If you’re like me, you need caffeine in order to function after you wake up. If you’re also like me, you may have noticed a link between your morning cup of coffee or tea and your skin – can too much caffeine really cause acne?
There’s no way I could give up my morning ritual of consuming caffeine, so I decided to dive into the research and find out what the best and worst caffeinated drinks for acne-prone skin were – and the results might surprise you.
For some folks, consuming high-quality tea isn’t just a safer choice than coffee for acne-prone skin – it can actually help treat and prevent acne from forming in the first place.
However, in other cases, some individuals with sensitivities to certain compounds found in tea, or those who struggle with hormonal acne, tea can be a real nightmare for acne-prone skin.
How do you know which camp you fall into? Is tea helping or hurting your skin?
Well, it all depends on three things: caffeine sensitivity, oxalate sensitivity, and thyroid health.
But before we get to these factors, let’s break down the benefits of tea and why if you don’t have issues with any of the factors above, it’s a great choice for clear skin, and considerably safer than coffee.
Benefits of tea for acne
Because all types of tea share the same plant (Camellia sinensis) and are just harvested and processed differently, the benefits of tea for acne are fairly consistent across the 4 main types of tea: black, green, white, and oolong (more on herbal tea later).
Certain types of tea contain more or fewer antioxidants and skin-healing properties, which we’ll go into later in the article.
Most teas contain significant amounts of antioxidants, which are compounds that help protect cells from oxidation and damage.
Antioxidants help treat acne by preventing sebum oil on the skin from oxidizing (ie: going bad). When sebum oil becomes oxidized due to hormones, damage from sunlight, or environmental factors (air pollution, smoking, etc.), it can easily block and clog pores, leading to acne infections. Antioxidants can also protect skin cells from damaging molecules known as free radicals.
One of the specific antioxidants found in tea, epigallocatechin gallate-3 (EGCG), is particularly useful at fighting acne:
- EGCG helps prevent damage from UV rays1https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26178731
- EGCG may help prevent and treat chronic inflammation and inflammatory acne2https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23871988
- EGCG is 25 to 100 times more potent than vitamin C and vitamin E when it comes to antioxidant potential3https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2888220/?tool=pubmed
Drinking tea is a safe and effective way to get all the benefits of antioxidants without many risks. Studies have shown that supplementing with antioxidants might actually do more harm than good.
2. Lower Insulin Levels
Insulin is a nightmare for hormonal acne. When the body releases insulin after a meal, it also activates the release of several other acne-causing hormones and compounds, including IGF-1, IGFBP-3, and IL-1. Together, these hormones trigger just about every root cause of acne:
- Overproduction of sebum oil and skin cells
- Causes dead skin cells to become scaley and block pores
- Triggers inflammation that leads to pimples
It’s no surprise that nearly half of all Americans have insulin resistance, a condition where the body releases massive amounts of insulin after meals.4https://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-diabetes-in-america-20170718-htmlstory.html
On top of the other amazing benefits that tea’s polyphenols and antioxidants offer, they also lower levels of insulin and decrease insulin resistance. Tea has been shown to blunt the effects of foods that typically spike insulin levels and increase insulin activity by 15 times.5https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/jf020514c
Those are some pretty dramatic results, and a huge plus for anyone struggling with dietary-driven hormonal acne.
Note: For more info see my full guide to Insulin, Carbs, Sugar, and Acne
3. Tea can decrease DHT levels
If you’ve read our guide to hormonal acne, you’ll know that I usually don’t recommend lowering testosterone in order to achieve clear skin, especially if you’re a male.
With that being said, lowering DHT levels (the specific male sex hormone responsible for acne) while maintaining healthy overall testosterone levels may be a generally safe and effective method at preventing and treating hormonal acne in men and women.
One study found that EGCG may be effective at preventing testosterone from converting into DHT.6https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3665011/ Lower DHT generally means less sebum oil, which means a lower risk for clogged pores and acne infections.
It’s worth noting that there are also studies that find green tea lowers overall testosterone production in rats. While we lack human studies to support this, it’s something to be aware of before consuming tea on a regular basis (especially if you’re a male).
4. Gut health
The polyphenols found in black and green tea may help improve your overall digestive health by acting as prebiotics.7http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/black-tea-may-help-with-weight-loss-too
Prebiotics help promote the growth of healthy bacteria in the gut. A healthier gut microbiome can help with acne by leading to improved absorption of certain nutrients, like zinc, improved mood, decreased stress, and fat loss8https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/02/evidence-mounts-gut-bacteria-can-influence-mood-prevent-depression.
Still, the study from UCLA that found these prebiotic properties in tea was conducted on mice using black and green tea extracts. These prebiotic polyphenols may not have the same beneficial effect in humans or in brewed tea.
What about coffee?
In my personal experience of running the GoodGlow blog, I’ve seen ten to twenty times more people have problems with coffee than with tea.
- Tea is higher in antioxidants
- Tea usually has a compound called L-Theanine in it, which helps promote a healthy stress response and can offset some of the effects of caffeine
- Tea has less caffeine than coffee (oftentimes by a significant amount)
- Most tea is less acidic than coffee, which makes it easier to digest
- Tea intolerance seems to be far less common than coffee intolerance
Again, it’s hard to find hard data against coffee, simply because most of the studies analyzing coffee are either done by coffee producers and manufacturers, or coffee alternatives (soda companies) looking to skew research in favor of coffee alternatives, although one study did find that caffeine (without L-theanine, found in tea) can essentially double the body’s natural stress response9Lane, J. D., Adcock, R. A., Williams, R. B., & Kuhn, C. M. (1990). Caffeine effects on cardiovascular and neuroendocrine responses to acute psychosocial stress and their relationship to level of habitual caffeine consumption. Psychosomatic Medicine, 52(3), 320–336. https://doi.org/10.1097/00006842-199005000-0000610Lane, J. D., Adcock, R. A., Williams, R. B., & Kuhn, C. M. (1990). Caffeine effects on cardiovascular and neuroendocrine responses to acute psychosocial stress and their relationship to level of habitual caffeine consumption. Psychosomatic Medicine, 52(3), 320–336. https://doi.org/10.1097/00006842-199005000-00006.
Potential downsides of tea for acne
Tea isn’t some acne-curing miracle drink – just like most foods, it has its fair share of potential downsides and risks as well, especially if you struggle with any of the three factors I mentioned in the first part of this article:
- Caffeine sensitivity
- Oxalate sensitivity
- Thyroid issues
1. Caffeine and Acne
Caffeine can be problematic for acne-prone skin for a few reasons:
- It tends to increase cortisol levels.11https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2257922/ Cortisol is the body’s stress hormone. Chronic stress can lead to acne by increasing insulin levels (leading to hormonal acne) and suppressing the immune system (leading to inflammatory acne)
- Caffeine can make it more difficult to sleep, and increase the likelihood of becoming sleep deprived. This can lead to increased levels of acne-causing hormones and a weaker immune system
Like most other compounds that can cause acne, the dosage makes the poison. Typically, tea is considerably lower in caffeine than coffee:
Not only is tea lower in caffeine overall, but one study found that black tea created considerably lower cortisol responses compared to other forms of caffeine.12https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17013636
Still, if you’re drinking several cups of tea per day, you might be putting a lot of stress on your body (no pun intended) and triggering a large cortisol response. Some people might find that their skin is particularly sensitive to caffeine.
Listen to your body, and remember – everything in moderation.
2. Heavy metals, fluoride, and thyroid-driven acne
Tea shrubs and trees naturally absorb several heavy metals through their roots, including lead, aluminum, and mercury.13https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3821942/
While these metals can have significant consequences for your health, studies show that the vast majority of teas you can purchase show very low levels of heavy metals after steeping for 3 minutes.14https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3821942/
The main concern around tea and acne is fluoride.
Many individuals with adult acne claim going fluoride-free cured their cystic acne. One dermatologist even found that telling his patients not to use toothpaste with fluoride led to fewer pimples around the mouth.15https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamadermatology/fullarticle/535073 It also looks like societies with diets naturally low in fluoride have considerably less acne.16https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12472346
Why is this?
Well, the main reason is that too much fluoride can lead to thyroid problems, a common cause of stubborn acne. Even a relatively small amount of fluoride found in drinking water seems to be able to significantly impact thyroid hormones. This can lead to hypothyroidism, a condition where the thyroid doesn’t make enough thyroid hormone.
Can you guess what one of the primary symptoms of hypothyroidism is?
Now, before you freak out, it’s important to note that not everyone is extremely sensitive to fluoride, and depending on the number of other nutrients in your diet (especially iodine), you might find that the fluoride in tea has little to no effect on your thyroid function. Others might find that the fluoride in tea, or even tap water, is enough to cause acne.
Iodine, which is found in salmon, egg yolks, tuna, seaweed, and other seafood, directly counteracts the effects of fluoride in the body and helps promote proper thyroid health. This makes it great for individuals who drink large quantities of tea and want to protect themselves from Thyroid-driven hormonal acne.
That’s why iodine is one of the few supplements we actually recommend that most people take.
I also find that fluorinated toothpaste leads to breakouts around the mouth, but drinking tea does not. Test it out for yourself and see what happens.
3. Tea is high in oxalates
Tea is extremely high in compounds called “oxalates”.
Again, this is something I break down in full detail in the eBook in the GoodGlow Clear Skin Resource Kit, but I’ll summarize it here…
Oxalates are antinutrients that bind to calcium in the blood and which can lead to things like kidney stones or inflammation. While kidney stones are not good, we’ll focus on the inflammation aspect of oxalates because this directly pertains to acne.
Oxalates are a highly debated and contentious topic in the world of antinutrients. Some nutritionists and experts claim that oxalates present little to no health risks, while others (especially in the carnivore diet community) claim that they’re among the most damaging.
One study found that oxalates may be responsible for, “A wide variety of other health problems related to inflammation, auto-immunity, mitochondrial dysfunction, mineral balance, connective tissue integrity, urinary tract issues and poor gut function”17Mercola, J. (2019, November 10). The Damaging Effects of Oxalates on the Human Body. Retrieved February 2, 2021, from Mercola website: https://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2019/11/10/oxalic-toxicity.aspx.
With regards to acne, what we’re concerned with is oxalate’s effect on inflammation.
Inflammation is the process that takes a relatively harmless and routine bacterial infection on the skin and turns it into a red, protruding, painful cyst or comedone – in other words, a pimple.
I’ve written a full guide on Inflammation and Acne, but the key thing to understand is that without inflammation, acne doesn’t become visible and noticeable.
If your body doesn’t fire an inflammatory response, there’s no redness, no bumps, and no pimples – what this means with regards to tea is that if you trigger an inflammatory response every time you consume tea due to the oxalate content, then you’re putting yourself in a position for more inflammatory acne.
This won’t be the case for everyone, and in fact, many researchers believe small amounts of oxalates are beneficial, however, if you eat a pretty clean diet and still can’t figure out the culprit, it may be oxalates.
Watch out for low-Quality/Commercial Tea
While it might seem like that cold, sweet tea from your favorite fast-food joint is a relatively skin-friendly choice, you’d be sadly mistaken.
If you’re adding sugar to your tea, or buying sweetened, pre-made tea beverages, then you’re not doing your skin any favors. These drinks are extremely high in sugar, which causes rapid spikes in blood sugar and triggers a large insulin response, which can lead to hormonal acne.
A single bottle of sweetened iced tea can have as much sugar as a soda.
Also, don’t expect the antioxidants in bottled or ready-made tea to help you out much.
While it’s true that tea is high in antioxidants, and more particularly, EGCG, the USDA found that ready-to-drink and instant teas had practically no EGCG.18https://www.ars.usda.gov/ARSUserFiles/80400525/Data/Flav/Flav_R03.pdf This means that your favorite grab-and-go tea is probably missing out on practically all the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits of regular brewed tea.
Best teas for acne
Overall, pretty much every type of tea is a solid choice for clear skin, and each has its own unique benefits and drawbacks. There isn’t really a single “best” tea for acne, as long as you consume it in moderation.
It’s not the type of tea that matters, it’s the quality of the tea and how often you drink it.
If you’re constantly drinking sweetened iced tea or 8 cups of caffeinated tea a day, it’s not going to matter how many antioxidants you’re adding to your diet – too much sugar, caffeine, and heavy metals can cause acne.
That’s why I generally recommend consuming high-quality, organic tea with no artificial additives or sweeteners in moderation.
Depending on your skin, preferences, caffeine tolerance, and budget, different types of tea make sense for different people.
Black tea is the most popular form of tea and the type with the most proven benefits, alongside green tea.
Black tea is great for acne for a few reasons:
- Compounds in black tea increase insulin sensitivity. This leads to lower levels of insulin after meals (insulin is a very problematic acne-causing hormone)19https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/jf020514c
- Black tea may promote a balanced gut microbiome and fight off harmful bacteria20https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/87559129.2010.535233
- Contains antioxidants and polyphenols that help protect the skin from free radicals
There are a few potential downsides to black tea for acne-prone skin.
- Black tea has the highest concentration of caffeine out of any type of tea. Too much caffeine can cause acne by increasing cortisol levels and making it more difficult to sleep
- Black tea tends to have pretty high levels of fluoride (1.9mg per liter), which can be a major cause behind adult acne
Because it’s the most popular type of tea, there is also an increased risk of black tea drinks and products containing acne-causing sweeteners, heavy metals, and toxins. For this reason, it’s best to purchase organic, single-origin tea with no added sugar whenever possible.
I drink black tea less than other teas, but still, I enjoy Numi Organic’s Aged Earl Grey.
Note: I recommend Numi Organic Tea for a few reasons: it’s organic, sustainably-sourced, and contains no added oils or flavoring. Still, there are plenty of other brands out there that make solid, organic tea bags and loose leaves if you don’t like Numi.
You can’t talk about skin-clearing drinks without talking about green tea.
Without a doubt, the largest benefit of green tea is that it’s loaded with skin-clearing antioxidants. Green tea generally has more antioxidants than any other type of tea.
In particular, it’s loaded with EGCG (151mg / cup), an antioxidant that can help decrease levels of acne-causing hormones and sebum oil, prevent inflammation, and protect the skin from sun damage and acne-causing free radicals.
Green tea contains 35-45mg of caffeine per cup, which is about average when it comes to caffeinated teas. Still, it’s about three times less caffeine than a cup of coffee, and, like black tea, was shown to have only a moderate effect on stress hormones compared to other forms of caffeine.21https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17013636
Unfortunately, green tea is also very high in fluoride, containing roughly 1.6mg per liter.22https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0269749198001870 That’s about the same as two cups of tap water in the United States. Again, you’ll want to see if you’re sensitive to fluoride or not. Personally, I can drink green tea every day without issue, but toothpaste with fluoride causes pimples around my mouth.
Choosing the right green tea is tricky. If you’ve read our article on matcha green tea, you probably know that matcha is superior because of it’s extremely high concentration of antioxidants. One study found that matcha had 137 times more EGCG than a popular Chinese-grown green tea and three times more EGCG than green teas found in other scientific studies.23https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14518774
More antioxidants mean more protection from free radicals, less sebum oil, lower inflammation, and less insulin. The end result? Less acne.
I prefer Numi Organic Ceremonial-Grade Matcha Powder, but you can also get them in tea bags as well. They’re both organic and sourced from Japan, so they’ll have fewer heavy metals than green tea from China.
At the end of the day though, I wouldn’t sweat it too much – high-quality green tea is high-quality green tea regardless of whether or not it’s matcha. Don’t feel like you need to break the bank just because matcha has more antioxidants.
White tea is the least processed tea and also arguably the safest caffeinated tea for acne-prone skin.
- White tea has the lowest caffeine content of any caffeinated tea (15-30mg / cup)
- Very high levels of antioxidants, including ECGC (46mg / cup)
- Low levels of fluoride and heavy metals
- Bonus: Won’t stain your teeth like black tea
White tea isn’t studied in medical or nutritional literature nearly as much as black or green tea, so our knowledge of its potential benefits is a bit more limited.
White tea with a dash of added matcha is my go-to morning beverage. I feel a bit more comfortable with white tea than green tea thanks to the low fluoride content. I drink either Numi Organic White Rose or a local loose-leaf white tea I buy occasionally when I’m feeling sophisticated.
Oolong tea is a pretty rare tea. It’s mainly consumed in China and requires a much longer and more intensive brewing process than other teas.
Oolong tea is right between green tea and black tea when it comes to caffeine content, with 37 – 55mg per cup. Again, that’s still less than half the amount of caffeine in a cup of coffee.
It has more antioxidants (EGCG) than black tea (81.58mg / cup) and shows pretty much the same benefits for acne that other teas containing ECGC show: lower inflammation, less insulin, protection against UV and free radical damage.
If you struggle with eczema, oolong tea might be a unique solution. One study found that 63% of patients with eczema noticed an improvement in their skin after one month of consuming a liter of oolong tea per day.24https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11176659
Oolong tea has about as much fluoride as your typical black or green tea (1.32 mg/Liter), so on that front, it may be problematic for individuals with thyroid issues.25https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0269749198001870
I don’t drink oolong tea, but if you’re interested in it, Numi Organic makes a high-quality whole leaf oolong tea.
Herbal tea isn’t really “tea” in the traditional sense.
While all the other types of tea come from the same plant, camellia sinensis, herbal tea is a collection of herbs, spices, and dried plants that have a similar effect to tea when steeped in hot water.
That doesn’t mean that herbal tea isn’t beneficial for acne – in a sense, it’s actually the safest “tea” for acne-prone skin because it doesn’t have any caffeine. It’s also extremely low in fluoride (0.02 – 0.09mg/Liter).26https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0269749198001870
Common ingredients in herbal tea, like tumeric, spearmint, peppermint, lemon, ginger, and rose, have pretty powerful effects, ranging from improving digestive health to lowering inflammation and insulin levels. They might not single-handedly cure your acne, but they can be a great substitute for sugary drinks or even regular tea if you’re sensitive to caffeine.
Again, I go with Numi Organic Tumeric Tea, mainly for the anti-inflammatory effects of turmeric.
Putting it all together
Overall, tea is usually a great choice for acne-prone skin.
The antioxidants in tea can protect the skin from environmental and UV damage, lower inflammation, heal the gut, and reduce levels of acne-causing hormones.
The downsides of tea are pretty minor, and only become serious threats for acne if you consume massive quantities of low-quality tea. Caffeine overconsumption and the high-fluoride content in tea are really what you want to look out for, especially if you have a thyroid issue. Teas with added sugars or oils can also be a problem for acne-prone skin.
Would I recommend tea over other caffeinated drinks, like coffee?
Quite frankly, I would. I think tea is a generally safer choice than coffee for acne-prone skin thanks to its lower caffeine content, cortisol-reducing effects, and antioxidants.
Again, you need to figure out what works for your own body. Some people might find that fluoride or caffeine in tea causes acne. If this is the case, or you’ve tried cleaning up your diet with the GoodGlow Clean Skin Resource Kit and are still experiencing acne, you might want to try cutting out tea for a month or so to see if it has any effect on your skin. Everyone’s skin is different and unique – listen to your body.
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