Acne is a common condition that most often affects adolescents but is not uncommon in adults. It can result in considerable anxiety, depression, and medical and pharmaceutical costs. Additionally, oral antibiotics, the standard treatment for acne, are increasingly under suspicion for causing bacterial resistance as well as disruption of the cutaneous and gut microbiomes.1,2 These factors are among those that often drive patients and physicians to search for alternative and complementary treatments, including dietary modification.
Over the last few decades, the interaction between diet and acne has been one of the most fluid areas of research in dermatology. The role of diet in acne incidence and presentation has evolved from the general view in the 1970s that there was no connection to today’s more data-driven understanding that the acne disease course likely is modified by specific dietary components. Better designed and more rigorous studies have supported a link between acne severity and glycemic index (GI)/glycemic load (GL) and possibly dairy consumption. The ability to use data-driven evidence to counsel patients regarding dietary treatment of acne is increasingly important to counteract the pseudoadvice that patients can easily find on the Internet.
This article summarizes the history of beliefs about diet and acne, reviews more recent published data regarding dietary components that can modify acne severity, and outlines the current American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) guidelines and recommendations for diet and acne.
History of Diet and Acne
In most of the current literature, acne frequently is referred to as a disease of modern civilization or a consequence of the typical Western diet.3 For clarity, the Western diet is most commonly described as “a dietary regimen characterized by high amounts of sugary desserts, refined grains, high protein, high-fat dairy products, and high-sugar drinks.”4 The role of dairy in the etiology of acne typically is discussed separately from the Western diet. It has been reported that acne is not found in nonwesternized populations where a Paleolithic diet, which does not include consumption of high-GI carbohydrates, milk, or other dairy products, is common.5
Extending this line of argument, acne vulgaris has been called a metabolic syndrome of the sebaceous follicle and one of the mammalian target of rapamycin complex 1–driven diseases of civilization, along with cancer, obesity, and diabetes mellitus.3 This view seems somewhat extreme and discounts other drivers of acne incidence and severity. Twin studies have shown that acne is highly heritable, with 81% of the population variance attributed to genetic factors.6 Similar incidence numbers for acne vulgaris have been reported worldwide, and global incidence in late adolescence is rising; however, it is unknown whether this increase is a result of the adoption of the Western diet, which is thought to encourage early onset of puberty; genetic drift; changes in regional and cultural understanding and reporting of acne; or a byproduct of unknown environmental factors.4 More nuanced views acknowledge that acne is a multifactorial disease,7 and therefore genetic and possibly epigenetic factors as well as the cutaneous and gut microbiomes also must be taken into account. An interesting historical perspective on acne by Mahmood and Shipman8 outlined acne descriptions, diagnoses, topical treatments, and dietary advice going back to ancient Greek and Egyptian civilizations. They also cited recommendations from the 1930s that suggested avoiding “starchy foods, bread rolls, noodles, spaghetti, potatoes, oily nuts, chop suey, chow mein, and waffles” and listed the following foods as suitable to cure acne: “cooked and raw fruit, farina, rice, wheat, oatmeal, green vegetables, boiled or broiled meat and poultry, clear soup, vegetable soup, and an abundance of water.”8