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.

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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. Fortified wheat products sprayed with pesticides (may wreak havoc on your gut and disrupt hormone levels)
  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.

About Devin Mooers

Devin MooersHey! Over the past 10 years, I've developed a powerful system for clearing acne with a little-known diet- and lifestyle-based method, and I want to spread the love. That's why I started Clear Skin Forever back in 2011. I studied engineering and product design at Stanford University, and graduated in the top 5% of my class, but afterward, I decided to focus on writing about health, since I found it so fulfilling to help people clear their acne for good. Thanks for reading, and sign up for email updates to stay in the loop with clear skin tips! Also, be sure to check out our book if you haven't yet, all about how to fix acne permanently with diet and lifestyle changes. We've helped thousands of people get clear skin this way!

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. ^
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{ 51 Comments }

  1. kaleigh phillips says

    Starting to use the “teccino” chicory root based coffee replacer and let go of the coffee drinking. What are your thoughts on this ? Different sources I found state it as good for the gut because the chichory fiber is a prebiotic. Any thoughts?

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Kaleigh! Prebiotic fiber can provide great food for beneficial gut bacteria for sure. It’s essentially a root brew decoction, which have been used medicinally for ages. I’ve started making herbal tea in the mornings from bulk herbs (goldenrod, calendula, chamomile, pine needles, fir tips, etc.), many of which we’ve collected ourselves (but many of which we get from the co-op). I definitely feel way better when I wake up, and am not so stressed out later, since dropping coffee!

  2. Sam says

    Hi Devin,

    How low PUFA diets do you recommend? Do you think you can get all the PUFAs you need from eating beans, whole grains and whole milk? I have always felt terrible every time I have eaten seeds, fish oil and other EFA supplements.

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Sam! Yeah, definitely. Very low PUFA is good. It’s all about quality and freshness with PUFA – most fish oils, seeds, supplements, etc. are totally rancid by the time you ingest them. Yes, the Inuit traditionally eat tons of seal blubber (high in PUFA), but it’s extremely fresh and non-oxidized when ingested, and they also eat thyroid glands of seals, which provides loads of iodine and thyroid hormone to block lipid peroxidation of that PUFA.

      How do you feel with raw oysters, have you tried that? They’re a prime acne-busting food, with lots of zinc and also super-fresh DHA.

  3. Brooke Turley says

    Ok, you’re officially talking crappy science, in light of this article about marigolds and chickens. Apparently it very much does indeed improve eggs to have marigolds in the chickens’ diets.

    https://www.google.com/amp/s/scialert.net/fulltext/amp.php%3fdoi=ijps.2017.11.15

    I certainly hope that no one has gone and altered either their own diet or that of their poultry, just because of your half-baked scare tactics. Good grief. “ Fake orange” in nature, indeed.

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Brooke! Wow, color me (majorly) wrong. Thanks for pointing this out! That was really sloppy – I don’t know what I thought that marigold color would not be related to an antioxidant carotene. Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy. I’m sorry about this carelessness – I have removed this from the post after following up on the articles you linked! I will try to be more careful next time.

  4. Brooke Turley says

    Hi, I hate to burst your anti-marigold bubble, but the thing is, marigolds are orange themselves due to caratenoids! They’re full of nutrients, actually, and there’s no such thing as “fake orange” in nature.

    (Unless I count the time that my dad consumed massive quantities of beta-carotene in his heroic search for a natural “fake tan”. That time, “fake orange” definitely fit the bill.)

    Here’s an article that details the nutritional profile of marigolds:

    https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1756464612000734

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Brooke! (Just duplicating the response here to your other comment) Wow, color me (majorly) wrong. Thanks for pointing this out! That was really sloppy – I don’t know what I thought that marigold color would not be related to an antioxidant carotene. Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy. I’m sorry about this carelessness – I have removed this from the post after following up on the articles you linked! I will try to be more careful next time.

  5. tom hennessy says

    Researchers in a recent study took 60 women with hyperandrogenemia which has cystic acne as a major symptom, and reduced the iron in 30 by phlebotomy, and gave the ‘standard of care’ to the other 30, found, phlebotomy to reduce iron levels was as effective as the drugs used in the ‘standard of care’.

    Effect of phlebotomy versus oral contraceptives containing cyproterone acetate on the clinical and biochemical parameters in women with polycystic ovary syndrome: a randomized controlled trial. J Ovarian Res 12, 78 (2019).

    https://doi.org/10.1186/s13048-019-0554-9

    There seems to be more to the iron than we fully realize ..

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Tom – whoa, that’s fascinating! Great find! Amazing that phlebotomy brought on normal menstruation in 44% of subjects – I bet if they also added 3,000 IU of retinol, it would have improved results even more (vit. A boosts ceruloplasmin production to bind excess free iron).

    • Sean says

      Hey Rey, do you consume Magnesium through supplements or are you making an effort to eat Magnesium rich foods?

      (just curious)

  6. Luo says

    Stress can induce a series of negative effects on the human body. Many people are easily depressed under pressure, which has a bad influence on the treatment of acne.
    Some people overeating under pressure, too much sugar can easily induce acne.
    And stress can make people unable to sleep, and lack of sleep has too much effect on the skin.

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Master your acne in 4 weeks or less
  • Fix the root causes of your acne: fluoride, diet, sleep, stress & more
  • Exclusive forum access with 4,000+ members
  • Food Explorer App with skin safety ratings of 450+ foods
  • 96% of customers satisfied