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How Fatty Foods Affect Acne

Currently, There Is No Evidence That Fatty or Oily Foods Cause or Worsen Acne

By: Dan Kern, Acne.org Founder & CSO
Last updated: May 29, 2020

The Essential Information

Increased production of skin oil, which is made of different types of fat, contributes to acne. Since skin oil is made of fats, and some foods contain fats, researchers wonder if fatty and oily foods are linked to acne.

The answer is not clear.

Current research on the relationship between fatty foods and acne is limited. Further confounding the topic is the presence of both good and bad fats in foods. Good fats like omega-3s could be beneficial for acne, while bad fats like saturated fats could prove detrimental.

Furthermore, since fatty food contains more calories, it could be the calorie content in fatty food, and not the fat itself in the food, that would lead to an increase in acne symptoms.

The Bottom Line: At this time, there is no conclusive relationship between the amount or type of fat in the diet and acne, so there is no need to stress out about the amount of fat you have in your diet when it comes to acne.

The Science

Fat is an important part of the diet and is necessary for the body to function properly. But can the wrong types of fat, or too much fat, lead to acne? First let's look at the types of fat and how they differ.

Specific Types of Fat - Why A Balance Is Important

Fat comes in various forms, some of which are good for the body, and some of which are potentially harmful. Since the skin is the body's biggest organ, it stands to reason that the type of fat consumed might also affect the skin.

Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids

Two of the most important fats in food are fatty acids called omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids. In a typical Western diet, it is far more difficult to consume adequate amounts of omega-3 fatty acids than it is to get the omega-6 fatty acids that your body needs.

Fish and seafood are rich in the omega-3 variety. Oils, nuts, some meats, some vegetables, and some grains are high in the omega-6 variety.

When too many omega-6 fatty acids are consumed and too few omega-3 fatty acids, inflammation may result. Since acne is primarily an inflammatory disease, this could hypothetically lead to more acne.

In a 2009 Dermato-Endocrinology article, the author stated:


"Epidemiological studies have shown that increasing the intake of omega-3 fatty acids through a diet rich in fish and seafood lowers rates of acne."1

This is most likely because omega-3 fats tend to be anti-inflammatory, and acne is an inflammatory disease. On the other hand, omega-6 fatty acids may increase inflammation and, therefore, acne.

In order to maintain a healthy balance between these two fatty acids, we should consider the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in various diets. A ratio is the relationship between two items.

For example, one serving of food may contain 2 omega-6 fatty acids and 1 omega-3 fatty acid. This would be a 2:1 (two-to-one) ratio. One serving of a different food may contain 10 omega-6 fatty acids and 1 omega-3 fatty acid. We would call this a 10:1 (ten-to-one) ratio.

Research suggests that as the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids increases, inflammation also increases.2 As shown in the chart below, the ratio of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids in the average Western diet is far greater than that in an average non-Western diet.1-3 Moving our diet back toward a non-Western ratio might help reduce bodily inflammation, and thus, acne.

Ratio of Omega-6 Fatty Acids to Omega-3 Fatty Acids in the Average Diet

Can Eating Fat Increase Skin Oil Production In the Skin and Lead to More Acne?

The skin contains millions of pores, where acne can form. Attached to the sides of these pores are tiny glands called sebaceous glands, whose job is to produce skin oil. This skin oil, called sebum, is comprised of various fats.

More sebum normally means more acne. So, would eating too much fat in the diet cause the body to over-produce sebum? We don't know this yet, but let's have a closer look at sebum and how eating fat might affect it.

Sebum (Skin Oil)

Sebum is made of different types of fat, such as triglycerides, free fatty acids, and cholesterol.

Composition of Sebum (Skin Oil)

Fatty and oily foods also contain triglycerides, free fatty acids, and cholesterol. One fatty acid in particular, palmitic acid, is of particular interest when we look at how food might affect sebum development. Palmitic acid is present in many foods, including red meat, butter, milk, cheese, and some oils like palm oil, soybean oil, and corn oil.

Palmitic acids - can this fatty acid lead to sebum production?

Sebaceous glands use palmitic acid to form wax esters, which are types of fat that are found only in sebum. This means that the body uses palmitic acid specifically to produce sebum since wax esters are not found elsewhere in the body. This led the researchers to believe that diet probably influences sebum production and, consequently, acne formation.4

However, we must remember that sebum production is a normal process.5 Although scientists know that palmitic acids are used to make wax esters and that wax esters are used to produce sebum, its role in acne formation remains unknown.

In addition, industrially-produced trans fatty acids, such as those found in fast food, are chemically similar to palmitic acid. It is possible that these fatty acids might also play a role in increasing acne. However, there have been no rigorous studies testing the potential connection between industrially-produced trans fatty acids and acne.6

In short, we simply do not know at this point whether eating more fatty foods, or even fatty foods high in palmitic acid, will increase sebum production. To know the answer to this, researchers will need to perform a long-term randomized controlled trial (RCT), and this has yet to occur.

High-Calorie Content of Fatty Foods

Fat is high in calories. In fact, one gram of fat contains 9 calories, while one gram of carbohydrate or protein contains only 4 calories.

High-calorie, fatty fast food options, such as hamburgers, fries, and pizza, are easy to obtain and eat. One study suggests that, on average, a person visiting a fast food restaurant buys a meal containing 827 calories. That one meal makes up almost half of the normal daily calorie intake - 2000 calories for an average adult.

Since fatty foods tend to be high in calories, researchers have considered whether the high-calorie content of fatty food contributes to acne rather than the fat in the food itself.7

High-calorie Content of Fatty Foods

How increased calories might lead to more acne

The number of calories in the diet directly affects the levels of certain substances in the body, such as glucose, insulin, and insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1).8,9 Eating high-calorie foods can bring about high glucose levels. One of the functions of insulin and IGF-1 is to help keep glucose levels normal. When glucose levels are high, levels of insulin and IGF-1 also may increase in order to help bring glucose levels back to normal. High levels of insulin and IGF-1 have been linked to increased sebum production.

In other words, since increased sebum production contributes to acne, high-calorie fatty foods might contribute to acne formation through indirectly increasing insulin and IGF-1.10

Surveys Investigating the Potential Link Between Fatty Foods and Acne

Researchers have conducted questionnaire surveys investigating the potential link between fatty foods and acne. The results of these surveys hint at an association between certain foods, including fatty foods, and acne. However, unlike randomized controlled trials (RCTs), which can tell researchers if one factor causes another, survey studies only give us a glimpse at a big picture at one point in time. Since surveys are far less reliable than RCTs, we cannot use them to draw a definitive conclusion on fatty food and acne.

Results of the surveys are presented in the chart below.11-14

Questionnaire Surveys Indicating the Link Between Fatty Foods and Acne

Based on the lack of any RCTs, evidence linking fat intake to acne formation is weak.15 In order to determine whether there is a relationship between fatty foods and acne, researchers will need to conduct RCTs.16

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  1. Picardo, M., Ottaviani, M., Camera, E. & Mastrofrancesco, A. Sebaceous gland lipids. Dermatoendocrinol 1, 68 - 71 (2009). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20224686
  2. Spencer, E. H., Ferdowsian, H. R. & Barnard, N. D. Diet and acne: a review of the evidence. Int J Dermatol 48, 339 - 347 (2009). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19335417
  3. Wall, R., Ross, R. P., Fitzgerald, G. F. & Stanton, C. Fatty acids from fish: the anti-inflammatory potential of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. Nutr Rev 68, 280 - 289 (2010). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20500789
  4. Pappas, A., Anthonavage, M. & Gordon, J. S. Metabolic fate and selective utilization of major fatty acids in human sebaceous gland. J Invest Dermatol 118, 164 - 171 (2002). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11851890
  5. Melnik, B. C. Western diet-induced imbalances of FoxO1 and mTORC1 signalling promote the sebofollicular inflammasomopathy acne vulgaris. Exp Dermatol 25, 103 - 104 (2016). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26567085
  6. Melnik, B.C. Linking diet to acne metabolomics, inflammation, and comedogenesis: an update. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol 8, 371-388 (2015). https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26203267/
  7. Dumanovsky, T., Nonas, C. A., Huang, C. Y., Silver, L. D. & Bassett, M. T. What people buy from fast-food restaurants: caloric content and menu item selection, New York City 2007. Obesity (Silver Spring) 17, 1369 - 1374 (2009). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19343015
  8. Pasiakos, S. M., Caruso, C. M., Kellogg, M. D., Kramer, F. M. & Lieberman, H. R. Appetite and endocrine regulators of energy balance after 2 days of energy restriction: insulin, leptin, ghrelin, and DHEA-S. Obesity (Silver Spring) 19, 1124 - 1130 (2011). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21212768
  9. Henning, P. C. et al. Effects of acute caloric restriction compared to caloric balance on the temporal response of the IGF-I system. Metabolism 62, 179 - 187 (2013). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22906764
  10. Rasmussen, J. E. Diet and acne. Int J Dermatol 16, 488 - 492 (1977). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/142748
  11. Adebamowo, C. A. et al. High school dietary dairy intake and teenage acne. J Am Acad Dermatol 52, 207 - 214 (2005). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15692464
  12. Ghodsi, S. Z., Orawa, H. & Zouboulis, C. C. Prevalence, severity, and severity risk factors of acne in high school pupils: a community-based study. J Invest Dermatol 129, 2136 - 2141 (2009). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19282841
  13. Jung, J. Y. et al. The influence of dietary patterns on acne vulgaris in Koreans. Eur J Dermatol 20, 768 - 772 (2010). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20822969
  14. Burris, J., Rietkerk, W. & Woolf, K. Relationships of self-reported dietary factors and perceived acne severity in a cohort of New York young adults. J Acad Nutr Diet 114, 384 - 392 (2014). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24412232
  15. Davidovici, B. B. & Wolf, R. The role of diet in acne: facts and controversies. Clin Dermatol 28, 12 - 16 (2010). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20082944
  16. Burris, J., Rietkerk, W. & Woolf, K. Acne: the role of medical nutrition therapy. J Acad Nutr Diet 113, 416 - 430 (2013). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23438493

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