Sugar Gives You Acne (And What To Do About It)

Last week we spoke about how Sugar Gives You Wrinkles.  If that wasn’t horrifying enough to get you to give up sugar for the rest of your life, maybe the fact that it also gives you acne will.  We’ve all been through those awkward teenage years when our skin seems to turn into an oil refinement plant. It is estimated that worldwide 80% of people between the ages of 11 and 30[1] have had an acne breakout at some point, and it can continue into middle age for up to 12% of women and and 3% of men.[2]

What is Acne?

Acne is a disease that effects the skin’s oil glands.[1]  When the oil gland gets clogged with a combination of dead skin cells and excess oil a pimple forms.  Bacteria can develop in this mixture causing redness and swelling.


What Causes Oily Skin?

Dermatologists have attributed oily/acne prone skin mainly to genetics.[1]  The exact mechanism is not clear[3], but a rise in hormones, especially testosterone, leads to increased oil production[4]. There are some other factors that can exacerbate the problem, but the mainstream theory is that you have your genes to thank – even if the cause is not fully understood.  Other factors that have been associated with oily skin are the use of birth control pills and other medicines, hormonal changes (i.e. puberty, pre-menstruation, etc.), and greasy makeup.  Costly treatments that line the pockets of pharmaceutical companies have been created to help combat it.  We here at Kaiya Naturals even wrote an article on the scientific evidence behind how Tea Tree Oil is just as effective for treating acne as Benzoyl Peroxide.  Is oily/acne prone skin something many of us have to put up with because of our genetics?  Should we just accept the fact that all we can do is treat the symptoms with expensive medications, and not the cause?  Well, not really.  Acne, it would seem, is a western problem.

The Western Culture of Oily Skin

Consider the following:

  • Acne is nonexistent among Inuit populations living and eating in the traditional manner.  After being transplanted into western settlements the prevalence of acne becomes similar to that in western societies.[5]
  • The island inhabitants of Okinawa had no acne prior to WWII when the island was an isolated outpost. [6]
  • An examination of rural schoolchildren in Brazil found only 2.7% had acne.  That is significantly less than the 80% that the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases estimated above. [7]
  • Bantu adolescents in South Africa had lower rates of acne than white children. [8] [9]
  • Acne became a problem for Zulu villagers only when they moved from rural villages into cities. [10]


To sum up, there is strong evidence showing that rural non-industrial societies have significantly less acne.  This evidence goes on to show that only when those inhabitants were introduced into western society did they experience the same rates of acne as westerners. That puts a big gaping hole in the accepted theory of oily skin being determined solely by our genetics, doesn’t it?  If our genetics aren’t the main cause, what is?

The Chocolate Dilemma

Woman with box of chocolates

Dermatologists are quick to point out that diet has nothing to do with acne.  This is because of one study, done in 1969, where sixty five subjects either ate a chocolate bar, or a placebo bar containing no chocolate.  There were no significant differences between the two groups and it was concluded that chocolate has no effect on acne.  It was then further concluded that diet has no effect on acne.  Case closed.

But… the study was found to have been improperly controlled because it did not account for other ingredients, present in both the chocolate and non-chocolate bars, that could have exacerbated acne in both groups.

For this reason another study was done in 2014 with 100% pure cocoa using placebos and a double-blind methodology.  This study found a significant statistical difference.  However, it too has its limitations.  There were only fourteen participants, and to control for the effects of hormonal variations in females due to menstruation, all the subjects were male.  The small, uniform sample size makes it difficult to expand these findings to the broader population.

Does diet affect acne?  Probably.  Especially when you take into consideration other research that has been done.

Acne and The Glycemic Index

WEDNESDAY-WEIGHT-LOSS-BLOG-High-vs-low-GI-foods-mylusciouslifeFirst of all, what is the Glycemic Index?  The Glycemic Index (GI) is a measurement of how different foods cause a rise and fall in blood sugar.  High GI foods cause a rapid rise and fall of blood sugar, while Low GI foods cause a slow rise in blood sugar followed by a more gradual decline.  See the diagram on the right.

A study done in 2007 concluded that a low-glycemic-load diet improves the symptoms of  acne.  In that study forty three male patients with acne underwent a 12-week program where the experimental group ate a diet consisting of protein and low glycemic index carbohydrates, while the control group ate carbohydrate dense foods.  The study suggested that more research should be done to understand the mechanism behind this.

How it Works

Dr. Loren Cordain, PhD is more commonly known as the founder of the Paleo Diet and is Professor Emeritus at the Colorado State University Department of Health and Exercise Sciences.  He has written over 100 peer-reviewed articles, including  Implications for the Role of Diet in Acne.  Written in 2005, in it Dr. Cordain illustrates the mechanism behind why low-glycemic-load foods improve the symptoms of acne.

sugar_acneBasically, the culprit is insulin.  A diet of high-glycemic-load foods causes rapid rises in blood sugar.  The body responds to this by pumping insulin into the bloodstream. A lot of it.  If it pumps more insulin in the bloodstream than there is sugar then you have excess insulin circulating around.  The circulation of this excess insulin creates a hormonal cascade that results in oily skin and acne.

Low-glycemic-load foods do not cause a rapid rise in blood sugar, which in turn does not cause the body to have excess insulin circulating around.  Since there is no excess insulin there is no hormonal cascade that causes increased oil and skin cell production.  Since there is less oil and dead skin cells to clog the pores they don’t clog as easily, which in turn leads to less acne.

However, it’s a little more complicated than just eating a diet of low-glycemic-load foods.  Chocolate is a low GI food, but it has been shown to exacerbate acne.  We may know how insulin leads to acne, but we also know that it’s not the complete picture.

Stress and Acne

The stress hormone, cortisol, also plays a role.  Cortisol has a three-fold effect.  First of all it creates a hormonal imbalance.[11]  Exactly how that imbalance works we don’t know.  We know it leads to excess oil production.  Second, cortisol inhibits the immune system.  A weakened immune system gives bacteria a chance to proliferate in clogged pores. A bacterial infection in clogged pores leads to redness and inflammation.  Third, excess stress leads to excess sweat, which can mix with dead skin cells and oils to clog pores.

What Does All This Mean?

All of this means that you can control your acne by eating a low-glycemic-load diet, giving up chocolate, and reducing your stress levels.  You no longer need to purchase expensive medications or skincare products.  I know, bummer for us since we sell those skincare products (like our Mud Mask for All Skin Types or our Toner for Sensitive Skin).  The good news for us is that we’re kinda hoping that you don’t want to give up all your favorite foods just to have great looking skin.  Is that wrong?

If you are the kind of person who is capable of making a major life change to get rid of your oily skin then here’s some great low-glyclemic-load recipes for you to start with.  Not only will you have better looking skin, you’ll most likely lose weight and just be plain healthier.

357989Quinoa and Black Beans

This recipe is a tasty alternative to rice and beans by replacing white rice with quinoa.  Get this recipe at the link below:

1101614Easy Bake Tilapia

Don’t have a lot of time to put together a healthy low-glycemic-load meal.  Then this dish is for you.  Get it below:

121690White Bean Chicken Chili

Do you like it spicy?  Then this chicken chili is for you.  Get this hot little dish below:

If there is anything that you would like me to talk about feel free to reach out to me either here via email:, on twitter @kaiyanaturals, or on Facebook @kaiyanaturals.  Also  please, please, please share or comment on this article.  Seriously, I’d love to hear your feedback in the comment section below.

Stay Natural,


These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.  This is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.  For educational purposes only.






[5] Schaefer  O When the Eskimo comes to town. Nutr Today. 1971;68- 16

[6] Steiner  PE Necropsies on Okinawans: anatomic and pathologic observations. Arch Pathol.1946;42359- 380

[7] Bechelli  LMHaddad  NPimenta  WP  et al.  Epidemiological survey of skin diseases in schoolchildren living in the Purus Valley (Acre State, Amazonia, Brazil). Dermatologica.1981;16378- 93

[8] Park  RG The age distribution of common skin disorders in the Bantu of Pretoria, Transvaal. Br J Dermatol. 1968;80758761

[9] Findlay  GH The age incidence of common skin diseases in the white population of the Transvaal. Br J Dermatol. 1967;79538- 542

[10] Cunliffe  WJCotterill  JA The acnes: clinical features, pathogenesis and treatment. Rook  Aed.Major Problems in Dermatology Philadelphia, Pa WB Saunders Co1975;13- 14


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