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Does Eating Too Much Sugar Affect Your Skin?

Amanda Donahue, MS, RD, CD

Published in Nutrition

8 min read

June 8, 2022
a person looking at themselves in the mirror
a person looking at themselves in the mirror

Did you know that skin is your body’s largest organ? It’s part of something known as the integumentary system, including hair, nails, sweat, and oil glands. Since it protects your body from various factors, including bacteria and chemicals, ensuring healthy skin is pretty important.

There are many lifestyle and dietary factors that can influence skin health. Excessive UV light exposure, dehydration, alcohol, and cigarette use can all cause skin damage and premature aging.

Proper nutrition is just one of the ways you can proactively focus on skincare and reduce your risk of certain skin conditions. On the flip side, poor nutrition can lead to flare-ups of certain skin conditions such as dermatitis as well as skin aging. And one of the biggest offenders here is sugary foods!

As great as sugar tastes, including too much of it in your diet can cause blood glucose levels to rise very quickly and lead to many preventable health problems. Read on to learn more about the role sugar plays in keeping your skin healthy.

Glucose and Skin Health

Two people looking at the camera

For those at risk of diabetes (or already living with it), how your skin looks and feels can be one of the prominent signs that your blood sugar levels are too high. Things like skin patches, hardened skin, blisters, or bumps can all be indicators of diabetes.

High glucose levels have also been linked to other skin conditions such as acne breakouts, wrinkles, and premature signs of aging and can even increase symptoms of inflammation. 

Luckily, making a few changes to your diet can make it easier to prevent negative side effects of excessive sugar intake, including weight gain and risk of obesity. Reducing your consumption of added sugars may also help you protect your skin and prevent other conditions caused by excess sugar consumption. 

Sugar Increases Your Chances of Getting Wrinkles

Many factors can contribute to wrinkles as your skin ages. While, for most people, wrinkles are an inevitable part of life, taking preventative measures from an early age can significantly reduce your chances of developing them.

Glycation, which can lead to wrinkles in the skin, is caused by too much glucose in the skin’s fibers, causing advanced glycation end-products (AGEs) to develop.

These AGEs cause our skin’s collagen to become less elastic and is what gradually causes our skin to droop as we get older. Because there’s also less elastin production, your skin becomes thinner and more fragile.

People who consume excess amounts of sugar may see more AGEs formed in the skin and develop more wrinkles.

Unfortunately, the risks surrounding the presence of too many AGEs in the skin go beyond wrinkles. Studies have also linked AGEs to pathologies related to diabetes and cardiovascular conditions like heart disease.

If you’re concerned about wrinkles as you age, monitoring your sugar consumption (along with other preventative measures) may help slow their development.

Sugar Can Cause Acne Breakouts

someone with acne on their face

Are you suddenly experiencing too many flare-ups and breakouts? It may be the effects of sugar on your skin. Extensive research has been conducted regarding the connection between dietary choices and acne.

Most scientists and dermatologists agree that things like diet, pollution, and other external factors can potentially impact the development of acne. 

While research is still ongoing, a correlation has been found between diets with a high glycemic load and the presence of acne. Other studies have also found a link between Western diets containing dairy and high glycemic index content to affect hormone levels which may trigger acne, however more research on the effects of dairy on acne is still needed.

Dietary patterns, such as those containing excessive sugar, are just one factor thought to be associated with higher sebum production.

As excess sebum levels on the skin can cause acne in some, this can lead to an increase in acne vulgaris on the skin.

If you’re someone who experiences acne, reducing sugar intake can potentially help prevent breakouts, though other factors may also need to be considered.

Sugar May Cause Inflammation

Inflammation is usually a healthy response by our body to fight viruses or other infections. But when it turns chronic, it can begin to have many negative effects on your body.

In terms of skin health, some research has shown that eating high sugar foods can trigger an inflammatory response that can exacerbate skin conditions related to inflammation, such as psoriasis and eczema.

For those with skin conditions, it may be advisable to reduce sugar intake to control symptoms related to inflammation.

Chronic inflammation caused or worsened by dietary sugar is damaging to skin health and can also increase the risk of developing diabetes. It’s also a key risk factor in many other health conditions, such as dementia, depression, and cardiovascular disease. 

Sugar Stimulates Oil Production in the Skin

two faces

Sebum, an oil produced by your body’s sebaceous glands, naturally coats the skin to keep it moisturized and protected. Some studies have indicated that consuming excessive amounts of sugar may be associated with high sebum production, which causes oily skin.

In addition to excess oil, sebum has also been found to increase the risk of acne in some individuals, indicating that reducing sugar may also indirectly cause acne.

More research is still needed to confirm the connection between sugar and other dietary factors that may affect oily skin.

Tips for Reducing Your Sugar Intake

Reducing your sugar intake doesn’t mean you have to cut all sugar out of your diet. Instead, educating yourself about where added sugars are hiding and making an effort to swap those foods out for healthier alternatives from time to time can be a great place to start. Not only will your skin thank you, but you can reduce your risk for many other health conditions linked to sugar intake.

Here are some tips to consider if you’re looking to consume less sugar.

Avoid Hidden Sugars

tortilla chips and dip

Added sugars are sometimes hard to avoid and are often disguised under different names, adding to consumer confusion. Nowadays, you'll find sugar under more than fifty different ingredient names.

For example, sugar may be behind names ending in “ose,” or ingredients using any of the following words: sugar, juice, concentrate, honey, or nectar. Do any of these sound familiar? We could keep going!  

Avoiding sugar can be difficult, especially if you have a sweet tooth. But learning to recognize some of the different ways sugar can sneak into your diet is essential. It’s also an excellent way to become a more conscious consumer to encourage better skin health.

The best part is that when you learn to avoid hidden sugar, you won’t have to cut out all desserts to avoid it because you’ll be naturally decreasing your sugar consumption in other foods.

Most Common Foods with Hidden Sugar

In these types of foods (and many others), sugar levels can always vary. Scan the nutrition labels of your favorite snacks and any other processed foods you eat regularly to see if any unwanted sugar is hiding.

Eat Fewer Processed Foods and More Natural Foods

Because sugar is so commonly found in prepackaged and processed foods, drinks, and sauces, sticking to a whole food-focused diet is one of the best ways to keep your sugar consumption in check.

Many ultra-processed foods are loaded with artificial sugars, flavorings, and other sweeteners and provide little nutritional value. Some examples of foods you may consider reducing your consumption of are: sugar-sweetened beverages, candy, ice cream, and frozen meals.

Cutting all processed foods out of your diet is not possible or specifically recommended; these foods can be just fine in moderation. Most dietitians recommend focusing on including high-quality protein, fruits and vegetables, and whole grains and limiting consumption of refined carbohydrates, refined oils, added sugars, and trans fats. 

Stay Away from Sugary Drinks

a glass of lemonade

Sugary drinks are notorious for their addictive nature. For many, cutting soda and fruit juice out of their diet is no easy task. However, these drinks tend to be high in calories and provide little to no nutritional value. 

Some studies have shown that frequent consumption of sweetened drinks has often been associated with weight gain, obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart diseases, and many other preventable health conditions.

Recently, a strong link between consumption of sugary drinks and certain types of cancer was also discovered, demonstrating that eliminating these drinks from your diet can positively impact things besides skin quality.

Because it is so easy to over consume sugary drinks, it is best to limit them as much as possible. Medical professionals recommend limiting your consumption to less than four ounces per day.

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Katie Kissane, MS, RD

Reviewed by: Katie Kissane, MS, RD

Katie is a dietitian at Nutrisense. With over 11 years of experience as a dietitian in many areas of nutrition, Katie has worked as a clinical dietitian within a hospital, as well as in the fields of diabetes, sports and performance nutrition, recovery from addiction, and general wellness. She’s also an athlete and has run 8 marathons, including the Boston Marathon.

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