Foods That Cause Oily Acne Skin

I have oily cystic acne, the kind that’s deep, severe, and very painful. It’s not just a few pimples here and there and it followed me all the way into adulthood. At 45, I was still attempting to keep breakouts at bay with medications and topical treatments. But nothing made a difference until I changed my diet.

For decades the medical community has led us to believe that oily skin and acne (all types) have nothing to do with the foods that we eat, even though scientific evidence dating back to 1969 proved otherwise. (1)

The Acne Plague

Acne is now an epidemic skin disease of industrialized countries, reaching prevalence rates of over 85% of teenagers. In the United States, acne nowadays persists even after adolescence into the third decade of life in nearly half of men and women. (2)

Acne develops when the pores in the skin (sebaceous follicles) become blocked with dead skin, then a fatty substance (sebum) secreted by the skin accumulates within the blocked pore.  This overstuffed pore then becomes infected by bacteria, resulting in inflammation – the pimple.  The bacteria eat the sebum and thrive. 

Acne cysts (nodulocystic acne) is the most serious kind of acne blemish. They feel like soft, fluid-filled lumps under the skin’ surface and are painful.

Acne and Diet

There are multiple studies of people living on their traditional native low-fat diets based on vegetables, fruits and starches – with little or no acne.  When these same healthy people are exposed to our Western diet, acne becomes an epidemic as do the other diseases of modern civilization (heart disease, diabetes, obesity and cancers).

Ways Diet Causes Acne

  1. A diet high in fat will increase the amounts of fats (sebum) in and on the skin (shine).  It really does not take much fat on the skin to plug the pores, feed the bacteria, and cause acne in susceptible people.  Also note the bacteria eat vegetable oil as well as animal fats.  (3)
  2. The rich Western diet increases sex hormones causing precocious.  Earlier maturation of women is known to be associated with more severe acne. (4) Excess male hormones (androgens) in men and women are well known to cause acne and increase production of sebum.
  3. Growth hormones adversely affect the sebaceous glands causing them to become easily plugged.  Insulin-like growth hormone-1 (IGF-1) is known to be increased by dietary protein (meat, poultry, etc.), and especially by dairy products.  Research shows elevated IGF-1 levels are associated with more acne.
  4. Chronic internal inflammation can make acne more serious and severe.  When we eat too many of the wrong foods and not enough nutrient rich foods, we’re exposed to a number of toxins that keep the immune system active inside us causing inflammation.   

Preventing and Curing Acne

We have come to accept the idea that acne is related to surging hormones not just during adolescence but now in adulthood too.

But to blame acne on puberty and change hormones is like blaming heart disease on old age.  People get more heart disease as they get older, but only when they eat the wrong diet. Heart disease does not exist where people eat healthy, such as in rural Africa and Asia.  Heart disease is also cured when sick people change to a healthy diet.  This is true with acne as well. (4)

Healthy clear skin is possible. As with all Western diseases you can attack the cause by invoking the cure with a healthy diet.

My Healing Kitchen

When I changed to a whole food plant-based diet, I saw positive results almost immediately. There was a noticeable reduction in the oiliness on my face (bye, bye shine). The pimples started to clear, my pores where not as large, my skin became brighter, and the texture was soft and smooth. My skin wasn’t totally trashed to begin with, and I didn’t have scars, so I saw a change within the first week. Week by week it got better and after a month my skin was clear.

I now eat a whole-food, plant-based diet with lots of vegetables, fruit, beans, and whole grains such as brown rice.  Even the so-called “good/healthy” fats can be problematic for an overactive sebaceous gland like mine.

I limit the amount of oils (think salad dressing) and high fat foods, and read ingredient labels for hidden fats. I don’t eat a lot of grains because carbs such as breads, that raise blood sugar, and thereby insulin and IGF, to high levels, trashed my skin. Even the gluten free options. Portion control and frequency are everything in my healthy diet.

I have eliminated many problematic foods because small indiscretions resulted in a few massive cysts within hours. Celebratory occasions pose a slight problem, but I eat my way back to clear skin instead of reaching for medication.

The time it takes to see results isn’t the same for everyone. It depends on the severity of your condition and how disciplined you are. For the best results the elimination method is absolutely essential to start with. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way:

Acne Causing Foods

  • Dairy Products (milk, milk-based products, yogurt, all cheese). These contain high levels of fat.
  • Excessive amount of meats and fish that contain high levels of fat.
  • Some meat substitutes (Many contain added fats as a binding ingredient). Look for varieties that have little or no fat like the bean-based products.
  • Excessive amounts of nuts cashew, hazelnut, macadamia, pecan, pistachio, walnut. Serving size matters.
  • Peanuts (including butter). There is a lot of oil in peanuts.
  • Processed Foods, including the so-called healthy vegan options. Read labels for added Fats. For example pre-made hummus contains Tahini (sesame seed) and can trigger breakouts.  You can make it at home without the added fats by using aquafaba (liquid from the can of chickpeas) as the wetting agent. Read More about Aquafaba.
  • Whole Seeds: Chia, flax, pumpkin, sesame, sunflower, etc. Some people have trouble digesting seeds and some seeds have a lot of oil. Opt for ground and control the portion (1 tablespoon of ground flax seed is the recommended amount).
  • Starchy Carbohydrates: Rice (including brow in large portions), pasta (including gluten free), and potatoes are examples of starchy carbohydrates. These carbohydrates raise blood sugar, and thereby insulin and IGF, to high levels, so they all share the capacity to create facial havoc. Read More: Can Food Make You Break Out and Don’t Let Grains Ruin Your Skin

Referral Links:

How to Maximize Savings on a Plant-Based Diet A whole-food, plant-based diet doesn’t just make health sense; it saves dollars and cents. Read How

How We Cured Cystic Acne With One Simple Diet Change. We know it’s hard to believe, but if you’re struggling with acne, we hope this story by Nina and Randa Nelson will inspire you to try a low-fat, plant-based diet. It’s an easy, free, drug-free therapy that treats the cause of your acne, and not just the symptoms. Read Their Story

It all starts with one step. Through nurturing food, you have the power to live your best life. If you are looking to get plant fit, check out Forks Over Knives Meal Planner. They offer useful information, tools, and recipes to help you take charge of your health destiny and share your own vibrant health and delicious cooking with the ones you love.

Topical Treatment to Treat and Manage Oily Acne Skin

If you are looking to achieve healthy skin, the first thing you must do is fill your plate with nutrient rich foods, then use those same health conscious decisions about your personal care products.

There are many natural creams, ointments, and other types of topical solutions you can use. Avoid products with harsh chemicals or unnatural ingredients, as these could exacerbate your condition.  

To treat and manage oily ace skin it’s important to neutralize and balance the production of oil.  Trying to remove the oil with harsh drying chemicals or medications cause the sebaceous gland to produce even more oil leaving skin feeling greasy and lead to excessive shine and blemishes.

We formulate our products for oily acne prone skin with gentle, lightweight plant oils that mimic the body’s natural sebum.  When the two come in contact, they blend to keep skin calm and balanced to reveal skin that is clean, clear and shine-free.

Written By: Mary Ellen Wank, Wellness Advocate and Founder of LATIV, Natural Skin Revival DISCLAIMER


1)  Fulton JE Jr.  Effect of chocolate on acne vulgaris.  JAMA. 1969 Dec 15;210(11):2071-4.

4) Thiboutot DM.  Diet and acne revisited.  Arch Dermatol. 2002 Dec;138(12):1591-2.

August 12, 2021 9:52 am

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