Can you treat acne from the inside out?

Published on: 04/25/2024

If your teen is experiencing an increase in acne, get these quick tips to help your teen eat better for clearer skin.

Just as topical acne treatments are not one-size-fits-all, neither is nutrition, but we looked to the latest research to show what foods might help.

Acne is a normal part of the hormonal changes in an adolescent’s life and the most common condition presented to dermatologists. If your pre-teen or teen is experiencing an increase in break-outs, we give you some quick tips on how you might help your child’s skin from the inside out based on what they eat. While no specific diet has been found to control acne, there is evidence for avoiding certain foods and adding others that help the symptoms.

Acne defined

According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association, acne is a skin condition that occurs when hair follicles become plugged with oil and dead skin cells. Acne is more common in teens, as the changes in hormone levels can trigger a process of higher oil secretions, altering skin cell activity and resulting in an increase in surface bacteria of Cutibacterium acnes (C. acnes, formerly called Propionibacterium acnes). After years of evolving research, we are still trying to understand the development and contributing factors of acne in genetics, hormonal, inflammatory, and environmental influences.

How to emotionally support your child

It is estimated that 85 percent of teens get acne, usually starting at age 11 for girls, about age 13 for boys. Acne can last throughout the teen years and into the early 20s. How parents offer support can be how a child perceives these changes. The parent who makes it a normal process of growing up can make space for the child to see their skin as just another change they are experiencing, just like many other changes. It’s also important to validate any upset feelings about their skin. Being supportive may mean asking your child if they want your assistance in treating it if it bothers them or sharing and getting the resources to help them.

If acne is troublesome for your son or daughter, feelings of self-consciousness can potentially negatively affect your child’s psychological and emotional functioning. Teens may avoid engaging in activities, having their pictures taken, or even drop out of sports and activities because of the embarrassment or bullying of other kids. Not only is this troubling for the child but also for the parent. More than 90% of parents in a recent survey expressed concern about acne’s effect on adolescents’ mental health and social life (Dermatology Times, 2021).

Traditional treatments

Parents commonly try everything from over-the-counter topical treatments to dermatological visits and everything in between. While treating the skin’s surface can help alleviate some blemishes, treating acne from the inside out with food and supplements has its merits. Recent research suggests the relationship between diet and acne exists. However, knowing which ones make the most impact can be difficult to discern. Since multiple factors exist for each teen and their types of acne, it’s essential to take a holistic approach to treatment that includes diet alterations, topical and oral medications, and physical interventions such as peels and laser and light therapies.

If you are a parent who wants alternative approaches to medication to avoid possible side effects of long-term use, read on!

The tie to diet

A typical Western diet of ultra-processed food includes a unique mix of refined sugars, fats, carbohydrates, and sodium. Ultra-processed foods among youths have increased over the past several years, reaching a high of 67% of the total energy consumed in the diet. The eating pattern of convenient, ultra-processed food appeals to adolescents due to the quick availability, taste, and influences of culture and media

The more a food is processed, the higher its glycemic response and the lower its satiety potential (the feeling of being full after eating). These foods have a hyper-palatable sense—that feeling of never quite having enough or wanting more, leading to the overconsumption of calories and excessive sugars. The glycemic response to these foods influences spikes in blood sugar levels and is significantly higher in patients with acne.

Ultra-processed foods typically contain a higher ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids, creating an inflammatory response. Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to decrease inflammation of lesions. Increasing the consumption of EPA and DHA in fatty fish such as salmon, trout, tuna and other plant sources of ALA, such as chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, and flaxseeds, plays an essential role in the diet.

Gut Health

The role of the gut microbiome is known to have a contribution to not only gastrointestinal health but the health of the skin. As fiber ferments in the gut, certain skin microbes can influence the skin microbiome, which plays a vital role in the immune defense mechanism. In studies, probiotics may disrupt acne formation and lower the glycemic load (Salem I. et al., 2018). Try a diet rich in probiotics from yogurt, kefir milk or kefir water, miso, or kimchee. If your child does not eat or drink dairy, a coconut or almond milk yogurt. But for individuals who either don’t like probiotic-rich foods or don’t get enough probiotics from foods, taking daily probiotic supplements may help.

You can help your child make healthier choices. Often adolescents (ages 10 – 19) lack the tools and knowledge to pick more nutritious snacks or need help from caregivers in choosing better options. This age group is also increasingly exposed to misinformation and advertising from social media. As a parent, you play a huge role in your child’s eating behavior and preferences.

Looking down on green smoothie with a yellow straw

Overall, fewer processed foods and an increase in a whole-food diet may show improvements in acne. The more room you make for healthy alternatives, the fewer ultra-processed options adolescents will eat.

Use these quick tips for better skin health for your child:

  • Make healthy foods available and accessible at home to grab quickly
  • Choose no-sugar yogurts and add fruit and a drizzle of honey or maple syrup
  • Clean and cut up fresh fruits and vegetables and put them at eye level in the refrigerator
  • Have a yogurt, savory hummus, or peanut butter for them to dip
  • Switch out white bread and pasta for whole-wheat varieties
  • Swap sugary cereals for lower sugar options or oatmeal with fresh fruit and walnuts or eggs for breakfast
  • Add homemade smoothies with chia seeds, frozen fruits, and leafy greens. If sweetness is needed, add dates or honey.
  • Instead of potato chips and other processed snacks, choose popcorn and different whole-grain varieties
  • Learn (and teach them!) how to make a healthy, quick meal like baked fish. Add spices and seasonings for flavor.
  • Opt for grass-fed beef with 50 percent more long-chain fatty acids than regular meat. Think quality rather than quantity.

Teaching your children the value of good nutrients can affect their skin and confidence and their overall health and disease prevention. For more resources or help in managing your child’s diet, seek the consultation of a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist.

About the Author

Nicole Roesch, MBA, CPT, PN2, is a “reinventor of self” and believes that people can make lifestyle changes that immediately affect their health. A former motorcycle road racer, corporate marketing communications professional for NASCAR, personal trainer, and now Registered Dietitian, has a passion for helping busy parents eat well and raise thriving children.

For more information, visit


Yolaç Yarpuz A, Demirci Saadet E, Erdi Sanli H, Devrimci Ozgüven H. Akne vulgaris hastalarinda sosyal kaygi düzeyi ve bunun klinik değişkenler ile ilişkisi [Social anxiety level in acne vulgaris patients and its relationship to clinical variables]. Turk Psikiyatri Derg. 2008 Spring;19(1):29-37. Turkish. PMID: 18330741.

Wang L, Martínez Steele E, Du M, et al. Trends in Consumption of Ultraprocessed Foods Among US Youths Aged 2-19 Years, 1999-2018. JAMA. 2021;326(6):519–530. doi:10.1001/jama.2021.10238

Fardet A. Minimally processed foods are more satiating and less hyperglycemic than ultra-processed foods: a preliminary study with 98 ready-to-eat foods. Food Funct. 2016 May 18;7(5):2338-46. DOI: 10.1039/c6fo00107f. Epub 2016 Apr 29. PMID: 27125637.

MacGill, July 23, 2018. Hormonal acne: What you need to know. Medical News Today.

Dermatology Times Staff, 2021. Parents Worry About Severe Acne’s Impact on Teens

June 9, 2021.

Lamb, P., Checkup on Health: Teen acne.
Salem Iman, Ramser Amy, Isham Nancy, Ghannoum Mahmoud A. 2018. The Gut Microbiome as a Major Regulator of the Gut-Skin Axis. Frontiers in Microbiology.


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Nicole Roesch, RDN, LDN, CPT provides nutrition counseling services in-person and virtually in Palm Beach County, FL. She specializes in helping families create a positive relationship with real, wholesome food – through education, meal planning & behavioral changes that fit their lifestyle.

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