Foods That Can Cause Acne

By Christine Kobzeff - April 24, 2019

Healing starts with what you stop doing. This is the first step to healing cystic acne. Often times we go in search of something to add to our diet. There's always a trendy new juice cleanse, detox, supplement or superfood that everyone jumps on hoping it miraculously fixes all their problems.

Foods that cause cystic acne

And yes some of these things do have a lot of healing benefits, for example juicing is a great addition to your diet. But simply adding something healthy to a diet that's still causing damage to your digestive system is like playing tug-o-war. Your body will continue to struggle between trying to heal and being assaulted. We can give our body the best medicine in the world but it's never going to heal if we continue giving it the poison too.

We'll discuss healing foods later in this series but right now we're focused on identifying and eliminating acne triggers. I'll give you a break down of my biggest food sensitivities that trigger cystic acne, including where they cause the breakouts and the severity. This doesn't necessarily mean these are triggers for you, this is just a starting point for us to begin.

Dairy Causes Acne


Severe inflammation, deep, painful cystic acne flare-ups on my cheeks and sides of the face.
Tested: All kinds of dairy products and brands.
Note: Dairy is highly inflammatory. Most of the acne scars I have today were caused by dairy. Years ago I was eating all kinds of dairy products, oh how I loved my cheese! Dairy is very addictive and it's meant to be. It gives baby cows the growth spurt they need to become 2000lbs. Dairy is also loaded with hormones for baby cows. Grass fed or not, ALL dairy naturally contains hormones, every time we consume dairy we're bombarding our body with these foreign hormones that belong in a 2000lb animal. Talk about hormones on steroids! Hormonal acne anyone? In 2015 I quit dairy for good. I now eat a 100% plant based diet, the cystic acne on my cheeks cleared up as soon as I stopped eating dairy and I haven't had any acne breakouts on my cheeks since. These days it's easier than ever to swap out dairy, there's tons of delicious dairy-free brands and options out there!

Gluten Causes Acne


Severe inflammation, deep, painful cystic acne flare-ups on my chin and jawline.
Tested: All kinds of wheat and gluten products including whole grain breads, flour tortillas, wraps, sandwiches, bagels, croissants, pastas, baked goods, crackers, pita chips, cereals, many plant based meat alternatives made with "vital wheat gluten."
Note: Gluten was one of the worst, it's hard on the digestive system and causes issues for many people. A stressed digestive system and liver will directly affect our skin. You do not need to have celiac disease to be affected by gluten, it could be a gluten sensitivity. I never had any other symptoms from eating gluten, only cystic acne. At home I eat 100% gluten-free. On rare occasions when we're traveling and out at a restaurant I'll eat a sandwich, burrito or wrap that has some gluten. But gluten consistently triggers inflammation in me, so I'm very cautious and prefer to eat gluten-free.

Grains Cause  Acne


Severe inflammation, deep, painful cystic acne flare-ups on my chin and jawline.
Tested: A variety of grains including several varieties of rice, corn, oats, wheat/gluten.
Note: Grains are difficult to digest for many people. A stressed digestive system and liver will directly affect our skin. At home I avoid eating gluten and most grains, including breads, pastas, cereals, crackers, chips, cookies, flour tortillas, baked goods, anything made with grain flour. One exception is corn tortillas, they don't appear to trigger any acne for me. I'll have a little bit of grain products such as black rice once in awhile but grains have consistently triggered inflammation in me, so I'm very cautious and keep them at a minimum. Also I should note it's been a long time since I've tested oats or quinoa, so I may test them out again sometime.

Soy Can Cause Acne


Soy is an acne trigger for some people. I'm including it here for that reason but in my case I haven't experienced any issues eating soy.
Note: The main source of soy I eat is unfermented, non-gmo tofu. I'll update here if there are any changes or when I have more details available on soy.

Does Yeast Cause Acne


Severe inflammation, deep, painful cystic acne flare-ups on my chin and jawline.
Tested: Nutritional yeast seasoning and dozens of packaged product that contain yeast.
Note: It's been a long time since I tested nutritional yeast seasoning, may try again sometime.

Fermented Foods Can Cause Acne

Fermented Foods

Severe inflammation, deep, painful cystic acne on my chin and jawline. Very similar to a gluten breakout.
Tested: A variety of fermented foods including pickled products, kefir, apple cider vinegar, rice vinegar, foods containing vinegar, kombucha, wines, cacao, etc.
Note: Fermented foods are almost always touted as promoting good gut health and clear skin. So far that has not been my experience.

Apple Cider Vinegar Acne


Severe inflammation, deep, painful cystic acne on my chin and jawline. Very similar to a gluten breakout.
Tested: A variety of vinegars, foods and condiments that contain vinegar, including apple cider vinegar, rice vinegar, white vinegar, etc.
Note: As a fermented food, apple cider vinegar is touted as promoting a healthy gut, digestion and clear skin. So far that has not been my experience. Without a doubt, all forms of vinegar are a major cystic acne trigger for me. Check ingredient labels, vinegar is used in many condiments, dressings and packaged food items.

Does Wine Cause Acne

Wine and Alcohol

Severe inflammation, deep, painful cystic acne on my chin and jawline. Very similar to a gluten breakout.
Tested: A variety of wines, some liquors.
Note: Wine and other alcoholic beverages have the same affect on me as other fermented foods I've tried.

Carob Acne


Severe inflammation, deep, painful cystic acne flare-ups on my chin.
Tested: Unsweetened roasted carob powder.
Note: Oleic acid (Omega 9) is one of the main fatty acids present in Carob. An imbalance of fatty acids in the body can trigger inflammation, resulting in cystic acne. I've found foods that contain a "High Oleic" ingredient to be a trigger. I tried Carob hoping it would be a good replacement for Cacao, unfortunately it was worse. More research is needed.

Does Cacao Chocolate Cause Acne


Medium to severe inflammation (depending on amount eaten) breakouts side of nose, front of cheeks, upper lip near nose, between brows and chin.
Tested: A variety of dark chocolate and cacao, including unsweetened cacao powder.
Note: Cacao beans are fermented during the drying process before being ground into powder.

Sunflower Oil Causes Cystic Acne

Sunflower Oil

Medium inflammation, acne breakouts focused down center of face, nose, upper lip near nose, just below mouth and chin.
Tested: Many packaged foods, this one took me awhile to figure out, discovered the common denominator was sunflower oil.
Note: Often listed as "high oleic sunflower oil" on ingredient labels. Food manufacturers use this in everything because it's cheap and has a long shelf life. Check your labels on any packaged food items.

Nuts Cause Cystic Acne

Nuts and Nut Butters

Medium to severe inflammation, cystic acne breakout usually center of face, front of cheeks, near nose or on side of nose.
Tested: Several varieties of nuts. Macadamia nuts did not trigger any acne.
Note: Not all nuts are created equal, nuts with high omega 6 to 3 ratio triggered cystic acne. Omega 6 is pro-inflammatory when consumed in excess. Macadamia nuts had no affect. Macadamia nuts also have the lowest omega 6 content and one of the best omega 6 to 3 ratios of any nut. Although Brazil nuts are high in omega 6, they're also an excellent vegan source of selenium. I eat two Brazil nuts a day without any issues.

Seeds Cause Acne


Medium to severe inflammation, cystic acne breakout usually center of face, front of cheeks, near nose or on side of nose.
Tested: Several varieties of seeds, sunflower was worst. Flax seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds generally don't trigger acne for me, except for when I ate too many chia seeds in a day without soaking them.
Note: Similar to nuts, not all seeds are created equal. Seeds with high omega 6 to 3 ratio triggered acne breakouts. Sunflower seeds were particularly bad. Flax, chia and hemp seeds had no affect, they have the best omega 6 to 3 ratio. Flax seeds and Chia seeds are lower in omega 6 (pro-inflammatory) and higher in omega 3 (anti-inflammatory) making them the healthiest seeds we can eat. Hemp seeds win third place with an omega ratio of 4:1, another ideal omega ratio and very good anti-inflammatory healthy fat option.

If you're particularly sensitive, even Chia seeds can be difficult to digest and result in skin irritations if eaten too dry or too many in a day. In this case, make chia seed gel and allow them to fully absorb the liquid (usually overnight) then blend them in smoothies, etc.

Eating Oils Causes Acne

Fat and Oils

Yes even healthy plant fats can be a burden on our digestive system and cause skin issues if we eat too much of them.
Note: Avocado, nuts and seeds are all healthy in small amounts and provide beneficial nutrients our bodies need, such as omega 3 fatty acids. The key is to eat enough healthy plant fats to meet your daily requirements but anymore fat beyond that is best kept at a minimum. Eating a diet too high in fat and protein can cause cystic acne and chronic inflammation. Combine fat with sugar and you have a recipe for candida.

In the past I was getting about 30-36% of my calories from fat. But I've found I do much better when eating around 15% fat. (This is all while eating a whole food plant-based vegan diet.)

Oil is a hot topic, whether you're pro oil or pro oil-free is your choice. But studies recommend for optimum health it's best to minimize our oil consumption. We can discuss more on that in another post. If you're working towards lowering your fat intake, I recommend choosing seeds over nuts. And yes skinny people can be consuming too much fat, you'd be surprised how fast it adds up even in a healthy whole food plant based diet.

Peppers Can Cause Acne

Spices, Peppers and Nightshades

Medium to severe inflammation, small acne breakouts on chin or to the lower left or right of mouth. Tomatoes affected upper lip, on or around nose and front of cheeks.
Tested: Bell Peppers (all colors), Baby Bell Peppers, Jalapeños. Dried spices: Paprika, Cayenne, Chili pepper flakes, Chili powder, Garlic and garlic powder. And some varieties of Tomatoes, the grape and cherry tomatoes caused acne.
Note: Spice and Pepper breakouts were slow to heal, very dry and peeling, as if the spice was burning and exfoliating layers of skin cells as it was being eliminated through the skin. Peppers are in the Nightshade family, Nightshades are known to cause issues for many people. When eating regular tomatoes there doesn't seem to be an affect but I also have always preferred avoid most of the seeds. With grape and cherry tomatoes we eat the entire fruit, seeds and all. Only the grape and cherry tomatoes triggered the acne breakout. My theory is the seeds are the source of the problem, at least for some while others are unable to tolerate any part of the Nightshade plant.

Update: Garlic has been added to the list of offenders. I suspected garlic last year and eliminated it from my diet, recently I reintroduced garlic powder and it triggered a cystic acne breakout similar to a black pepper breakout.

Black Pepper Causes Acne

Black Pepper

Medium to severe inflammation (depending on amount eaten), cystic acne flare-ups on chin.
Tested: Black pepper
Note: Spices have long been implicated as a cause of gastric mucosal injury. Studies have shown both red and black pepper cause potassium loss, gastric cell exfoliation and even gastric bleeding in some people.

Sugar Causes Acne

Refined Sugar

Increased inflammation, skin visibly irritated, redness and small surface acne on forehead but not cystic in nature. Sugar breakouts appear as uneven skin texture due to a "blanket" of micro acne across skin surface.
Tested: All kinds of food and beverages containing added sugar. I can always recognize a sugar breakout and the overall effect sugar has on skin.
Note: We're not talking about fruit here. We're talking about refined sugars, this means packaged foods and beverages that contain added sugar. Studies show refined added sugar triggers inflammation in the body. And for the love of Jupiter quit drinking soft drinks and that includes Diet Cokes! Stop it! And anything else that contains high-fructose corn syrup or caramel coloring should not be going in your body!

When I'm at home I avoid eating anything with added sugar. When traveling I'm more flexible and enjoy indulging in a vegan cupcake, plant based nice-cream or some other treat with Michael but I save those splurges for special occasions maybe a couple times a year.

Fruit Juice Bad For You

Fruit Juice

Sugar breakout, increased redness, skin visibly irritated, small surface acne on forehead but not cystic in nature. Sugar breakouts appear as uneven skin texture due to a "blanket" of micro acne across skin surface.
Tested: Several unsweetened/no sugar added store-bought juices including orange juice, coconut water, etc.
Note: Eating whole fruit and fruit smoothies made at home has no acne triggering affect, only fruit juice. Even 100% fruit juice with "no sugar added" is naturally loaded with highly concentrated sugar and without the beneficial fruit fiber to slow sugar absorption, drinking fruit juice can burden our liver and affect our skin. Particularly when eating a high fat diet, excessive fat intake directly affects our bodies ability to digest sugar.

One exception may be low glycemic fruit juices such as unsweetened cranberry juice, etc. Also juicing at home and combining fruit with greens in juices is ok. But if you're acne prone it's best to be consuming most of your fruit as a whole food, fiber and all.

I prefer to eat the whole fruit or make smoothie bowls and fruit smoothies. Although I love coconut water, I limit my intake, it only takes about 14oz to trigger the redness and micro acne.

Dried Fruit Acne

Dried Fruit

Sugar breakout, increased redness, small minor surface acne on forehead but not cystic in nature. Sugar breakouts appear as uneven skin texture due to a "blanket" of micro acne across skin surface.
Tested: Several varieties of unsweetened dried fruit.
Note: Eating dried fruit is ok, especially if you're making it in your own dehydrator at home. But it's a sweet treat that's easy to overeat and it's naturally high sugar content can affect our skin if we eat too much of it.

I eat dried fruits but I make sure to only eat one serving at a time. Skip the dried fruits with added sugar, go for pure unsweetened fruit (no sugar added). Even this new Watermelon Jerky from Trader Joes is so sweet it tastes like cotton candy. Well... cotton candy that's been flattened out and turned into jerky. These mulberries and figs are some of our favorites.

Strawberries Can Cause Acne


Increased redness, skin visibly irritated, small minor surface acne (which I refer to as micro acne) on forehead, creates texture on skin surface but not cystic in nature.
Tested: Fresh strawberries.
Note: Eating a few strawberries is ok but eating a bowl full causes my skin to react, the same as a sugar breakout. I found this interesting because most fruit usually doesn't cause any issues for me.

Update: Since lowering my fat consumption I can now eat an abundance of strawberries without any issues. No more irritated skin or surface breakouts. My guess is, my previously higher fat diet was blocking glucose (sugar) from being utilized by cells causing an overflow of sugar in my bloodstream. It's no wonder a high fat diet leads to diabetes. The body can only handle this situation for so long.

Blackberries Cause Acne


Small minor surface acne or whiteheads on or around the nose, upper lip area towards nose but not cystic in nature.
Tested: Fresh blackberries.
Note: Eating any amount of blackberries seems to trigger this, interestingly the breakouts are very different than a strawberry or sugar breakout. My theory is the blackberry seeds may be the actual cause. Or pesticide residue. The last time I tested blackberries they weren't organic. I plan to re-test with organic blackberries to see if there's a difference.

Lemon Water Bad For You

Lemon Water

Severe inflammation, deep, painful cystic acne on my chin, jawline and neck near lymph nodes.
Tested: Drinking a glass of fresh lemon water every morning, spritz of lemon juice on salads.
Note: This one took awhile to figure out. Its a perfect example of adding something healthy to your diet thinking you're helping things. My theory is the pungent acidic nature of lemon can irritate the stomach lining and digestive system, causing gastric cell exfoliation and possibly gastric bleeding in some people, similar to pepper and hot spices.

Funny the only reason I started drinking lemon water is because everywhere you look on the internet lemon water is touted as promoting clear skin. My skin was already doing pretty good but I figured lemon water seems healthy enough, let's try it. When the breakouts emerged I thought it was something else in my diet. I did a round of eliminations with other foods and I kept drinking the lemon water thinking it would help but soon realized it was the trigger! It was the last thing I thought to check, I never imagined a little lemon water could cause such intense cystic acne. Now it's possible drinking lemon water every morning was just too much for my delicate digestive system but I've also tested having a little spritz of lemon juice on salad and I could feel the inflammation starting. What about other citrus fruits? Well I've always eaten grapefruits and oranges without any problem. What about lime? Not sure, I'll have to put it to the test and report back.

Maca Causes Cystic Acne


Severe inflammation, deep, painful cystic acne on my chin and jawline.
Tested: Gelatinized Maca powder in smoothies at home. I did not test raw Maca powder... yet.
Note: Another fine example of trying to add something that's considered a healthy superfood and having it backfire. Loved the taste of in my ice blended beverages but my liver and skin didn't approve.

Legumes Cause Acne


Testing in progress: The jury is still out, I can update here later but for now I'll mention a few things. Eating too many raw sugar snap peas has triggered cystic acne on my chin and jawline, which tells me it's irritating the digestive system. I've never had any issues with pinto beans or garbanzo beans. Still experimenting with lentils and other varieties.
Note: Legumes have been known to cause digestive issues for many people.

Update: I've been eating lentils and haven't experienced any issues. Lentils were a suspect but it turned out that the spices and garlic powder I used to season them were the cystic acne triggers.

Peanuts, Peanut Butter, Peanut Oil Cause Acne


Severe inflammation, deep, painful cystic acne all over face.
Tested: Peanuts, peanut butter and peanut oil.
Note: Peanuts, peanut butter and peanut oil are all major cystic acne triggers for me. I avoid it like the plague.


Let's recap. If you're suffering from chronic inflammation and/or cystic acne I want you to take a closer look at these areas in your diet.

Fermented Foods
Spicy Spices
Acidic/Pungent Foods
Gastric Irritants

Let's simplify this further... We're looking for Fats, Sugars and Digestive System Irritants.

Face Mapping Acne

This is where you become a detective. We'll talk more about that in the next post.

Got questions or comments? Leave them below and I'll do my best to get back to you.

See you soon!

Your friend,

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  1. I really appreciate how much detail you put into your videos and blogs about how certain foods can affect the body negatively. I have been on different diets for the last 8 years and am always trying to find something that is do-able and able to make me feel better. After curing my fibromyalgia with diet and stopping ALL medications I kinda went lax after being so strict for 2 years straight. I've been gluten free 8 years and vegan 3.5 years but I could do better in fresh food consumption, since everything I eat seems to bother me the last few weeks. I'm so glad you mentioned the cronometer app, cuz I can see how much imbalance in certain macros I'm eating. I really appreciate the Healing with Foods series. Thank you so much for these videos, they have helped motivate me to do better for my health.

  2. The jawline is also hormones.