While there have been anecdotal accounts of individuals noting improvement in their complexion after removing coffee and other caffeinated beverages form their diet, there has not been definitive proof that caffeine causes acne, though it may still play a smaller role in its persistence and/or ability to be treated.
There are a few factors that influence the development of acne. These include genetics, excessive oil production on the skin, clogged pores due to debris and residue build-up on the skin, bacteria on the skin and hormonal imbalances. These issues have been noted to be affected by diet as well, and caffeine can certainly play a part in how these aforementioned factors manifest.
Considering this, examining how caffeine affects the body can help shed light on how it affects the processes that lead to excess oil production, clogged pores, bacterial build-up on the skin and hormonal imbalances, all factors that lead to acne. Caffeine is known to increase a stress hormone called cortisol. While it has not been shown that stress itself causes acne, high-stress levels can exacerbate it and make it harder to treat. Additionally, caffeine can influence sleep patterns and cause insomnia, especially if consumed later in the day, which also increases stress levels and cortisol production. However, it is noted that cortisol itself has not been demonstrated to cause acne.
Stress has a known influence on hormones, and while caffeine may not have a direct effect on hormones, its role in the body’s stress levels is evident. Additionally, an increase in stress hormones can cause an increase in oil production by the sebaceous glands in the skin that can lead to clogged pores and storage of bacteria that triggers acne.
Additionally, caffeine has been noted to affect vitamin absorption and mineral secretion, which can have an effect on your skin. Caffeine has a demonstrated effect on the circulation of calcium, iron and other vitamins which can affect not only hormones but gut flora that can influence metabolic processes as well. However, despite this relationship between caffeine and vitamin and mineral circulation, it has not been shown that it is a direct cause of acne and correlation is not definitive.
While the role of caffeine in the development of acne is debated, there are dietary habits that have been known to cause and exacerbate acne. Some of these habits, including the consumption of dairy and sugar, can go hand in hand with the consumption of coffee, the main source of caffeine in the diet.
Consumption of high levels of dairy has been correlated with an increased chance of having acne. While not shown as a definitive cause, there is a suspected correlation between milk and the development of acne. Given the popularity of adding milk to coffee, this could be confounding the association of caffeine and acne and masking one for the other.
Insulin regulation also plays a role in acne development. Sugar is known to cause insulin spikes and as a result, can cause acne. After an insulin surge, insulin-like-growth-factor-1 (IGH-1) is released, and high levels of this hormone are known to cause acne. In addition, sugar is a known inflammatory and is ubiquitous in many foods including coffee. Because of insulin’s role in the development of acne, maintaining a low sugar diet if an individual is susceptible to acne is essential. However, in this same vein, caffeine has been noted to help with insulin regulation and could, in fact, help reduce the deleterious effects of an insulin spike.
It is important to properly identify acne compared to another dermatological issue. Symptoms of acne include whiteheads, which are open clogged pores; blackheads, which are closed clogged pores; small red bumps known as pustules; large swathes of inflammation beneath the skin; and pus-filled lumps beneath the skin that may or may not be painful.
Caffeine can affect individuals differently, and a trial of abstaining from caffeine could be beneficial in treating those with acne. Prior to completely cutting caffeine from your diet, it could be helpful to address other dietary factors that have been clearly demonstrated to correlate with the development of acne. Reducing or eliminating added dietary sugar can have a significantly positive effect on the treatment and prevention of acne.
It has been noted that high glycemic index foods in general, such as white bread, pasta and potato chips can have the same effect as sugar in the development of acne, and should be removed from the diet, if possible if you’re trying to treat acne. In addition, cutting back on dairy could also help treat and prevent acne. Even chocolate has been correlated with the development of acne. So, abstaining from, or greatly reducing the consumption of these foods could have a larger positive effect on acne than solely eliminating caffeine.
However, if the elimination of these foods does not prove to be efficacious, abstaining from caffeine could be advantageous. If you’re a regular coffee drinker or regularly consume caffeine in a different way, it is very important to gradually decrease your caffeine intake until it is completely eliminated in order to prevent withdrawal symptoms. These include headaches, irritability and anxiety and in rare cases confusion and nausea. With this in mind, it is important to consider your individual reaction to caffeine use and history of acne breakouts to determine their correlation. It could be helpful to maintain a journal or another account of acne breakouts when consuming or abstaining from caffeine to determine if it is, in fact, the cause of the breakout.
It is important to bear in mind that conditions such as acne can have a multifactorial cause. While caffeine may play a role in acne development and persistence, it can be either good or bad depending on your body’s unique response to this drug. As such, it is always recommended to consult with a physician if acne has been persistent or particularly severe so that they can help identify triggering factors.