If you have acne, you’ve probably wondered if following a low-carb or keto diet can help clear up your skin. While the medical community has disagreed on this issue over the years, some studies have shown that carbohydrate intake may be the very cause of nasty facial breakouts. By avoiding carbohydrates in your diet, you may be able to improve the quality of your skin and prevent future breakouts. In this guide, you will learn about the basic information about acne, and how keto diet affects acne.
What is Acne?
Acne is an inflammatory skin disease in which hair follicles are clogged with sebum (oil) and dead skin cells. People with acne break out in pimples on the face, back, shoulders and chest.
Although anyone can develop acne, it is more common in teenagers (especially men) and young adults. However, if it persists into adulthood, you will find it more prevalent in women.
If you have lived with acne, you may have noticed that some pimples or bumps look different from others. This is because there are various types of acne, such as:
- Whiteheads: These are flesh-colored bumps caused by dirt, dead skin cells and sebum clogging in the pores. In the case of whiteheads, the pores are closed, which is why they are called “closed pimples”.
- Blackheads: They appear as small black dots on the skin and are sometimes mistaken for dust. Blackheads are also known as “open pimples” because the clogged pores are open.
- Papules: These are pinkish or red bumps – a sign that they are inflamed. The papules are painful to touch and pinching them can make the inflammation worse.
- Cysts: This type of acne is pus-filled and large and should be treated with caution (by a dermatologist) or scarring can occur. Cystic or cystic acne is a severe form of acne that usually requires oral antibiotic treatment.
- Nodules: This type of acne is pus-filled and large and should be treated with caution (by a dermatologist) or scarring may occur. Cystic or cystic acne is a severe form of acne that usually requires oral antibiotic treatment.
How does Acne Develop?
The formation of acne is the result of complex interactions that occur within the skin. The sebaceous glands located in the outer layer of the skin are connected to hair follicles. These glands produce sebum, an oily substance that lubricates hair and skin cells, which are constantly shed and replaced.
In the case of acne, this system is compromised. Elevated levels of androgens (male hormones) lead to increased sebum production, which results in oily skin.
In addition, the production of skin cells is accelerated and dead skin cells are not shed in the normal way. Instead, these cells combine with excess sebum, causing blockages or clogs. When this process occurs, sebum-feeding bacteria also enter the picture.
Similar to the gut microbiome, the skin maintains its own balance of bacteria. A type of bacteria called Propionibacterium acnes lives deep in the hair follicles and is usually present in small amounts in the outer layer of the skin.
However, in people with acne, the concentration of Propionibacterium acnes increases dramatically, causing inflammation that leads to whiteheads, pustules and cysts.
Low-carb and Keto Diets for Acne
Many people report clearer skin as a result of following a low-carb or keto diet.
Although research on carbohydrate restriction for acne is not complete, many people report clearer skin as a result of following a low-carb or keto diet.
Furthermore, there is a logical reason why minimizing carbohydrate intake can be helpful for acne sufferers.
A 2012 article by Italian researchers discusses the potential benefits of a ketogenic diet for acne, including the following:
Reduced insulin levels: Elevated insulin levels stimulate increased production of skin cells, sebum and androgens – setting the stage for acne breakouts. A ketogenic diet lowers insulin levels, often dramatically.
Anti-inflammatory effects: Inflammation can drive acne. Very low-carb and ketogenic diets have been shown to reduce inflammation.
Decrease in IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor 1): A ketogenic diet decreases IGF-1 levels. Like insulin, IGF-1 increases sebum production and has been found to play a large role in acne.
In a compelling 2013 review of the therapeutic use of the ketogenic diet for a variety of conditions, Paoli et al. noted that while new evidence for the use of the ketogenic diet in acne is promising, randomized controlled trials (RCTs) are needed to confirm these benefits.
Why does Acne Get Worse on Keto in Some People?
You may have heard that dairy products can trigger acne or make it worse (in people who already have acne). Some studies support the idea that consuming dairy products can worsen acne whether you’re on a keto diet or not.
For example, a systematic review and meta-analysis of 78,529 children, adolescents and young adults found that any type of dairy product – milk, yogurt and cheese – was associated with increased acne in people aged 7 to 30 years.
There are a number of theories that explain why dairy products may cause acne:
- Milk contains growth hormones and anabolic steroids
- Dairy products have carbohydrates in them, which increases insulin and IGF-1
- A lot of cows are treated with bovine growth hormone and their milk supply may contain higher levels of IGF-1
If you use a keto diet to treat acne, avoiding dairy products may be a good idea to clear your skin. This is especially true if you like to meet your dietary fat intake from dairy products. Experiment with your keto diet in this way to see if it works for you.
However, if your acne persists even after making adjustments to your current diet, be sure to talk to your doctor or dermatologist. Keep in mind that certain health conditions can cause acne.
One of the best ways acne can be treated effectively and made less severe is by following a diet that prevents blood sugar and insulin surges (which increase androgen and sebum production).
It is very possible to see improvements in skin health in keto treatment, especially if you implement strategies to maximize your diet – such as eating mostly whole foods, removing dairy, fasting, and consuming omega-3 fats.
On top of this lifestyle change, consider talking to a dermatologist to explore topical treatments to further clear acne or make scars less visible.