In my years of working 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 skin care: "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, and 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 skin-care experts — promoting "glowing skin diets" or snacks and shakes that claim to help get rid of blemishes or make your skin gleam. Why is this so popular? And should we listen?
"Diet overhauls have become commonplace recently," says 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 regimens." 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. "The problem with placing a focus on diet," says Dr. Acharya, "is that we can take things to the extreme, which can be detrimental for our health and wellbeing." Plus, looking at diet alone as a means of achieving skin you're happy with is misleading.
Creating a narrative which pushes food alone as the answer is problematic. I do not align myself with 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. "I am always a bit disappointed to see 'super-foods' and recipes touted as a 'fix-it' for skin," she wrote in a post. For many people, the pandemic has brought on increased breakouts due to a number of factors, 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 right now. "Selenium and zinc in small studies have been shown to help acne," said Dr. Mahto. Brazil nuts, she noted, contain both of those nutrients — so there are claims circulating that "eating Brazil nuts may help your acne." Dr. Mahto pointed out the tentative language here, and emphasized that these ideas are often then treated as fact. In reality, she said that assertions like this are weak, and more research is needed to establish any truth.
In her post, Dr. Mahto went on to say that most skin conditions are hugely complex. "Creating a narrative that pushes food alone as the answer is problematic," she said. "Like many others in this space, I do not align myself with 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," she says. "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 skin-care products." In the case of celebrities, it'd be remiss not to mention that most have free access to expert facialists, aestheticians who practice peels, filler, and Botox, and an abundance of skin-care products at their disposal. 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 skin-care products.
Dr. Paris Acharya
Diet Culture Generates Blame & 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, 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.
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" unfairly put the onus on the individual for not "fueling your body with the right nutrients" if your skin doesn't clear up.
Restricting Food Can Be Dangerous
The hyperbolic phrases and expressions used by wellness influencers, health brands, and skin-care experts don't help, either. In many cases, some food groups thought to make skin issues "worse" are demonized. In October 2018, Dr. Mahto wrote an article for Refinery29 on an emerging trend among clients that 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 very fine line between ditching food from your diet in order to clear breakouts and developing a full-fledged eating disorder.
Research has found connections between sugary foods and skin conditions such as acne, but the research around dairy, on the other hand, is poor. Dr. Mahto says that there is no acne guideline in the UK, Canada, or the US that recommends cutting out dairy for the treatment of acne. "Balance and moderation is key," says Dr. Acharya. It's just too black and white — not to mention not particularly science-backed — 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," said Dr. Mahto. "If anything, I would emphasize 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 feel that you are struggling despite trying over-the-counter products, it's time to make an appointment with your doctor or a skin-care specialist who can give you more specific advice and initiate the most appropriate treatment to help with your skin condition," concludes Dr. Acharya.