The Sugar Solution: How to Save Your Skin From the Sweet Stuff

Kristin Booker

Image Source RF/Chad Springer

We’re going to be honest: we love sweets as much as you do. From a little sweetness in our coffee to the occasional candy store or ice cream binge, we understand that deep, undying love affair most of us have with all things sweet.

The issue is that sugar doesn’t love us back the way we’d like, and it wreaks havoc on the body, especially your face. When we talked to our top experts (and we’re about to share the love) on what sugar does to your skin, we were so shocked at just what it causes that we realized that we had to break up with the sweet stuff. Let’s talk about what sugar does to your skin and how to cut it out, once and for all:

First of all, what does sugar do to the body, and what specifically does it do to the skin?

“Sugar – and all carbohydrates in general, doesn’t matter if it’s from a potato or a cupcake – increase your insulin levels and they increase inflammation in the body,” says Dr. Tanzi. “That inflammation over time leads to trouble with multiple systems in the body, your skin being one of them. There’s recent research that points to sugar accelerating the breakdown of collagen in the skin, which can lead to the acceleration of aging. Also, excessive insulin also leads to excessive redness (including rosacea) and acne in the skin. So, for some people it’s true that too much chocolate and pizza can increase your acne.”

Simple Skincare nutritionist Ellie Krieger cautions that you should make sure to clarify what kind of sugar you’re ingesting. “First of all, it’s really important to distinguish added sugar (sugar added to foods to make them sweet) from naturally-occurring sugars in healthy foods like fruit and dairy,” she advises. “You want to avoid the added stuff – which can creep in to almost any packaged food, even if it seems healthy and doesn’t taste particularly sweet.”

Celebrity aesthetician Joanna Vargas takes it one step further. “People have a variety of reactions to sugar, but everyone can agree that it’s somewhat of a toxin to the body. It causes inflammation, particularly in the digestive system, which has a direct effect on the way your skin looks and feels. If you’re eating things that are hard to digest or irritating to the body, your skin reacts immediately: you’ll get more breakouts, experience puffiness around the eyes, and the lymphatic system can’t function properly, which slows the delivery of nutrients to the skin and the ability to remove waste. You’ll have breakouts, clogged pores and more breakouts.”

MORE: Expert Recipes to Help Your Skin and Your Waistline 

So, what are the long-term effects of a sugary diet on the skin?

“It puts a lot of stress on the skin, aging it faster than it would otherwise,” explains Dr. Tanzi. “The skin is always in a push-pull between collagen creation and breakdown. As we age and the skin gets damaged from sun exposure, environmental factors or issues with things like a bad diet, it accelerates the rate at which the collagen breaks down.”

Vargas explains it can bring about a whole host of issues. “It causes dryness AND excess sebum production. The dryness is caused by the fact that there aren’t enough nutrients getting delivered to the face, the sebum is from irritation.”

She goes on to explain that any inflammation is bad, especially for prolonged periods. “Any time you’re causing inflammation in the body, it causes more cell mutation in the skin; it breaks down collagen and elastin, which means a lack of suppleness and youthful appearance. Also, more inflammation means rosacea can occur.”

Does sugar in your diet affect how you deal with your skin?

In a word: Yes. Ever notice that it doesn’t matter what you do to your face, it just seems to react? That sensitivity might be due to your ice cream addiction. “When someone has too much sugar and the skin has reacted with inflammation, it’s a lot harder for me to do my job because their skin overreacts to everything,” says Vargas. “I can’t do a fruit acid or detox peel because their skin is super sensitive. I can only do a gentle mask and/or I have to resort to just using my hands because their skin would react too much to anything else. It’s unfortunate because it limits what I can do.”

See also: acne equals more extractions. “You’ll also have more breakouts, so I have to do more extractions, and you’ll be more swollen from that, so I’ll have to do more LED light therapy so you don’t leave the room with swelling.” Yikes.

OK, so let’s talk about how to remove it from your diet.

“First and foremost, cut out all the ‘white:’ white flour and white sugar,” advises Dr. Tanzi. What about dairy (you know, because yogurt and milk are white?) “People think dairy is the issue, but it’s really only a problem for some. Primarily, you need to get rid of pasta, bread and sweets.” She suggests following a low-carb diet rid of simple sugars to solve the issue, filled with lean proteins and vegetables. “Just be careful with fruit,” she cautions. “It has a ton of sugar in it and it can shoot your insulin straight up.”

So, how about those cravings? Krieger has some helpful tips. “You can satisfy your sweet tooth with healthy and skin-loving whole or dried fruit like mango, berries, raisins and dates.” No, it’s not a cupcake, but it will definitely help.

MORE: Foods That Help Protect Your Skin From Sun Damage

Got it. What are some of the sneaky places sugar can hide that we might not think about?

Our experts pounced on this one. “Low-fat salad dressings,” Dr. Tanzi offered immediately. “They usually replace fat with loads of sugar. if you’re really trying to remove sugar and watch your sugar intake, you need to take care to read labels.”

Another evil and sneaky source of sugar? Flavored yogurt. “You think it’s healthy, and even though it’s loaded with protein, it’s also a huge shot of sugar first thing in the morning,” says Dr. Tanzi. “Maybe start with an egg white omelette with spinach and a little cheese. It stabilizes your blood sugar levels and will help you feel fuller longer without spiking your blood sugar. You’ll avoid that late morning sugar crash we all know so well.” She’s also not a fan of breakfast cereals. “Cereals have a massive amount of carbohydrates in them, so they raise your blood sugar, only to crash hard and maybe overeat at lunch. It’s not worth it.” She also says honey and agave are slightly better as sweeteners, but to use them sparingly.

Vargas had a few more suggestions. “Ketchup is loaded with sugar, as is cream cheese,” she says. Also, watch out for a popular diet trend. “No fruit juices, either,” warns Vargas. “I know people are really into juice cleanses, and all they’re drinking is really sugary-sweet juices, which isn’t really great for you.” She also mentions avoiding pre-packaged, so-called “healthy snacks.”  “I would avoid anything that’s pre-packed, like energy and protein bars, which are loaded with sugar.”

Fruit? How about fruit? “A lot of people also need to avoid bananas, which are also loaded with sugars; you’d almost be better off with a cupcake,” she says. “Bananas also tend to cause cystic acne in adults, so try to avoid them. When it comes to fruit, stick to berries only, maybe apples.”

How long until you can see results in your skin?

“I tell my patients if they feel like carbs and sugar are a factor in their skin to follow a low-carbohydrate diet, and they can usually see results in as little as a week or two,” says Dr. Tanzi. “If you’re really good about removing sugar, you can see improvement with redness, acne and rosacea in about a week. Others can see an impact in 3-4 weeks,” advises Vargas.

Oh, and while you’re waiting for the sugar to leave your body and stop wrecking your face, one more piece of advice. “The most helpful thing you can do while you’re detoxing (and even if you’re not) is to wear a hat and sunscreen when you’re outside and drink plenty of water.” You knew that was coming, but it bears repeating, right?