Is Sugar Making You Break Out?

Updated December 01, 2014.

Does sugar cause acne?


The standard answer is no, sugar does not cause acne.  As of yet, we have no definitive proof that sugar makes you break out.

That said, over the last few years, many have been taking a new look at the connection between diet and acne.  There have been a few studies linking excess sugar consumption with acne severity.

But even dermatologists are split on this one.  Many dermatologists believe diet does indeed play a role in acne development.  Just as many others think the diet and acne connection is a bunch of hooey. 

The problem lies in this — the research just isn’t there yet.

Some studies have shown that people who ate more sugar were not only more likely to have acne, but also likely to have more severe acne, than people who adhered to a low-sugar diet.

Detractors, though, point out that the studies look at a relatively small pool of participants.  Many of the studies also rely on self-reported information.  That means the participants themselves determined if their acne got worse (or better) depending on the foods they ate.  Some wonder just how objective one can be about their own skin, and if the participant’s own beliefs taint their reporting.

So far, the research linking sugar itself to acne is fairly weak.  There is stronger research linking high-glycemic index foods to acne severity.  High-glycemic index foods can be sugary for sure, like pastries and cake, but they also include starchy foods like white bread and potatoes.  

Other studies have shown no correlation between diet and acne.

So, does sugar cause acne or not?  The answer is maybe — and maybe not.  If the research seems contradictory, it is.  What are we to do?

Here’s what we absolutely know to be the truth: acne is caused overactive sebaceous glands, irregular shedding of dead skin cells, inflammation, and the bacteria propioni acnes.  We know that hormones play a big role

We know that the best way to eliminate acne is to use treatments that address the aforementioned causes. 

While there is no definitive proof that sugar causes acne as of yet, let’s be perfectly honest here.  If your diet is high in sugary foods and drinks, and low in fruits, vegetables, and lean protein, it’s not a healthy diet.  So you’ve got nothing to lose and lots to gain by cutting back on sugar.

Who knows?  You may find that reducing your sugar intake makes your skin look better, and it’s a happy world!  But if reducing sugar doesn’t reduce your acne, don’t be too disappointed.  You can still get acne under control by more conventional treatments. 

Over-the-counter products are good choices for mild acne breakouts.  For more stubborn acne, you’ll need a prescription acne medication


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Burris J, Rietkerk W, Woolf K. “Relationships of self-reported dietary factors and perceived acne severity in a cohort of New York young adults.”   J Acad Nutr Diet. 2014 Mar;114(3):384-92.

Bhate K, Williams HC.  “Epidemiology of acne vulgaris.”  Br J Dermatol. 2013 Mar;168(3):474-85.

Ismail NH, Manaf ZA, Azizan NZ.  :High glycemic load diet, milk and ice cream consumption are related to acne vulgaris in Malaysian young adults: a case control study.”  BMC Dermatol. 2012 Aug 16;12:13.

Katta R, Desai SP.  “Diet and dermatology: the role of dietary intervention in skin disease.”  J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2014 Jul;7(7):46-51.