Winning the battle against teen acne

If you notice your teen spending more time than usual in front of the mirror, it may be due to the discovery of his or her first pimple. The same hormones that cause changes in height, shape, body hair and odor at the outset of puberty also influence your child’s complexion. Sadly, the onset of blemishes can put a damper on your child’s self-image.

The role of diet and acne has come full circle over the years. Medical guidelines in the 1970s and before pointed to diet as a cause. Then in the 1980s, the dermatology community downplayed diet, primarily attributing acne to genetics and hormonal changes. With a greater understanding of how diet may affect endocrine factors involved, today there is a renewed appreciation of the diet-acne connection.

Generally speaking, in addition to obtaining enough sleep and keeping the skin clean, the best approach to good skin is an overall varied and balanced diet. Yet there are certain dietary factors that may also have a significant impact on your teen’s skin.

American diet

It’s fascinating to note that the standardized American diet may be to blame. Teens who live in primitive societies do not experience breakouts. Perhaps this is due to a diet low in processed foods, but rich in fruits, vegetables, and fish?


A number of studies point to dairy foods as having an acne-stimulating effect in susceptible individuals. It’s speculated that the hormones and bioactive compounds in milk may be the culprits. For example, one study out of the University of Oslo this year concluded that consuming dairy is a possible contributing factor to acne in teens. In the three-year study, teenagers who drank more than two glasses of milk daily experienced worse acne.

Fat free milk is a greater culprit than higher fat milk, possibly due to the additional whey protein and casein added to make the “thin” milk look less watery. Also, whey protein concentrates, commonly found in popular sports supplements, may aggravate the severity of acne.

What’s the connection? Researchers believe that dairy products may increase sex hormones, which increase sebum production, leading to an increase in acne. For now, reducing or even eliminating them for a month or so is worth a try. In that case, encourage your teen to look for alternative sources of both calcium and vitamin D.

Glycemic load

There is compelling research to support a low-glycemic-load diet in minimizing breakouts. A high glycemic load diet increases the amount of insulin in the bloodstream, which turns on a hormonal response that promotes the production and secretion of sebum, aggravating acne. To reduce the glycemic load of your child’s diet, encourage him to cut back on sugary beverages and energy drinks, as well as foods high in refined carbohydrates such as pasta, cookies, candy, and cake.


A high fat diet — greasy pizza, anyone? — was long thought to contribute to the development of blemishes. And omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish are thought of as being beneficial. Yet the evidence linking total fat or the type of fat is weak at this time.


This one goes back several generations. The research suggests no correlation between chocolate in the role of the development or worsening of acne. If your teen notices a reaction to chocolate, it may be due to the other ingredients in it such as sugar, nuts, or milk.

The best method of treating teenage skin problems may be “tincture of time,” as many teens simply outgrow their skin conditions as their hormones settle down. Of course, if skin problems are severe or persist over a long period of time, speaking to a dermatologist is a good idea.

Christine Palumbo is a Naperville-registered dietitian nutritionist who is a new Fellow of the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Follow her on Twitter @PalumboRD, Facebook at Christine Palumbo Nutrition, or Chris@ChristinePalumbo.com.