Coffee and Acne: Does Coffee Trigger Acne?

Coffee Can Trigger Acne

Coffee can trigger acne by altering your hormones, messing up your gut flora, and impairing your absorption of minerals.

Ahh, coffee… it’s a magical drink. But there’s a catch!

It might be worsening your acne.

This turns out to be a pretty complex issue… I was actually drinking one cup of coffee a day until I started researching this article.

Okay, let’s dive in to the research.

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What’s in coffee, anyway?

Coffee is super complex. It contains over 1,000 chemical compounds – that’s more than chocolate (250) and wine (450).[1]  The best-known ingredient in coffee is of course caffeine, which gives coffee its incredible stimulant and mood-enhancing properties. But coffee also contains things like:

  • Antioxidants
  • Chlorogenic acid
  • Lignans
  • Quinides
  • Trigonelline
  • Diterpenes (cafestol, kahweol)

Coffee is an incredibly complex chemical soup with a complex interplay of health benefits and drawbacks. First, let’s breeze through the benefits.

What are the benefits of coffee?

If you’re a regular coffee drinker, you already know the answer to this. Increased focus, mood enhancements, and just, well… waking up! There are also reported benefits to lowering Type 2 Diabetes risk, increasing athletic performance, preventing cognitive decline with aging, and more.[2] [3] [4]

That’s all well and good, but it turns out there’s a dark side to coffee for acne sufferers.

So… can coffee trigger acne, or what?

Unfortunately… yes! After a careful review of the evidence, it appears that coffee can trigger acne in several important ways. Actually, seven ways! Check this out – this is incredibly fascinating stuff.

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#1: Coffee magnifies your body’s stress response

Coffee magnifies your body’s response to stressful events. This is the most dire and far-reaching problem with coffee consumption in relation to acne, I believe.

In technical terms, coffee triggers “hyperadrenalism” – it makes your adrenal glands over-react to stressful events by pumping out excess stress hormones. Not good!

Normally, your body reacts to stressful events – you know, all those little daily stressors at work, while driving, at home, etc., as well as the big things like relationship problems and family issues – by going into “stress mode,” i.e. activating your sympathetic nervous system. Your body releases three hormones – cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine – to prepare you for a “fight or flight” response.

When the stressor is gone, your body goes back into “relaxation mode” (i.e. parasympathetic nervous system mode), and these stress hormones vanish.

(The problem with a lot of the stressors I mentioned is that they don’t stop, they don’t go away. So we’re dealing with chronic, low-level stress all the time. That’s a fundamental problem with Western civilization, I think – read Dr. Sapolsky’s Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for an incredible description of this widespread problem and how to fix it.)

So already, we’re dealing with chronically elevated stress hormones. That’s bad enough for acne, but coffee adds fuel to the fire.

In fact, coffee massively magnifies your body’s stress response. One study found that after drinking coffee, a stressful event raised study subjects’ cortisol 211% versus those who didn’t drink coffee, and epinephrine was 233% higher! That means that coffee essentially doubles your body’s hormonal stress response.[5] [6] [7] [8] [9]

This is bad news for your skin, because the same stress hormones that prepare you for a “fight or flight” response (including cortisol) also trigger acne. These stress hormones make your body pump out insulin, a hormone that causes acne in at least three ways:

  • Insulin makes your skin produce excess oil / sebum.
  • Insulin triggers over-production of new skin cells, which makes your pores more likely to get clogged.
  • Insulin increases your body’s inflammation levels, which makes acne more red and swollen.

If that wasn’t bad enough, cortisol depresses your immune system, making it much more difficult for your skin to fight off P. acnes bacteria, which multiply inside clogged pores, eat your sebum (yuck!), and produce inflammatory by-products that make acne even more red and swollen.[9] [10]

So essentially, coffee makes you hyperactive in response to stress, so your body blows things out of proportion, and makes things really difficult on your skin – the result? Worsened acne.

#2: Coffee impairs glucose metabolism and makes you insulin resistant

This is similar to #1, but a little different. Drinking coffee actually makes it more difficult for your body to process carbohydrates effectively. Basically, coffee makes you insulin resistant, which can lead to systemic elevated insulin and blood sugar, causing your skin to over-produce oil, your skin cells to replicate too quickly, and your inflammation levels to go up (i.e. more redness/swelling of acne).

One study found that when healthy men drank coffee, they had 40% reduced insulin sensitivity after they ate a high-glycemic meal an hour later. Not good! That means their blood sugar stayed elevated for a much longer period of time than it normally would.[11]

Another study found that this insulin-resistance effect lasts for a week after coffee consumption.[12]

Several other studies have reached a similar conclusion, finding that caffeine induces insulin resistance.[13] [14] [15] [16] [17]

This isn’t as much of a problem if you’re eating extremely low-carb, but for most folks, coffee can pose a real problem as far as provoking short-term insulin resistance, which can worsen acne.

#3: Milk and sugar in coffee drinks cause acne

Coffee drinks frequently contain milk and sugar. In fact, it’s pretty difficult to walk away from Starbucks without a giant milky concoction, with 8 ounces of low-fat, pasteurized, conventionally-raised milk (the worst kind for acne), a load of sugar, and poor-quality coffee with 300mg+ of caffeine (a stress disaster waiting to happen).

So why are milk and sugar bad for acne?

Well, simply put, milk is probably the #1 worst thing you could eat for acne, and sugar is right up there, spiking your blood sugar, boosting inflammation/redness/swelling of acne, making your skin over-produce oil, depressing your immune system, and damaging your skin cells through glycation.

In short, milky, sugary coffee drinks are acne bombs. Avoid at all costs! If you’re in a bind, go for black coffee, always. However, black coffee still has the other 12 acne triggers associated with it… read on to find out more!

#4: Coffee makes you crave sweets (which cause acne)

Coffee boosts stress hormones (as we saw in #1), which stimulate cravings for sweet, calorie dense foods and salty, high-carbohydrate snacks, which are a recipe for acne.[18]

When you’re drinking coffee every day, it’s much more difficult to say “no” to these cravings, and you end up eating more junk than you otherwise would. The big problem is that these junk foods – chips, cookies, candy, sweets, pastries, etc. – really trigger acne in a bad way. They’re basically made entirely out of different combinations of the top four acne triggers – milk/dairy, gluten, sugar, and vegetable oil.

Avoiding coffee entirely is the best way to let your appetite regulate itself naturally – you’ll find it much easier to avoid problematic acne-causing foods by ditching coffee.

#5: Coffee interferes with absorption of minerals from food

When you drink coffee with a meal (or close to a meal), it impairs your body’s ability to absorb minerals from your food. That’s a really big potential issue for acne sufferers, because acne can be worsened by deficiencies in minerals like zinc, selenium, and iron.[19]

In fact, one study found that drinking coffee with a meal (or up to 1 hour after eating) impaired iron absorption by a whopping 72%![20]

Avoiding coffee will help your body absorb more minerals from your food, which are absolutely key to clearing acne and maintaining clear skin.

#6: Coffee can disrupt your gut flora, leading to acne

Coffee can cause disruptions in your gut flora due to its high acidity, leading to a condition known as “dysbiosis” – essentially, overgrowth of bad bacteria in your intestine, and not enough good bacteria.[20]

Dysbiosis hampers your ability to produce B vitamins and absorb nutrients from food, which is how you get all your nutrients! It’s extremely critical to have this functioning properly, or you risk nutrient deficiencies of all kinds, food malabsorption, digestive issues, and a whole range of potential health issues (including acne).

Dysbiosis also triggers gut inflammation, which can lead to leaky gut and persistent low-level inflammation (redness and swelling of acne).

Probiotics are great, but if you’re still drinking coffee, you’re preventing those probiotics from doing their job properly. You really, really need healthy gut flora to maintain clear skin.[21]

#7: Coffee contains mycotoxins, which can trigger acne

Wait… what? What the heck are mycotoxins?

Basically, they’re toxins created by molds that grow on crops, both before harvesting (during crop growth) and after harvesting (during crop storage).

Not a lot of people know about mycotoxins yet. They’re not out in the public consciousness. And it’s really important that you know about them! Because mycotoxins are bad news for acne.

Molds grow on coffee plants that are grown in low-altitude, hot, humid climates – most cheap coffee (Starbucks, restaurants, coffee stands, and other chains) comes from low-quality coffee grown in such climates. These low-quality coffees are contaminated with high levels of mycotoxins like fusarium and ochratoxin A.[22] [23] [24] [25]

Mycotoxins can worsen acne in several important ways:

  • Mycotoxins can screw with your immune system, preventing proper, speedy immune response to invaders (including acne bacteria).
  • Mycotoxins can act like estrogen in the body – anything that disrupts sex hormone levels is likely to worsen acne.
  • Mycotoxins can lead to cancer (not related to acne, but a bummer nonetheless!).

Now, not all coffee is totally loaded with mycotoxins. High-altitude, carefully-harvested and processed coffee contains much lower levels of mycotoxins, and is available from quality roasters like Blue Bottle Coffee, Intelligentsia, and many smaller local roasters. However, this really high-quality, mycotoxin-free coffee is expensive, and still has all the other problems associated with coffee (#1-6 above).

Three additional reasons to quit coffee (not related to acne)

  • Coffee screws up your normal sleep/wake hormone cycle. In the morning, your cortisol levels are supposed to be highest (which helps you wake up in the morning), but chronic coffee drinkers don’t experience this naturally elevated cortisol in the morning, so they have to drink coffee to spike their cortisol back to normal levels, so they actually can wake up and be functional. Much better, in my book, to let your hormones naturally regulate themselves, rather than becoming dependent on a drug like caffeine to raise your cortisol / wake you up in the morning.
  • Coffee makes it more difficult to build muscle. Coffee is catabolic, because it boosts your cortisol for up to 10 hours after drinking it. Cortisol basically eats your muscles – if you want to build muscle, you’re looking to minimize catabolic hormones like cortisol and maximize anabolic hormones like growth hormone (naturally, of course, by lifting heavy weights – artificially boosting these hormones through whey protein, muscle supplements, testosterone boosters, etc. tends to trigger acne.)
  • Coffee dehydrates the body (it’s a diuretic). This can lead to premature skin aging and wrinkling, according to Dr. Perricone, author of The Wrinkle Cure. Coffee also impairs collagen and elastin production, which are absolutely critical to maintaining supple, youthful skin, so coffee ages your skin faster. Quitting coffee will allow you to maintain that beautiful glow and healthy-looking skin for longer.

So… what about decaf?

Decaf coffee may be a reasonable alternative, with some caveats. It still contains the beneficial antioxidants of coffee without the problems associated with caffeine and the elevated stress response (#1, 2, & 4 above), but it is still acidic and can cause digestive flora problems, dysbiosis, and therefore acne.

One big hangup is that decaf coffee usually contains even more mycotoxins than regular coffee, because the worst-quality beans (read: the most mold-infected beans) are usually relegated to “decaf duty,” so you’re getting the biggest mycotoxin hit. Furthermore, the caffeine in coffee is actually protective against mold growth and mycotoxins, so removing the caffeine (as in decaf) makes it more likely that mold will grow on the coffee during storage. No bueno!

So if you want to drink decaf, buy your coffee fresh-roasted from one of the really high-quality coffee roasters out there making high-quality decaf using a Swiss water process to remove the caffeine. They’re using high-altitude, low-mycotoxin beans. You’ll pay a premium for these, but you will avoid most of the caffeine issue, and the mycotoxin issue as well. The only remaining problems with such high-quality decaf would be the mineral deficiencies and dysbiosis (#5 & 6 above). On the occasions when we drink it, we get our decaf from a great local roaster in Bend, Oregon – Lone Pine – and you can order beans online from companies like Intelligentsia and Blue Bottle (we’re not affiliated with any of these companies).

An even better idea is to drink herbal tea, or a steaming cup of bone broth (build your bones with your morning cuppa, don’t deplete them!). Or even simpler (and cheaper), just drink water in the morning with breakfast!

Okay, I’m convinced – I’ll quit drinking coffee! But what about the withdrawal headaches?

Yep… this is a tough one. Quitting coffee is not easy. The headaches, the brain fog, the crappy mood… however, there are a few things you can do to make it easier. As you quit coffee, you can supplement with the amino acids L-phenylalanine and L-tyrosine to prevent withdrawal headaches and mood symptoms. Try taking 500mg of each at breakfast (when you’d normally have coffee), and then again at lunch if you’re experiencing symptoms, and then again at dinner if headaches, etc. are persisting. I’ve used these amino acids to great effect when quitting coffee – my brain stayed a lot clearer, the headaches weren’t nearly as bad, and they helped me get through the worst 3-4 days at the beginning. All in all, quitting coffee is not an easy process, so if you decide to do it, definitely be kind to yourself! Give yourself a little extra leeway, a little more space, a little more pampering during the process.

For a more in-depth explanation of using L-tyrosine and L-phenylalanine, read this article.

What about tea? Is it okay to drink?

Awesome question! A lot of the studies quoted here were done with doses of 200mg of caffeine or more. Average adult caffeine consumption is something like 300mg per day. Tea, fortunately, has a lot less, though the amounts vary. According to one report, here are the amounts of caffeine in tea:[26]

Black Tea: 23 – 110 mg
Oolong Tea: 12 – 55 mg
Green Tea: 8 – 36 mg
White Tea: 6 – 25 mg

It depends a lot on how strongly you brew your tea, as well as how caffeinated the tea itself is. In general, white tea has the least caffeine and the most EGCG (a potent anti-acne compound), green tea has a little more caffeine and a little less EGCG, and black tea has the most caffeine and not nearly as much EGCG. White tea is really your best bet. I’ve found a quite inexpensive box of white tea containing 100 tea bags (organic) for under $10 at Whole Foods – Prince of Peace brand, I believe. It takes a little getting used to, coming from black tea, but it’s really quite enjoyable. You should be fine with green tea, too, though I’d generally discourage drinking black tea since it can approach coffee-like amounts of caffeine.

The effects of caffeine on your stress hormone levels appear to be dose-dependent, so drinking substantially less caffeine – through, say, a cup of white tea in the morning – shouldn’t really cause much of a problem. Tea also doesn’t have some of the other problems that coffee does, like acidity. (Tea does impair iron absorption and potentially other minerals, so it’s best to drink it 30-60 minutes before meals, or several hours after a meal.)

Herbal tea, of course, is a perfect substitute! It has zero caffeine, no acidity, and all the medicinal benefits of quality herbs.

Key Takeaways

Coffee can cause acne in a variety of ways:

  • Coffee magnifies your body’s stress response, boosting stress hormones that lead to acne.
  • Coffee drinks are often spiked with milk and sugar, which are two of the top four dietary acne triggers.
  • Coffee can disrupt your gut flora, causing dysbiosis, inflammation, and redness/swelling of acne.
  • Quitting coffee is a small part of a holistic diet- and lifestyle-based treatment for acne.
  • There are many bigger, more important root causes of acne. You need to fix your diet and lifestyle to really cure these root causes of acne (that’s what our book is all about!).

In my opinion, if you want clear skin, there are too many reasons to not quit coffee. It tends to cause acne, especially in acne-prone individuals, and if you’re already struggling with acne, chances are you could boost your results by quitting coffee, and thereby helping to re-normalize your digestion, immune system, and hormones.

Tips for avoiding withdrawal symptoms while quitting coffee are here.

You can replace coffee with some organic white tea, green tea, or herbal tea, or just drop the idea altogether and just drink a green smoothie with breakfast! Plenty of clear-skin-friendly options to choose from. Decaf is also a halfway decent solution, but still causes problems for me (nervousness, irritated stomach and throat from the acidity, etc.), so best to drop coffee altogether. (On the regular, that is! I do enjoy caffeinated coffee on occasion – just not as a daily ritual. That one’s up to you.)

Thanks much to Richard Northrop, a physiologist from Rochester, for providing the inspiration (and some excellent scientific explanations) for this article.

Sources (click to expand)

  1.  http://individual.troweprice.com/public/Retail/Planning-&-Research/Connections/Coffee/Coffee-For-Your-Health ^
  2. Coffee, glucose homeostasis, and insulin resistance: physiological mechanisms and mediators. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2008 Dec;33(6):1290-300. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19088791 ^
  3. Coffee consumption and the decreased risk of diabetes mellitus type 2. Ned Tijdschr Geneeskd. 2006 Aug 19;150(33):1821-5. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16967592 ^
  4. Effects of caffeine on human behavior. Food Chem Toxicol. 2002 Sep;40(9):1243-55. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12204388 ^
  5. Caffeine effects on cardiovascular and neuroendocrine responses to acute psychosocial stress and their relationship to level of habitual caffeine consumption. Psychosom Med. 1990 May-Jun;52(3):320-36. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2195579 ^
  6. Caffeine affects cardiovascular and neuroendocrine activation at work and home. Psychosom Med. 2002 Jul-Aug;64(4):595-603. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12140349 ^
  7. Stress-like adrenocorticotropin responses to caffeine in young healthy men. Pharmacol Biochem Behav. 1996 Nov;55(3):365-9. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8951977 ^
  8. Inheritable stimulatory effects of caffeine on steroidogenic acute regulatory protein expression and cortisol production in human adrenocortical cells. Chem Biol Interact. 2012 Jan 5;195(1):68-75. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22100783 ^
  9. Caffeinated coffee does not acutely affect energy intake, appetite, or inflammation but prevents serum cortisol concentrations from falling in healthy men. J Nutr. 2011 Apr 1;141(4):703-7. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21346100 ^
  10. Immunodeficiency via glucocorticoids. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glucocorticoid#Immunodeficiency ^
  11. Caffeinated coffee consumption impairs blood glucose homeostasis in response to high and low glycemic index meals in healthy men. Am J Clin Nutr. 2008 May;87(5):1254-61. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18469247 ^
  12. Metabolic and hormonal effects of caffeine: randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled crossover trial. Metabolism. 2007 Dec;56(12):1694-8. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17998023 ^
  13. Caffeine ingestion increases the insulin response to an oral-glucose-tolerance test in obese men before and after weight loss. Am J Clin Nutr. 2004 Jul;80(1):22-8. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15213023 ^
  14. Inheritable stimulatory effects of caffeine on steroidogenic acute regulatory protein expression and cortisol production in human adrenocortical cells. Chem Biol Interact. 2012 Jan 5;195(1):68-75. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22100783 ^
  15. Acute caffeine ingestion and glucose tolerance in women with or without gestational diabetes mellitus. J Obstet Gynaecol Can. 2009 Apr;31(4):304-12. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19497149 ^
  16. Glucose homeostasis remains altered by acute caffeine ingestion following 2 weeks of daily caffeine consumption in previously non-caffeine-consuming males. Br J Nutr. 2007 Sep;98(3):556-62. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17524180 ^
  17. Consumption of caffeinated coffee and a high carbohydrate meal affects postprandial metabolism of a subsequent oral glucose tolerance test in young, healthy males. Br J Nutr. 2010 Mar;103(6):833-41. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19889241 ^
  18. Caffeine free for optimum health. http://pacificfit.net/nutritional-supplements/coffee/#Anchor-Caffeine-49575 ^
  19. Vitamins and minerals that affect the immune system.  United States Department of Veterans Affairs. http://www.hiv.va.gov/patient/diet/vitamin-mineral-chart.asp ^
  20. Inhibition of food iron absorption by coffee. Am J Clin Nutr March 1983 vol. 37 no. 3 416-420. http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/37/3/416.abstract ^
  21. Ten reasons to quit your coffee! http://drhyman.com/blog/2012/06/13/ten-reasons-to-quit-your-coffee/#close ^
  22. An investigation into Fusarium spp. associated with coffee and banana plants as potential pathogens of robusta coffee. African Journal of Ecology, Volume 45, Issue Supplement s1, pages 91–95, March 2007. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2028.2007.00744.x/abstract ^
  23. Incidence of microflora and of ochratoxin A in green coffee beans (Coffea arabica). Food Addit Contam. 2003 Dec;20(12):1127-31. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14726276 ^
  24. The occurrence of ochratoxin A in coffee. Food Chem Toxicol. 1995 May;33(5):341-55. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7759018 ^
  25. Why bad coffee makes you weak. http://www.bulletproofexec.com/why-bad-coffee-makes-you-weak/ ^
  26. http://www.thefragrantleaf.com/caffeine-and-tea ^

{ 114 Comments }

  1. Bemmygail Abanilla says

    Thank you so much for confirming this! So my story is this, I started freelancing home based full time since Feb this year. When I worked in an office before, I can’t live a day without 1 coffee drink, and I always have this flawless glowing skin without pimples. Now working at home, coffee is so easy to prepare, that I drink it 3 times a day! And yes, since May this year, I am struggling with gross acne all over my face! I already tried everything I can think of, I really thought this is because of chemicals I use, but I think it’s because of less sleep which is caused by too much coffee. I can now only sleep 5-7 hours a day, before I can sleep 8-10, but now it’s a struggle to sleep! So this confirms it! Goodbye coffee!

    • Devin Mooers says

      Wow, yeah, that loss of sleep sounds like it would really shut down your immune system, drive your cortisol levels wild, exhaust your adrenals, and give you acne. Good idea to kick the coffee and reclaim that lost sleep! 🙂

  2. Reyn says

    I drink coffee 3times or 4times a day. 8-9am, 12-1pm, 3pm or 6pm. But I can also drink 6.6liters of water a day. Is it still worse even though I drink a lot of water?

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Reyn! Wow, that’s a lot of coffee and water. I still think it’s best to limit coffee to zero or 1 cup per day max. Why are you drinking that much water? Is it tap water? If so, do you know if you’re in a place that fluoridates the water?

  3. Cherie says

    Hi, I’m just wondering what is considered chronic coffee consumption. I drink one coffee every day first thing in the morning, & have done for years. Is this chronic, or is one a day generally ok? And yes, I do suffer from acne 🙁

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Cherie! I’d say that’s probably totally fine. I DO recommend drinking organic coffee (since coffee is one of the crops most sprayed with pesticides, including fluoride-containing pesticides), and I also recommend using fluoride-free water to brew your coffee (and for any other drinking water). We’ve recently discovered how big of a problem fluoride can be for acne – it’s pretty gnarly how many negative effects it has on the body, many of which tie into the acne cycle.

  4. Kishika says

    Since I have been drinking dark coffee I can see the complextion of my skin is getting darker and my skin doesnt have the glow it had before. I wanted to know am I thinkng right? Is it because of black coffee only?

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Kishika! That’s really impossible to know without knowing your entire diet, environment, supplement use, health history, etc. Very complicated question that I’m afraid I can’t answer here!

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