Can A Christmas Diet Really Harm Your Skin? Here’s What Derms Say

Photographed by Laura Chen.
Apart from spending time with friends and family, giving and receiving gifts and (hopefully) taking some well-deserved time off, arguably the best thing about the festive season is the long-awaited spread. It starts with breakfast (perhaps a glass of bucks fizz or an entire chocolate Santa) before diving headfirst into the cheeseboard. You might disagree about which of the trimmings constitutes top tier festive food but one thing is for certain: your eating habits are bound to change a little in the next couple of weeks.
While a good festive feast is the ultimate treat, that hasn't stopped various beauty enthusiasts from using the holidays as an excuse to share questionable skincare advice linked to diet. If you have a TikTok or Instagram account, you might have come across phrases such as 'cheese face', 'wine face', 'chocolate face' and even 'gluten face', suggesting that eating 'too much' — or any amount — of any of the above has the potential to harm your skin. The guidance is often linked to face mapping — a school of thought that proposes certain skin gripes (like acne on the forehead and cheeks or dark circles) are exacerbated by diet, in particular indulging.
An expression like 'cheese face' is probably the last thing you want to hear when you're looking forward to a festive get-together. Happily, according to expert dermatologists and nutritionists, it might all be nonsense. "I would encourage people to be highly sceptical of this information because there is no data to support it," says consultant dermatologist Dr Anjali Mahto. She explains that it comes back to alternative medicine and a belief that certain parts of your body aren't working properly, which may be manifesting on your face. "If you look at the anatomy and physiology of the skin, though, and what Western medicine believes, there is absolutely no logic to that," says Dr Mahto, who suggests dismissing anything related to cheese face (and, for that matter, sugar face, wine face and gluten face).
It pays to break it down. Kelly Light, registered associate nutritionist (ANutr), says that when it comes to specific foods such as cheese, the link between dairy and skin issues is lacking in evidence. "Some people may anecdotally report cheese and other dairy-containing foods affecting their skin but this is not supported by research, and on the whole, it is certainly not recommended that people cut dairy from their diet in the hope of it benefiting their skin," says Kelly. "Dairy is incredibly nutritious and removing it from the diet will not guarantee better skin." All the more reason not to swerve the cheeseboard entirely.
Sugar is a little more complicated — and another aspect of our diet that's often demonised for causing skin issues, says Kelly. "Though more research is needed, there is indeed a growing body of evidence suggesting that high glycemic index foods (i.e. those that cause a spike in our blood sugar levels) may negatively impact our skin." Dr Mahto explains that there is data that shows that in female adult acne, for some people, eating a lot of food that is high in refined sugars (she cites cakes, biscuits and pizza among other examples) could cause this spike. It's important to hold onto the words 'a lot' here. Without subjecting you to a snooze-worthy science lesson, Dr Derrick Phillips, consultant dermatologist and British Skin Foundation spokesperson, says it is thought that spikes in sugar increase the levels of the hormone insulin-like growth factor 1. "This stimulates oil production and increases inflammation, promoting acne. But it is likely to be an important effect with long-term dietary behaviours." Dr Mahto also mentions that we're wearing face masks constantly nowadays so breakouts may be caused by many different factors — not just the odd handful of Celebrations.
Kelly says this doesn't mean we should be cutting sugar from our diets and recommends taking a more balanced approach. She explains that restricting our diets can sometimes lead to unhealthy relationships with food, which can impact negatively on our mental health. "For many people, this is often already a consequence of being unhappy with their skin," she says. "It's better to follow general public health guidance on sugar, which is to enjoy it in moderation and on occasion but not all day, every day. Over the Christmas period, we really should be allowing ourselves the freedom to enjoy some festive, often sugary foods."
Alcohol is an interesting one, too. Wine and cocktails contain more sugar than spirits such as gin and vodka, for example, but again, it all comes down to moderation. "Alcohol can have a dehydrating impact on the skin, among other effects," says Kelly, for example reducing quality of sleep, which could make you feel and look tired. "While we all enjoy having a few festive drinks, it can benefit your skin (and other aspects of your health) to ensure you also drink water in between drinks," adds Kelly. Dr Mahto explains that when it comes to specific foods, for the vast majority of people, eating and drinking a little bit more sugar or alcohol every now and again is not going to have a negative impact on the skin. She encourages looking at your diet over a sustained period of time, rather than worrying about treating yourself occasionally.
Dr Mahto suggests that the philosophy around cheese and wine face (which looks at cutting out food as a quick fix) can actually be damaging during the festive season. "If you're eating 'badly' for one day or for a couple of days but for the rest of the time you’re pretty good about your other lifestyle factors (for example exercising and eating well), it'll be much more about long-term behaviours and long-term eating." If you notice more skin gripes during the festive period, it might not all be down to your diet, says Dr Mahto. "It's hard to pinpoint. Is it just the food or is it a combination of lots of things you're doing on repeat, which may lead to the skin getting worse?"
Dr Mahto says any skin gripes may be a result of combined lifestyle changes rather than specific foods. "We drink a lot more alcohol, we go out and when we get home, we're very tired. We might not take our makeup off and we get to bed late at night so often do not get good quality sleep. If you're tired the next day, this can put stress on the skin and body. The following day, if you're hungover, your body is dehydrated and you're going to be making fewer good dietary choices as a result. It's that pattern of eating, drinking, going out and not getting enough sleep. All of these lifestyle factors feed into each other, which can potentially cause skin issues." Dr Mahto is cautious of those who are not able to enjoy a glass of wine or have a little bit of chocolate. "All of these things can be part of a healthy diet, provided they are in moderation."
From a nutritionist's point of view, it is wrong to assume that certain foods will present issues in very specific places on the face, as face mapping suggests. "We are all unique and our bodies are very complex," says Kelly. Dr Phillips agrees. "There is no scientific basis for face mapping and certainly from a dermatological perspective it does not make sense. There is no physiological mechanism that would explain it." Put simply, a few glasses of mulled wine isn't going to give you wrinkles or eye bags. "It's also worth noting that what we eat and drink around the festive period accounts for just a very small proportion of what we consume in a whole year," says Kelly. "What we eat over the course of a few days or even a couple of weeks is unlikely to have much of an impact in the long run. Christmas (and the food that comes with it) is a time to be enjoyed." Dr Phillips concurs. "It is unlikely that indulging over several days is going to have a significant impact on your skin," he says, suggesting a long-term diet rich in fruit, vegetables, fish, pulses, nuts, wheat and brown rice. "These all have health benefits that extend beyond the skin."
Dr Mahto concludes that if you feel worried about what you are able to eat as a result of your skin issues, and there is a degree of control around this, she would highly recommend having a chat with a health professional, be that your GP, a dermatologist or a registered dietician.
As for cheese, wine and chocolate face? It's not a thing. The expert consensus is to treat yourself this festive period.
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