Is Tea Helping or Hurting Your Skin? Best Teas For Acne

Is Tea Helping or Hurting Your Skin? Best Teas For Acne

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 find out what the best and worst caffeinated drinks for acne-prone skin were, and the results might surprise you.

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.

Tea is an amazing source of antioxidants that protect skin cells, lower levels of acne-causing hormones, and even fight inflammation.  Tea also has compounds that may help promote a healthy gut microbiome (a happy gut means happy skin).  Finally, tea triggers a smaller cortisol (stress) response than other forms of caffeine, which makes it a safer alternative for acne-prone skin.

I’m not claiming that tea is going to single-handedly cure your acne.  In fact, certain types of tea can actually make existing acne worse.  That’s why I’ll go over not only why some tea is great for acne-prone skin, but also why you should avoid certain types.  Lastly, I’ll go over the best (and worst) types and brands of tea for acne-prone skin.

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 less antioxidants and skin-healing properties, which we’ll go into later in the article.

1. Antioxidants

Most teas contain significant amounts of antioxidants, which are compounds that help protect cells from oxidation and damage.

Antioxidants can help fight acne by lowering levels of acne-causing hormones and protect the skin. Green tea has the most antioxidants, followed by white tea, oolong tea, and black tea

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.

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.

The good news is, most of the downsides of tea are irrelevant for acne unless you’re drinking low-quality tea or extremely high quantities of it.

Caffeine and Acne

Caffeine can be problematic for acne-prone skin for a few reasons:

  • It tends to increase cortisol levels.9https://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:

Alt-text: Coffee contains between 95 - 200mg of caffeine per 8oz. cup.  Black tea contains 40-70mg, oolong contains 3 7 -55mg, green tea contains 35 - 45mg, white tea contains 15 - 30mg, and herbal tea contains no caffeine.

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.10https://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 they’re skin is particularly sensitive to caffeine.

Listen to your body, and remember – everything in moderation.

Heavy metals, fluoride, and acne

Tea shrubs and trees naturally absorb several heavy metals through their roots, including lead, aluminum, and mercury.11https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3821942/

Tea may contribute to acne due to high fluoride levels. This can cause thyroid problems. Black tea is highest in fluoride, followed by green tea, oolong, white, and herbal tea

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.12https://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.13https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamadermatology/fullarticle/535073  It also looks like societies with diets naturally low in fluoride have considerably less acne.14https://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?

Acne.

Now, before you freak out, it’s important to note that not everyone is extremely sensitive to fluoride, and depending on the amount 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.

I personally find that fluorinated toothpaste leads to breakouts around the mouth, but drinking tea does not.  Test it out for yourself and see what happens.

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.15https://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

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)16https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/jf020514c
  • Black tea may promote a balanced gut microbiome and fight off harmful bacteria17https://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. 

Green Tea

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.18https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17013636

Unfortunately, green tea is also very high in fluoride, containing roughly 1.6mg per liter.19https://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.20https://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

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

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.21https://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.22https://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

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).23https://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 tumeric.

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 is 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 Diet Blueprint 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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