Will Going Vegetarian or Vegan Clear Acne?

Plate of vegetables and quinoa
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If you were to believe everything you read, a vegetarian or vegan diet would be a healthy, natural, and sure-fire way to clear your acne. A vegetarian doesn't eat any type of meat—no beef, pork, chicken, or seafood. So, can doing that prevent breakouts? Maybe. According to a few studies, acne may be linked to a high amount of animal protein in the diet.

The Link Between Meat and Acne

There is a protein-complex in the human body called mammalian target of rapamycin complex 1 (mTORC1).

mTORC1 is responsible for healthy cell growth and function. You can say that mTORC1 tells our cells what to do and how to do it.

Some researchers believe that mTORC1 turns on the pathway (or chain reaction) for the body to create acne breakouts. mTORC1 is activated by nutrients, especially amino acids like leucine. Meat, like beef and chicken, happens to be naturally high in leucine. But it's not just meat that contains leucine—certain proteins popular with vegetarians, like whey, egg, and soy are also high in this amino acid. 

Here's where it gets interesting: mTORC1 can be "overstimulated" by high amounts of leucine. When the mTORC1 pathway is over-activated, it can affect sebum (or oil) production, skin cell growth, and inflammation. Leucine has another trick up its sleeve: It acts as a building block for the sebaceous glands to create sebum (or oil). All of these factors are linked to acne development.

 

The over-activation of mTORC1 can also increase androgen hormones. Androgen hormones are known to be a big player in acne development. Plus, over-activation of this mTORC1 pathway has already been linked to certain diseases, like type-2 diabetes and cancer. 

The mTORC1 pathway is a very complex one, though.

So, to fully flesh out the theory that meat consumption actually contributes to acne breakouts, more research needs to be done. So far, there isn't a smoking gun. After all, eating a steak high in leucine doesn't automatically mean you'll break out with pimples. 

Bottom line: the jury is still out on this one. There hasn't been enough research done on the link between meat and acne to say conclusively one way or the other.

Will Going Vegan Help Clear Acne? 

Like vegetarians, vegans don't eat meat, but vegans also stay away from any foods that come from an animal—dairy products, eggs, and sometimes honey.

There is some evidence that dairy plays a role in acne development and severity. Dairy products have been shown to possibly trigger breakouts in sensitive people. Skim milk and cheese seem the most likely culprits. Just like with meat, these contain high amounts of leucine. Some studies suggest that the hormones in milk may also play a role. Others point to the high levels of insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) in milk.

Interestingly, IGF-1 also stimulates mTORC1. 

It's important to know that dairy consumption hasn't been shown to cause acne in people who typically have clear skin. Rather, milk may cause a worsening of existing breakouts for some people. 

Other animal-based foods like eggs, lard, and honey haven't been shown to have any influence on acne development, or they haven't been studied. 

Again, a vegan diet hasn't been proven to clear acne. Cutting back on dairy products might improve breakouts in some cases for some people. But a completely vegan diet doesn't seem to be necessary in any case.

I'm Vegetarian or Vegan and Still Have Acne! Why? 

Diet may play a role in acne development, but it's likely a supporting player rather than the star. You can have the healthiest diet ever, vegetarian, vegan, or otherwise. You can eschew sugar, cut out all junk foods, eat only organic foods... and still have acne. We all know people who eat meat and dairy products and never get so much as a pimple, and there are committed vegans who struggle with acne daily.

How our diets work on the body and skin is very complex and not completely understood. We do know there isn't a direct one-to-one link between any type of food and acne breakouts. So, obviously, it's not as simple as saying "meat causes pimples," or "dairy makes you break out." Drinking a glass of milk doesn't guarantee a breakout tomorrow; eating two slices of bacon won't cause two pimples to appear. 

For some people, certain foods may influence acne development and make existing breakouts worse.  For others, though, diet doesn't seem to impact acne one way or the other.

If becoming, or staying, vegetarian or vegan is important to you, there's no reason why you shouldn't (at least where acne is concerned). There are many different reasons why people choose a plant-based diet, be it for health reasons, to lose weight, or moral ideals. But if you're a card-carrying carnivore considering a switch to vegetarian fare solely because you're hoping to clear your skin, you'll likely be disappointed. Some people might see an improvement of their skin, but the chance that simply changing your diet will make acne completely disappear is slim.

So, How Do I Get My Acne Under Control? 

Already treating your acne and wanting to give your treatment a little boost? You now know that going vegetarian or vegan isn't a necessary step to take to clear your skin. You can get acne under control without major dietary changes. People do so all the time.

For mild acne and blackheads, over-the-counter acne products may be all you need. For the most effective OTC results, consider using a product that contains benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid. Use it for about 10 weeks and see if you get the improvement you want.

If your acne is moderate to severe, or if you've tried OTC products for a time without any results, skip the over-the-counter products (they're likely not strong enough). Instead, make an appointment with a dermatologist. There are plenty of prescription medications, both topical and oral, that can help clear your skin.

Just remember, dietary changes may help improve your skin in some cases. But the fastest and most effective way to clear acne is with a proven acne medication. 

Sources:

Bronsnick T, Murzaku EC, Rao BK. Diet in dermatology: Part I. Atopic dermatitis, acne, and nonmelanoma skin cancer. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2014;71(6):1039.

Danby FW. Turning acne on/off via mTORC1. Exp Derrmatol. 2013;22(7):505-6.

Katta R, Desai SP. Diet and dermatology: the role of dietary intervention in skin disease. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2014;7(7):46-51.

Melnik B. Dietary intervention in acne: Attenuation of increased mTORC1 signaling promoted by Western diet. Dermatoendocrinol. 2012; 4(1):20-32.

Melnik B. Linking diet to acne metabolomics, inflammation, and comedogenesis: an update. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2015;8:371-88.

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