The Bittersweet Reality of Sugar and Its Effects on Your Skin

The Fall season is upon us and with it comes many delicious sweets and treats. Whether it’s a tasty s’more with a perfectly toasted marshmallow smooshed in between a piece of chocolate and two graham crackers, or a warm apple pie paired with a pumpkin spice latte. The temptations are endless. While these sweets often satisfy our palette, they may be doing the exact opposite with our skin, ultimately leading unwanted breakouts and pimples. Looking at the effects of sugar on your skin, as well as the types of sugar that affect your skin, you can make informed choices on the foods you want to indulge in and how to care for your skin from the inside out.


The Science Behind Sugar and Skin

It isn’t until more recent years that research has been conducted to debunk the myth that diet and acne are unrelated. An article published in the Journal of Clinical Aesthetic Dermatology stated that more recent research has provided strong support for diet as a potential cause of acne. To support this, the ingestion of sugar has been related to accelerated signs of aging, particularly in the loss of the skin’s elasticity and sagging skin. These changes in skin are associated with a weakening of the elastic and collagen fibers that keep our skin supple and can be impacted by diet.


From Insulin to Inflammation

Simply put, sugar leads to the production of insulin and higher blood glucose levels. Once these rise, studies have shown differences in sebum production and the bioavailability of androgen, all of which play a role in causing acne. When insulin increases, you can also experiences rises in inflammation that can aggravate skin conditions like acne and eczema.

At a cellular level, sugar can lead to malfunctions in the ways in which protein is utilized in the body and lead to a process known as glycation. During glycation, a substance called advanced glycation end product (AGE) is produced and can break down elastin and degrade collagen, potentially leading to less firm and more wrinkled skin. One high sugar meal will not cause you to age or develop diabetes overnight, but it is important to keep in mind that over time, the effects of sugar on your skin and overall health are significant.

The Difference Between Added Sugars and Naturally Occurring Sugars

Now that you have a better understanding of the ways in which sugar affects your skin, how does eating a mango differ from eating a bag of skittles? It’s all the same sugar right?


There are many different types of sugar, all of which can have a different impact on your body. Naturally occurring sugars are simple to remember because these are found naturally in foods like fruit and milk – nothing extra is added. According to the American Heart Association, added sugars are those in which sugar was added during the process or preparation of food. The Western diet is particularly high in added sugars found in foods and drinks like candy, cookies, ice cream, yogurts, pies, and sodas.

Low-Glycemic vs. High Glycemic

The glycemic index may be more helpful when determining which foods may or may not affect your skin because it ranks foods based on how they affect blood glucose levels. Keep in mind that not all fruits or unprocessed foods have a low glycemic index and not all processed foods have a high glycemic index.

Low Glycemic Index: These foods are given a value of 55 or less and are typically processed, digested, and absorbed more slowly which mans the rise in blood sugar levels is also slow and steady. The Mayo Clinic lists green vegetables, most fruits, beans, and bran breakfast cereals as having a low glycemic index. These foods are less likely to have detrimental effects on your skin because they do not cause a rapid spike in blood sugar levels.

High Glycemic Index: These foods are given a value of 70 or higher and cause a spike in blood sugar and insulin levels. Foods with a high glycemic index not only put your skin at risk, but are also dangerous for individuals with diabetes and can lead to other health problems like heart disease and obesity. Processed and starchy foods, as well as sugary drinks may be the more obvious high glycemic foods, but watermelon, honey, instant oatmeal, and pumpkin are also found on this list. This is not to say you have to eliminate these foods from your diet overall, but knowing their place on the glycemic index may be telling of why a breakout occurred after eating that delicious pumpkin pie.

As briefly mentioned, the Glycemic Index value tells you nothing about the nutritional value of the food you’re eating. For example, watermelon has a high glycemic index, but it also has very low levels of digestible carbohydrates, meaning you would have to eat a lot of watermelon for an increase in blood glucose levels (and therefore potential breakouts) to appear.

What Can You Expect with a Low Sugar Diet

Reducing your sugar intake is a big commitment, especially since processed and added sugars are found in so many of the yummy foods we eat. If you do decide to cut back, it is possible that within a week you’ll notice better energy levels, reduce puffy eye circles, and a brighter complexion. When you eat sugar, it can increase oil production because it acts as a dehydrating agent in your skin. As the skin becomes dehydrated, the skin looks less “alive” with dark circles and a dull complexion.

Eliminating sugar completely is not realistic and is also not the healthiest option. It is best to be mindful about the foods you are eating and making sure your meals are balanced. For instance, if you do decide to follow a diet primarily composed of low-glycemic foods, it’s important to maintain a normal caloric intake and ensure your protein levels are increased. On a lighter note, how can you expect fully enjoy Halloween without your favorite treat?!

There are many other factors than can contribute to acne and skin breakouts from genetics to environmental toxins, so enjoy your sweets every now and then, but always keep it in moderation. Your skin and your body will thank you.

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