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.

Get rid of acne NOW with these diet and lifestyle changes.

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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. ^


  1. Lauryn says

    Hi I am 16 years old and my acne looks like cystic acne but my doctor said it wasn’t. I was wondering that if you have tried everything there is on the acne line and nothing is working, what do I need to do? Benzoyl peroxide makes me have a rash and break out even more and Salicylic acid doesn’t get me anywhere with my acne. Please help me!

    • Sonia Carlson says

      Hey Lauryn! It sounds like you’ve tried a lot of things for your skin, and that those haven’t worked out for you. I know that’s frustrating!

      Our approach is all about avoiding those topical treatments, and curing acne from the inside-out, with diet and lifestyle changes. I encourage you to read around our blog for some ideas about how you can get started with some positive diet changes. And for the comprehensive guide to getting clear with diet and lifestyle changes, check out our book!

  2. Isabel says

    Hi!! Thanks for the info! It is so good!

    I am starting to follow the diet you guys recommend and it is improving my acne! My face was clearing, no inflammation or new pimples! I was happy… until two days ago when I woke up with my face full of gigantic, inflamed pimples!! I am guessing I ate something that caused it… but what?

    My list of suspicious food is:
    -sushi or the soy sauce
    -a lot of nuts
    – crab or salmon
    – coconut oil
    -a lot of honey (is honey bad for acne? As I love it!)
    – I started a detox treatment, so maybe is my body detoxifying..

    I`m not sure, but maybe you can help me out to avoid one of this foods.

    Thanks so much

    • Sonia Carlson says

      Hey Isabel! Most of those things you listed are potential problems, with the exception of coconut oil (we’re about to put out a new blog post on coconut oil and acne, so keep your eyes peeled for that!) and crab/salmon. Some kinds of sushi (especially tempura) can be a problem, as can lots of nuts or lots of honey. And detox treatments can cause breakouts, too, depending on a lot of factors. Here’s hoping your skin recovers quickly!

      • Isabel says

        Thanks for your answer! Would vegetarian sushi (not tempura) would be a problem because of the white rice?
        I am definitley controlling my honey intake and eliminating nuts of mi diet :(

        Thanks so much!!

    • Sonia Carlson says

      It can, particularly if you’re sensitive to gluten. But even if you’re not, wheat (especially in the US) is often heavily treated with chemicals like glyphosate, and refined wheat products are usually fortified with gut-unfriendly minerals. So it’s a good idea, if you have acne, to avoid or at least minimize wheat consumption.

  3. Mollie says

    Hi guys,
    I’m hoping I’ll find some stuff on your site that will help me, but after reading this initial article on the most common food triggers and helps, I’m more frustrated than ever! I’m 40 yrs old and have been fighting adult acne off and on since I was 26 (it started slowly when I moved to Germany from the US at 26 and at that point just hovered in the form of one to a few inflamed bumps, to some periods without bumps but with generally dull and lifeless looking skin for a few years, then I moved to the UK at age 29, six months later the really inflamed break-outs started — at 31 I ended up postponing my wedding by 9 months because I couldn’t bear to walk down the aisle with my face looking like a monster — it magically cleared up A few months before my wedding and stayed good for a few months, but always to return). A few years ago, I discovered a load of food intolerances — I’ve been off dairy, gluten, soy, and a couple other things for several years now — and I generally do my best to avoid refined sugar and processed foods (I do have occasional lapses with sugar, and I eat a fair bit of prosciutto di Parma — which is technically processed meat but, if truly Parma ham, is cured only with salt, no nitrites/nitrates). I eat a lot of berries, turmeric, ginger, fresh herbs, wild Alaska salmon about once a week, sweet potatoes…. I don’t drink coffee (or much caffeine of any sort). According to what I eat, I should have seen a vast improvement, but my skin is the worst it has ever been (I never had acne as a teenager, just the occasional pimple the week before my period, and my skin now tends toward the VERY DRY category). Could this all just be related to stress? Could there be other major triggers I’m overlooking? Help!

    • Sonia Carlson says

      Hey Mollie,

      That does sound frustrating – you’ve made so many positive changes to your diet, and your skin is not showing the expected improvement. In short, yes, there could be triggers you’re overlooking (including “stress”); it could also be related to nutrient deficiencies or imbalances. The things you listed do sound aligned with the diet we recommend, but there are so many other factors that could play into your situation. If you’re interested, we have an e-book we wrote that’s all about eating and living in a way that sustainably creates clear skin – some of it might be information you already know, but it also might be a good resource for you to check what you’re doing against. (It’s also 100% refundable for a year if you decide you don’t like it, already knew the stuff, etc.) The book also comes with CSF Forum support, so you can troubleshoot and dig into the details to your heart’s content! Devin and I are both active on that forum, and it’s turned out to be a really helpful and positive community with a lot of good knowledge and insight.

      Haha, alright, there’s my pitch :). Whatever you decide, I wish the best for you, and thanks for posting!

  4. Brenda says

    I’m suffering from very painful acne,which natural remedies can l take, I have adjusted my diet as well and wat creams can l apply to reduce dark spots

    • Sonia Carlson says

      Brenda, I’m glad you found our website! A great place to start learning about our diet and lifestyle approach to clearing up your skin is by reading around the blog – be sure to check out our articles on dairy, vitamins and minerals, and other topics that can help get you started. I also suggest subscribing to our email list. Finally, if you want the full story on how to eat and live for clear skin, check out our e-book!

Like what you read? Have something to share? Leave a comment below! Your ideas are much appreciated, though we can't answer every individual question. :)

- Devin and Sonia

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