Acne and Inflammation: How to Reduce Redness and Swelling

Acne and Inflammation

Poor diet choices stoke the fires of inflammation and lead to painful, swollen acne.

You know the red, swollen pimples you get sometimes?

The ones that really hurt when you touch them?

Sometimes they’re right at the bottom of your nose, and just chewing makes them hurt?

These pimples hurt because they are swollen and inflamed. Good news is, you can reverse this process.

Okay, so what is inflammation, anyway?

Simply put, it’s the body’s natural response to attackers – bacteria, chemicals, or, get this, foods that your body doesn’t like.

When inflammation works like it’s supposed to, it helps your body fight off an attack by bringing in white blood cells and all the warriors of your immune system. When it’s done fighting the infection, it stops. The swelling goes down, the redness disappears, the wound heals.

But when it gets out of control, when it doesn’t stop, it causes your body all sorts of grievous problems – including acne.

How does inflammation make acne worse?

You have red, swollen, painful acne because you have systemic inflammation, an inflammation response that has gone wild, and keeps going, going, going, like an epidemic disease. Systemic inflammation is closely associated with cancer, heart disease, arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and especially acne. So let’s figure out how to get rid of this systemic inflammation!

But first, I want to tell you why acne isn’t actually caused by bacteria.

The real role of P. acnes bacteria in acne

Contrary to popular belief, P. acnes bacteria do not actually cause acne.

In fact, P. acnes isn’t even required to get really bad inflammatory acne.[1] [2] They simply make the problem worse.

Once your pores get clogged with excess sebum and dead skin cells, an oxygen-deprived environment arises that’s a perfect home for P. acnes bacteria. (P. acnes bacteria are “anaerobic,” meaning “without oxygen” – they die if exposed to oxygen. There’s little oxygen inside clogged pores, so P. acnes can thrive there.)

These bacteria feed on your sebum, and as a thank-you gift, they create highly inflammatory waste products. When your immune system is compromised, as it is when you’re stressed out or when you eat the foods outlined below, you can’t effectively fight off these P. acnes bacteria, and they multiply rapidly inside your clogged hair follicles and cause severe inflammation, redness, and swelling.

Foods that cause inflammation

In a little bit, I’m going to share a bunch of ways to douse the fires of inflammation, but first, I want to talk about which foods contribute the most to this silent killer. You’d do well to stop eating these foods immediately if you want to halt inflammation and see an almost immediate improvement in your acne. (And, if you really follow this list well, permanent clear skin.)

The top 10 worst inflammatory foods

Okay, this is a little misleading, as these are 10 groups of foods, not 10 individual foods. About 90% of what you find in the grocery store falls into one of these categories! Avoid these foods and your acne will start to clear up:

  1. Dairy (especially pasteurized homogenized milk, but also cheese, yogurt, cream, etc., anything that comes out of a cow’s udder)
  2. Gluten (the king of inflammation – gluten damages your intestinal wall and causes systemic inflammation)
  3. Sugar (high glycemic index spikes your blood sugar and leads to glycation and persistent inflammation)
  4. Vegetable oils (canola, sunflower, safflower, soybean, cottonseed, corn oil)
  5. Trans fats (commercial baked goods, margarine, fast foods, deep fried foods)
  6. Feedlot-raised meat (artificial hormones, antibiotics, omega-6 fats)
  7. Processed meats that have nitrites, nitrates, other preservatives
  8. Alcohol (more than one glass of wine per day)
  9. Refined grains and white flour
  10. Food additives, preservatives, artificial flavors, etc.

These foods are found everywhere in our modern food landscape. Go to your local grocery store, visit any aisle besides the produce and meat sections, and start reading nutrition facts labels. You’ll notice that certain ingredients pop up over and over: vegetable oil, sugar, corn syrup, wheat flour, skim milk powder, sodium nitrite, potassium sorbate, yellow 5, blue 1, red 6… the list goes on and on. These things are not foods, they are food products. Would your great- grandmother have recognized these things as food? No. (Well, dairy, perhaps, but she would have eaten raw dairy, which is a whole different subject. Still not a good idea if you’ve got acne – avoid dairy at all costs.)

Increasingly, these highly inflammatory “foods” are forming the bulk of the Westerner’s diet. Is it any surprise that diseases of inflammation are so rampant in our society?

Foods that cool inflammation and improve acne

Alright, time for some antidotes. Here’s a list of the most potent foods you can eat to stop inflammation in its tracks:

  • Fish (wild-caught only, not farm-raised) – for the anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats
  • Ginger (especially fresh ginger root)
  • Turmeric (look for fresh turmeric root – it’s great for curries!)
  • Broccoli (and other dark green vegetables)
  • Rosemary
  • Basil
  • Cherries
  • Blueberries (and raspberries, and really all berries)
  • Kelp (kombu, wakame, arame, dulse)
  • Shiitake mushrooms
  • Papaya
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • Sweet potato
  • Coconut oil
  • Fermented foods (live sauerkraut, kombucha, kimchi)
  • White tea
  • Free-range eggs

This is just a small sampling of all the great healthy and anti-inflammatory foods out there. By focusing on foods like these, and avoiding the worst inflammatory foods from above, you practically guarantee clear skin. That’s not an exaggeration. That’s how powerful of an effect food has on acne. Not only do the inflammatory foods above cause inflammation (meaning redness and swelling of acne), they also block your pores (especially dairy) and cause your skin to produce excess oil (especially sugar and refined grains/carbohydrates), so you’re really attacking acne from three sides by removing these foods. Together, these diet modifications are the single most effective way to get rid of acne that I’ve ever seen. Better than Proactiv, longer-lasting than laser treatments… better than everything.

What about anti-inflammatory supplements?

You can find a lot of supplements out there that are supposed to help reduce inflammation. However, from personal experience and all the research I have done, I strongly advise against using supplements, with a few key exceptions, because I think they’re a copout at best, and downright dangerous at worst, increasing the toxic load on your body.

The main issue is that taking supplements distracts you from fixing the root cause of acne, which is what you’re putting in your mouth. It just masks the problem, like using topical acne medications. It prevents you from benefiting from the wisdom of your body, which is telling you that you’re doing something very wrong!

People often get obsessed with buying the perfect supplements, and don’t give a moment’s thought to the rest of their diet. They think they can simply “make up” for all the bad stuff by popping pills: quercetin, resveratrol, fish oil, vitamin E, gamma-linoleic acid, enzymes, echinacea, green tea extract, and CoQ10. What’s the next magic supplement going to be?

Here’s another way to think about it. Don’t take enzymes; eat the right foods so your body produces its own enzymes. Don’t take curcumin; cook with whole turmeric. Don’t take green tea extract; drink green tea. Whenever you take an extract of something, you’re denying yourself the synergistic power of that nutrient in its original context.

Don’t buy into the marketing hype of supplement companies

Nutrition science has historically been one of the most flawed sciences out there.

Just because some study finds that taking some supplement reduces your chances of getting cancer doesn’t mean you should run out and buy it. Nutrients like this act in concert with other nutrients when they’re still together in whole foods. Such whole foods have hundreds or thousands of chemicals that interact in extremely complex ways we’re just beginning to understand. These complex interactions will take lifetimes for science to fully understand. When you extract some nutrient from a whole food and bottle it up, what else are you losing in the process?

And remember, nutritional supplements companies are money-making businesses that generally want to grow and sell more and more supplements. So they’re going to do everything they can to make you come back for more, to keep you buying the latest, greatest supplements. (I believe the people running these companies are fundamentally good people and really want to help heal people, but I think that medicating with whole foods is generally more effective than taking isolated supplements, outside of some specific medical conditions and deficiencies.)

These companies jump on the opportunity to create new “breakthrough” supplements whenever a new study comes out, discovering some new chemical in pine needles that promises to add 20 years to your life. Save your money for real food, and support the fine farmers that grow it!

Key Takeaways

  • Excessive inflammation makes acne swollen, red, and painful.
  • Most excessive inflammation is caused by diet.
  • Anti-inflammatory supplements are not a good replacement for fixing your diet (because they don’t actually do anything about the root causes of excessive inflammation).
  • You must stop eating foods that cause excessive inflammation if you want to reduce redness and swelling permanently.
  • Inflammation is only one part of the picture – you also need to prevent acne from forming in the first place.
  • To do that, you need a holistic diet- and lifestyle-based treatment for acne.
  • In sum, you need to fix your diet and lifestyle to really cure excessive inflammation and the root causes of acne (that’s what our book is all about!).

While inflammation is a huge contributor to acne, there’s even more you can do to kickstart your journey to clear skin.

If you’d like to be walked through the whole process of tweaking your diet for clear skin, we (Devin and Sonia) have written an ebook that does just that. It’s called “Clear Skin Forever” (clever title, right? :).

For this complete guide to taking an all-natural, diet-based approach to getting rid of acne and having clear skin for life (no kidding!), go here.

Sources (click to expand)

  1. Zouboulis CC, Eady A, Philpott M, Goldsmith LA, Orfanos C, Cunliffe WC, Rosenfield R. What is the pathogenesis of acne? Exp Dermatol. 2005 Feb;14(2): 143-52. ^
  2. Bowe WP, Logan AC. Clinical implications of lipid peroxidation in acne vulgaris: old wine in new bottles. Lipids Health Dis. 2010 Dec 9;9:141. ^

Related posts:

Comments

    • Sonia Carlson says

      Hi Jake – I have two answers to your question. Flaxseed oil is nowhere near as effective as fish oil, because while it does contain omega-3s, these are primarily in the form of ALA, which must be converted to the “useful” omega-3s EPA and DHA in the body in order to have the desired impact. However, the body doesn’t do this very well, so most of those omega-3s in flaxseed oil aren’t actually doing much. The second answer to your question is that we don’t really recommend boosting your omega-3 intake anyway – see the post on fish oil and acne, which Devin recently revised, to read more about why!

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Hunter, coconut oil, ghee, and red palm oil are cooking oils of choice. Grass-fed tallow is great, if you can find it (farmer’s market maybe). The more saturated, the better – it’ll stand up to heat better and won’t oxidize / go rancid like veggie/seed oils.

  1. Jess says

    Hi! Im 18 and i’ve had acne since i was 11 :( and now there are deep marks on my face like, literally my face is like a moon crater :( will my skin return to normal again?

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Jess! The body has a remarkable ability to heal itself if you feed it the proper nutrients. You’re talking about major scar tissue healing, which will likely take a fairly long time, but I believe it’s possible. There are topicals like 100% aloe vera that are known to help break up scar tissue and regenerate healthy skin, but you’d also do well to eat a diet rich in enzymes (raw foods, fruits, veggies, etc.), collagen-matrix-forming nutrients (like in bone broth and meat cooked on the bone), and very low in sugar (since sugar damages the collagen matrix of your skin and will make it less elastic over time and making scars take longer to heal. The diet I generally recommend is a Paleo type diet – are you familiar with this at all?

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Troy, interesting idea! What did you have in mind? Like what questions, specifically? I really want to make sure I understand where you’re coming from. Thanks!

  2. Dmitry says

    My question is similar to the last one, I want to ask the following:
    What is the best way for a person suffering from acne, who has considered all the diet recommendations and advices, according to the articles in your website, to clear the already clogged pores and swollen pimples from his face?
    I mean, when a pore is already clogged and there is a black/white spot, which is the possibility for getting it in normal condition?
    Could the face cure itself alone, by stopping to produce the extra sebum or once clogged (and black or white spot appeared) the only way is removal by hand or by scrub or by any another cosmetic performance?

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Dmitry! Your body will heal pimples naturally, provided you give it the right foods and nutrients (and none of the foods that trigger acne). There’s no easy, fast way to get rid of existing pimples that doesn’t have negative side effects, as far as I’m aware. Best thing to do is just let your body heal itself, which it is very, very capable of doing. The skin is an amazing self-healing, self-regulating organ!

  3. Mike Z says

    Is there a typical time frame during which the skin clears up with no acne present after eating those suggested foods? How long does it take to see the changes in the skin from committing to an anti-inflammatory diet?

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Mike,

      That’s a pretty complicated question, and depends on way too many factors to give a definitive answer. For some folks, all it takes is removing dairy, and they see great results after just a few weeks. For most people struggling with acne, though, it can take a couple months after totally shifting the diet to an anti-inflammatory one to see clearing. And for people with gluten-related gut damage, that can take even longer to heal, more on the order of 6 months, after going 100% gluten-free. Typically, though, after switching to an anti-inflammatory, dairy-free, gluten-free diet, you’ll see quite startling results within a week.

      Hope this helps!
      Cheers,
      Devin

      • Mike says

        Hey Devin,

        I’ve tried my best to stay gluten-free and I’ve seen very good results. However, I’m still eating oatmeal mixed with blueberries instead of cereal with milk. Do you know if oatmeal has a significant or any amount of gluten?

        • Devin Mooers says

          Hey Mike! Oatmeal has trace amounts of gluten from cross-contamination with wheat during processing/storage/transport, enough to set off people with celiac disease. Certified gluten-free oats have below a certain threshold, 20ppm or whatever it is. If you’re going oats, I’d definitely recommend the gluten-free variety.

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Maggie, I don’t know enough to give you a good answer on this. I generally avoid very spicy foods because it’s just painful and uncomfortable for me to eat them, and I’d rather be able to taste my food! Many spices actually are potently anti-inflammatory, but I’m not sure about chilis and the “hot hot” spices.

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Shant, I’m really not a fan of beans, not least because of the farting effect, but also because of the lectins, phytates and enzyme inhibitors that make them difficult to digest and impair your body’s ability to absorb minerals from food. Beans are really just a sub-optimal food compared to, say, meat and vegetables. I’ve had at least one person that I can remember report that eating lentils directly triggered acne for her. Hope this helps!

  4. Kelsey says

    Alright, thank for that very helpful information! I love how you’re so involved with your followers. It’s such a blessing!

  5. Kelsey says

    Hi there! I have a question. I’ve browsed your blog quite a bit and saw that you are a big fan of sweet potatoes for acne. That’s awesome, because I have acne and happen to love sweet potatoes. lol. At my house, we have tons of home-canned, non-processed sweet potatoes. Do you know if canned sweet potatoes still have any significant antioxidant properties or not?

    • Devin Mooers says

      First comment award goes to Kelsey! :) Yep, sweet potatoes are fantastic. Got a few cooking on the stove as I’m writing this! I looked up antioxidant levels for canned vegetables and it looks like just blanching and freezing veggies reduces antioxidant activity by 30-50%, while canning reduces them even further (mostly because of prolonged boiling, probably, but potentially long-term storage at room temperature):

      http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1466856402000486

      Hard to give exact numbers without purchasing the full text of the article, but it looks like you probably get a pretty significant antioxidant hit from canning sweet potatoes. That said, they’re still a healthy food to eat even if canned! Making them fresh will always be the best way to go, though. I’ve been boiling them whole lately until soft, and then melting a very thick pat of pasture butter on top, and it’s pretty amazing.