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Acne and Sugar
Sugar may be linked to acne breakouts. We review some of the associations between sugar consumption and acne.
Diet is one of the more controversial causes of acne.
Acne itself is caused by bacteria, but facial oils make it more possible for bacteria to thrive, so studies have looked for behaviors that may increase production of facial oil.
Many researchers believe diet likely plays a role. However, it's unclear what that role is. Many people used to believe that chocolate and salt both contributed to acne buildup, but research was unable to confirm any relationship between those foods and acne.
Some argue that acne is linked to sugar. Many people claim there is a relationship between sugar and acne that implies those looking to control their acne should cut down on their sugar intake.
Before examining the link between sugar and acne, it's important to remember not to fall into marketing traps.
For years, there were several articles by "researchers" claiming that sugar (and all types of foods) lead to acne. Many claim that they found this information in their research. But many of these self-proclaimed researchers work for cosmetic companies that have a vested interest in claiming that they have found the cures for acne.
It's important to look for actual research – research that takes place from unbiased parties, that uses control groups, has adequate sample sizes, and have been verified by other research.
A study at the University of Melbourne claimed that as many as 41% of all acne sufferers believed that chocolate, salt, sugar, fatty foods, and more, all contributed to acne breakouts. But the science on this is mixed, with many researchers believing that food types do very little to contribute to acne, and others believing that if there is an effect, that effect is likely very small.
One problem with examining acne and sugar in past and current research is that most studies have been poorly managed.
In the 1960's, there were several studies about the link between sugar and acne, and no link was found. Not one study found any apparent connection between sugar consumption and acne breakouts, indicating that it is highly unlikely that sugar either causes acne or has any noticeable effect on acne.
Still, although no studies have confirmed any link, those same studies were also completed poorly. Many used a small sample or inadequate data collection methods.
While it's important not to fall into the trap of believing that sugar (or any dietary change) causes acne simply because some marketing experts claim it does, so too is it important not to be 100% confident that sugar does not cause acne when the studies confirming this belief were also poorly performed.
Despite this research issue, there are still very few studies that have indicated that sugar, or any dietary changes for that matter, have much of an effect on acne. While it's valuable to eat a healthy diet simply to help your body function properly, individual foods are unlikely to have much of an effect on your acne.
Yet there is still a possible connection between acne and sugar that is not directly related to sugar itself, but rather the foods that contain sugar.
Within the past decade, several well controlled studies have found that it is possible that high glycemic foods may be linked to oil production and acne outbreaks.
In 2007, a study was conducted of 50 men suffering from acne. Half of them were told to continue eating a diet of high glycemic carbohydrates. The other half were told to eat low glycemic foods. Both of them continued these diets for 3 months.
These researchers found that those in the low glycemic group did have a significant reduction in their acne breakouts. Several studies since have also seemed to confirm this link.
(Note: The researchers are quick to note that weight loss cannot be ruled out as a possible reason for the reduction in acne. There are some indications that weight can play a role in acne, and those in the low glycemic group may have lost more weight as a result of this healthier diet.)
What this means is that sugar itself may not be the cause of acne, but foods that tend to be high in sugar (high glycemic foods – which are often fairly unhealthy) – may exacerbate acne. Cutting down on these foods cuts your sugar intake by default, but the sugar itself is not actually a cause of acne.
If any link between sugar and acne exists, it is likely to come from insulin. Several studies have shown a link between insulin resistance (inability for insulin to lower blood sugar) and acne breakouts.
Sugar is considered to be one of the leading causes of insulin resistance, which is why acne linked to sugar may focus on the insulin in the body after heavy sugar consumption.
But does sugar cause acne?
The reality of insulin resistance is that there are many different causes, and sugar is only one small contributing factor. Obesity and inactivity are perhaps the most known causes of insulin resistance – far more than sugar itself – and genetics certainly plays a role as well.
Sugar may contribute to this resistance, but it is unlikely to be the leading cause. Still, this would indicate that cutting back on sugar could help you control your acne breakouts.
Based on all available data, it is far more likely that sugar does not cause acne, and is rather present in potential foods and lifestyle choices (ie, high fat diets leading to obesity) that ultimately lead to an increase in skin oils and acne breakouts.
However, as noted, just as there are no studies currently proving a link between sugar and acne, so too are there no studies disproving it either. Since low sugar diets may also be more nutritious and a better choice for healthy living, there is no harm in reducing your blood sugar count and eating healthier in an effort to control your acne.
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