Pimples, pustules and blackheads. What do you do if you have acne and want your skin to get clearer? You can slather on creams and take acne medication, but you may want to start by changing your diet.
About 17 million people in the U.S. have acne, according to the National Institutes of Health, and they're not all teenagers dealing with the perils of puberty. Whether you're helping a teen clear up his face or hoping to erase the imperfections that have popped up on yours, there are studies that link certain foods and nutrients to improvements in your skin.
Although genetics may play a factor in the appearance of your skin, watching what you eat may improve skin quality tremendously.
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Here are some foods and nutrients you may want to consider:
Vitamin A is an active ingredient found in many skin treatment lotions and pills like Accutane. It's used in synthetic form to help clear up severe acne and ease symptoms of psoriasis, reports the University of Maryland Medical Center . Too much vitamin A can cause toxic side effects, so talk to your doctor before taking supplements. Good sources include spinach, carrots, pumpkin, broccoli and eggs.
Zinc is a mineral that may prevent acne by making it difficult for the bacteria that causes acne to grow, reports WebMD . Some reports show that people who have acne have lower than normal levels of zinc. You can find zinc in turkey, nuts and wheat germ.
Whole grains are great for your overall health, and may be good for your face, too. A study in the American Journal of Nutrition suggests you might have fewer breakouts if you eat more whole grains.
Selenium is an essential mineral found in the body that fights damage from free radicals, including to the skin. One study found that selenium, paired with vitamin E, may improve acne. Sources of selenium include Brazil nuts, tuna, halibut and ham.
Omega-3 fatty acids help ease inflammation, which can sometimes lead to skin problems. You can find omega-3s in seafood, particularly fatty fish like salmon and sardines, as well as walnuts, flaxseed oil and almonds.
Antioxidants can help protect the skin against some of the damage you get from the sun and from aging. But smaller studies have shown that they may also ease breakouts. Find them in green tea and foods that have vitamin C (oranges, lemons, tomatoes) and vitamin E (sweet potatoes, avocadoes, spinach).
Probiotics are the good bacteria that help with digestive health. New research shows that they may also help with the skin. The American Academy of Dermatology notes that people prone to acne may find improvement with daily probiotic use. Get probiotics from yogurt labeled "live, active cultures."
Other simple changes
Staying hydrated helps keep your skin healthy. (Photo: mimagephotography/Shutterstock)
You may have heard that one way to flush out toxins in your skin is to make sure you’re drinking enough water. There's no definitive research that shows that toxins lead to breakouts, but in general, staying hydrated helps your skin stay healthy, so it's always a good idea to drink plenty of water.
Some studies have shown a link between dairy — particularly skim milk — and acne breakouts. Although the connection is weak, it may have something to do with hormones and growth factors in milk, says the American Academy of Dermatology . If you consume a lot of dairy and have unclear skin, you may want to cut back on dairy and see if it makes a difference.
Foods that spike your blood sugar (called high-glycemic foods), such as white bread, pastries and soda cause your pancreas to make extra insulin in an attempt to regulate blood sugar levels. But insulin also signals the sebaceous glands to manufacture and secrete an oily substance called sebum, which in elevated amounts causes the bacterium P. acnes to proliferate and clog up the hair follicles. So again, go for whole grains instead of white breads, white rice, sugary snacks and junk food.
Eating lots of vegetables is a smart move for a healthy face. (Photo: Maridav/Shutterstock)
Eat foods that don’t promote inflammation. Inflammation can manifest in many different ways from heart disease to unhealthy-looking skin. Foods like vegetable oils (especially cooked ones, which are prevalent in fast food) and refined grains are all high in omega-6 fatty acids.
Opt instead, as previously mentioned, for foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids . Although it may seem counter-intuitive to some people with bad skin that fatty foods can clear skin, cold-water oily fish like salmon have anti-inflammatory properties. Don't like fish? No problem, there are other sources of omega-3-rich foods including walnuts, beans and flaxseed oil.
Squirting a teaspoon’s worth of cold-pressed seed oils like flaxseed in a low-sugar, high-protein smoothie may also help reduce inflammation.
And load up on the fresh fruits and vegetables. They're packed with antioxidants which are great for your skin and overall health.
What to avoid
Not all vitamins may be good for your skin. New research suggests that high levels of vitamin B12 may change the bacteria that's normally found on your skin, making it more prone to acne. The study, published in the journal Science Translational Medicine , doesn't suggest that people should cut back on their vitamin B12 to avoid getting pimples. "I don't think we have studied enough to suggest that," study leader Huiying Li, assistant professor of molecular & medical pharmacology at the University of California, Los Angeles, told HealthDay.
Watch your alcohol intake. After all, alcohol is a sugar. As mentioned above, sugar can spike insulin levels which can cause inflammation, possibly leading to an acne-producing domino effect.
For overall health and wellness, including skin quality, eat a diet that is overwhelmingly comprised of all-natural and unprocessed foods. Your skin is your largest organ. Eating lots of junk food will ultimately lead to less than optimum health — and unclear skin.
This story was originally written in May 2011 and has been updated with the latest information.