional requirements are increased specifically for vitamin A, B-vitamins and zinc.


  • Introduce a daily skin cleansing routine to reduce the risk of pores becoming blocked.
  • Avoid sugar, sweetened foods and refined carbohydrates.
  • Supplement with vitamin A, B-vitamins and zinc.


During pregnancy, the body’s requirements for key skin nutrients are increased. Changes in hormone levels may contribute to acne outbreaks.


  • Maintain high water intake for skin hydration, as pregnancy increases fluid requirements.
  • Avoid high levels of vitamin A during pregnancy. Rather rely on carrots and dark green leafy vegetables for beta-carotene, which is safely converted verted to vitamin A as the body needs it.
  • Supplement with omega-3 fatty acids, B-vitamins and zinc.

Adult acne

Stress and poor dietary intakes are believed to be key triggers of adult acne, along with changes or fluctuations in hormone levels.


  • Supplement with B-vitamins, as they are important for the nutrition support for stress.
  • Omega-3 oils are essential and should be consumed daily.

Sunlight aggravates scarring of the skin. Make sure any cuts, insect bites, acne wounds and other skin injuries are protected from the sun, ideally by being covered by a plaster or by applying a strong sun protection factor lotion until the wound is completely healed.


Changes in hormone levels during menopause may cause changes in skin texture and even cause acne.


  • Supplement with omega-3 oils and evening primrose oil.
  • Zinc and selenium supplementation is recommended for a weakened immune system.


There are no superfoods that prevent acne and, by the same token, no specific food that causes acne. However, it is clear that good nutrition from a healthy diet and nutritional supplementation can be of support in the prevention of acne as well as supporting the repair of damage to the skin.


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Acne and Nutrition

Andrea du Plessis
About The Author
- Andrea is a registered dietician. Following her initial career as a consulting dietitian, she furthered her studies in the field of sports nutrition with a Master’s degree in Sports Science. As nutrition expert, she has a passion for healthcare through nutrition, natural remedies and an active lifestyle.