The Big Lie You’re Being Told About Achieving Great Skin

As a beauty editor, I've interviewed countless celebrities and influencers about their beauty rituals. Without fail, the majority will recite the following phrase when talking about skincare: "I believe great skin comes from within." See also: "good skin starts in the gut" or "you are what you eat". The expression may vary from person to person but it always suggests the same thing: that clear, glowing skin is only attainable if you eat a certain way.
Of course, we all know that eating a balanced diet is beneficial for our overall health and wellbeing. But when it comes to skin, in particular skin conditions like acne, eczema and rosacea, treatment is a lot more complicated than starting off every morning with celery juice, following up with an oat milk matcha latte, or cutting out alcohol.
Unfortunately, though, skin and diet are now so intertwined that it isn't just celebrities who are peddling diets or denouncing specific food groups as a cure-all for skin issues. On TikTok and Instagram, you'll find beauty and wellness enthusiasts — even some so-called skincare experts — promoting glowing skin diets or snacks and shakes which claim to help get rid of blemishes or make your skin gleam. But why is this so popular? And should we listen?
"Diet overhauls have become commonplace recently," said Dr Paris Acharya, aesthetic doctor and skin expert at Waterhouse Young. "Perhaps it is a result of lockdown weight gain [entirely normal, of course] or increased awareness of different types of dieting regimes," she continued. It's no secret that the stress and anxiety of the pandemic has taken its toll on our skin, too, with breakouts and eczema top concerns. Dr Acharya added: "The problem with placing a focus on diet is that we can take things to the extreme, which can be detrimental for our health and wellbeing." It's also important to note that looking at diet alone in regard to achieving skin you're happy with is misleading.

Creating a narrative which pushes food alone as the answer is problematic. Like many others in this space, I do not align myself to the 'food is medicine' message when it comes to dermatology.

Dr Anjali Mahto

Diet alone won't 'fix' your skin

Consultant dermatologist Dr Anjali Mahto recently took to Instagram to discuss the patchy notion that good skin comes from within. In a post, she wrote: "I am always a bit disappointed to see 'super-foods' and recipes touted as a 'fix-it' for skin."
For lots of people, the pandemic has brought on increased breakouts in particular, and it seems brands, influencers and nutrition enthusiasts are playing on these insecurities using food. 'Natural Ways To Clear Acne From Within' and 'The Best Foods To Eat For Clear Skin' are popular headlines, with protein bars, sweeteners, green tea and berries recommended to improve your complexion. Dr Mahto cited another example of a common but shaky 'skin-friendly food' claim which is doing the rounds online currently. "Selenium and zinc in small studies have been shown to help acne," Dr Mahto said. "Brazil nuts contain selenium and zinc," she continued, so it is often claimed that "eating brazil nuts may help your acne." Dr Mahto pointed out the tentative language here and emphasised that these ideas are often then treated as fact. In reality, she said that assertions such as this are weak and more research is needed to establish any truth.
Dr Mahto added that most skin conditions are hugely complex. "Creating a narrative which pushes food alone as the answer is problematic," she said. "Like many others in this space, I do not align myself to the 'food is medicine' message when it comes to dermatology." Dr Mahto pinpointed the casual oversimplification of the message that eating healthily is the most effective way to improve your skin. "Not only is this a bold, unsupported assertion and gratuitous claim, it is also too simplistic about how the skin actually functions in health and disease," she said.
Dr Acharya agrees: "Skin health is multifactorial. Considering diet alone is blind sighted, as so many different factors can contribute to skin conditions, from stress to genetics and hormonal imbalances — even using the wrong skincare products." In the case of celebrities? It would be remiss not to mention that plenty have free access to expert facialists, aestheticians who practise peels, filler and Botox, and an abundance of skincare products. I can almost guarantee you that their glowing skin is a result of all of the above teamed with a balanced diet, not one or the other.

Considering diet alone is blind sighted, as so many different factors can contribute to skin conditions, from stress to genetics and hormonal imbalances – even using the wrong skincare products.

Dr Paris Acharya

Diet culture generates blame and guilt

When it comes to skin, placing the focus solely on diet can lead to feelings of guilt and self-blame. Research by the Food Foundation found that eating a healthy diet is expensive for many people and after bills are paid, the food budget is the most likely to be cut. The report goes on to state that as a result, we're more inclined to opt for cheaper food, which is often the least healthy. This makes the 'healthy skin starts in the gut' narrative an unattainable one for lots of people.
The shame of not having a fridge full of fruit and vegetables or a pantry filled to bursting with costly health supplements is even more worrying when you consider that skin conditions can have an adverse effect on mental health, for instance exacerbating anxiety. As Dr Mahto noted, phrases like 'feed your body the right food and it will take care of itself' place blame on the individual for not "fuelling your body with the right nutrients". This is an oversimplification of skin and health, said Dr Mahto.

Restricting food can be dangerous

The exaggerative phrases and expressions used by wellness influencers, health brands and skincare experts don't help, either. In many cases, some food groups thought to make skin issues 'worse' are demonised. Not long ago, Dr Mahto penned an article for Refinery29 on an emerging trend among clients which encourages cutting out certain foods in a bid to improve the condition of skin, such as sugar, dairy and gluten. Frighteningly, this can border on obsession and Dr Mahto pointed out that there is a fine line between ditching food from your diet in order to clear spots and developing an eating disorder.
It has been noted that sugary foods potentially play a role in skin conditions such as acne but the research around dairy is poor. Dr Mahto mentioned that there is no acne guidelines that recommend cutting out dairy for the treatment of acne. "Balance and moderation is key," added Dr Acharya. It is too black and white (not to mention unproven) to see certain foods as 'good' or 'bad' for your skin.
Despite a lack of research, it's hard to escape the misinformation being promoted online but it's important to note that eating healthily doesn't necessarily mean your skin will be transformed. "There are plenty of people who follow what most would consider to be a 'healthy lifestyle' but still have skin issues," said Dr Mahto. "Their skin problems are not a reflection of their internal health."

Food isn't the be-all and end-all of achieving skin you're personally happy with. For many people, it isn't as straightforward as that.

If switching up your diet has helped improve your skin, then that's great. However, food isn't the be-all and end-all of achieving skin you're personally happy with, and for many people it isn't as straightforward as that. "I am a medical doctor and I am not saying food is not important to our overall health," highlighted Dr Mahto. "If anything, I would emphasise it is. However, I would also make the point, as always, that eating well for your skin is the same as eating well for your general health. There are no quick fix superfoods or special recipes despite what a plethora of content would have you believe."
Skin is nuanced and what worked for that beauty influencer who overhauled their diet might not work for you. If you're finding it difficult to deal with your skin, the following information may be helpful, according to Dr Acharya. She concludes, "If you feel that you are struggling despite trying over-the-counter products, it's time to make an appointment with your GP or a skincare specialist who can give you more specific advice and initiate the most appropriate treatment to help with your skin condition."
Want more? Get Refinery29 Australia’s best stories delivered to your inbox each week. Sign up here!

More from Beauty