When it comes to advice about getting clear skin, I take everything with a grain of salt.
There has always been lots of advice to help clear your skin. When I was in middle school, everyone swore that if you stopped eating potato chips, you’re skin would clear up. Then, throughout high school and college, there was always some solution someone offered me: try this, stop eating that, find out if you have any allergies.
The truth is for some people there is no miracle cure for acne. No matter how much I avoided potato chips in middle school, I still had acne. No matter how much I tried the things people suggested for my skin, very few of them caused any real difference.
I have noticed a huge improvement in my skin since cutting dairy, which was a huge challenge (and one I still struggle with because, I love cheese), but that took actual months to see any sort of change—and the change was incredibly gradual. (You can read my posts about quitting dairy here and here.)
Lately, I’ve seen a ton of posts claiming that switching to a plant-based, or essentially vegan, diet can improve your skin. This sounds like a lot of claims I’ve had repeated to me over and over again (about cutting carbs, or not eating greasy foods, or eating less sugar) about improving your skin through diet… and I was of course immediately suspicious.
Today, I wanted to talk about the claims for a plant-based diet and improving acne.
You Don’t Owe Anyone Clear Skin
First and foremost, here’s something to remember: none of us owe anyone clear skin. It’s ok to have acne. Acne is just a thing that happens. I spent a long time trying to improve my acne—trying just about everything and damaging my skin in the process. (You can read about my acne journey here.) It was only really recently that it clicked for me that, just as I don’t owe anyone a body that looks a certain way, I don’t owe the world clear skin—and at the end of the day, people who know and love me aren’t judging me for having “bad” skin.
This is all to say: if you’re here, reading this post feeling desperate about your skin, just remember you don’t owe it to anybody. It’s ok to want clear skin for yourself—that’s your right—but if nothing is working, it’s ok to throw in the towel. It’s ok to love your skin, and everything it does for you, even if you have acne.
The Evidence is Wrapped in Diet Culture
I’m going to avoid linking to most of the articles I read—and the reason is because a lot of the information I found, including those from registered dietitians, is wrapped up and packaged in diet culture.
A prime example is one of the top results when you google “does eating plant-based improve skin?” isn’t an article about skin, necessarily; it’s an article about the “health benefits” of eating plant-based, or vegan, and it starts off talking about losing weight and different diets in comparison to eating plant-based or vegan.
This is not great.
I am automatically suspicious of any expert who starts an article listing various diets she recommends to clients for “health” and “weight loss”. Most leading experts now understand that you can be healthy at every size. (Christy Harrison’s podcast Food Psych is a great one for more information on this!)
It is concerning that many people frame eating plant-based as a “diet”. Yes, eating more fruits & vegetables is better for our bodies—but that doesn’t necessarily always lead to losing weight for some people. Even worse, many of the articles asserted that eating plant-based improved your skin because “you lose weight”. Listen, vegans are a lovely bunch, but even they know that eating vegan won’t necessarily lead to weight loss (and it doesn’t have to to be a good and valid way of eating).
This was a red flag for me. Is diet culture seeping into skincare? Honestly, yes: both are wrapped up in societal ideas of what our bodies and skin should look like. Already, people will talk about eating clean and using “nontoxic” (or “chemical free”) products in the same breath. Using “clean” skincare isn’t inherently better than anything else, just as eating “clean” isn’t a better way to eat. When you try to apply diets to skincare, you get into a slippery slope of diet talk—and, whew, I don’t really want any of us to go there.
There’s No Statistical Evidence
There is no research data, currently, regarding whether a plant-based diet improves acne. At this point in time, all the information I found was purely anecdotal from RD’s who had commented to magazines and websites. Without statistical evidence, there really is no way to say something for sure… so it is concerning to see so many people recommending eating entirely plant-based to improve acne.
Without some kind of science to back up a statement, I’m not going to take someone’s word for it—especially when their word is often wrapped up in framing one way of eating as inherently better, or more moral, than another (or frames their evidence in diet culture). Veganism, and eating plant-based, is great; I’m going to keep repeating that because it’s true. It’s better for the environment; it is more nutritious than eating more processed foods (although one isn’t better than the other inherently); and it can help you feel good.
But can it improve your skin? I haven’t been able to find a single study, besides the word of a few dermatologists and nutritionists that are not cited.
Genetics vs. Environment
What determines what our skin is like?
Here’s a pretty good guess: look at your parents. Have they taken care of their skin? Do they smoke? If the answer is, they take care of their skin and they don’t smoke, then that’s pretty much genetically what you’re going to look like. If one of your parents had bad acne as a teenager, you have a 50/50 chance of also having bad acne at the onset of puberty. And if your parents are oily-skinned or look young into their late 30s and 40s, then, guess what, that’s probably what your skin is going to be like.
Our skin is like any other organ. There are things we can do to help it work better and there are some things we can’t. Some of us, genetically, have weaker hearts (or congenital defects), and some of us have heartier organs. Some of us are just going to have skin that is more difficult than others—and there is little we can do about it.
Sometimes, that’s the bad thing about skincare. Our skin isn’t quite as absorbent as we think it is (and despite what those MLM scaremongering graphics say, very little of what our skin absorbs gets to our bloodstream) and even with the best skincare regimen out there, there are some things we just cannot change. That’s an unfortunate fact.
This is all to say: you can’t necessarily eat anything to make your skin different from how it’s going to look genetically.
If you have hormonal acne, it’s entirely possible that dropping certain food groups might help—although it’s no guarantee. I’ve had good luck with quitting dairy, but I still get the occasional hormonal cyst; that’s because, genetically, I’m just prone to them. It sucks, but it’s facts.
It will probably benefit you, health wise, to eat more plant-based and vegan foods. Will it change your skin overnight or even within 6 months? It’s possible, but again, no guarantee.