5 Acne Triggering Pre-Workout Ingredients (+6 Natural Alternatives

Most pre-workout products are terrible for acne prone skin because they are loaded with artificial sweeteners and caffeine that will both dehydrate your skin and trigger an insulin spike at the same time. Because of this my recommendation is to stop taking pre-workout immediately and use a natural, acne-safe pre-workout alternative.

Both dehydration and insulin spikes increase oil production on the skin which leading to breakouts in lots of people.

Because all pre-workout products have different ingredients and formula ratios some products may be worse than others for acne prone skin.

In this article we will review a few of the most common acne-causing ingredients found in most pre-workout products, natural alternatives that will give you a boost in the gym without inflaming your skin, as well as a few other supplements to look out for that are known for triggering acne breakouts in athletes.

If you want my honest opinion on pre-workout, I recommend avoiding it if you have acne-prone skin. There are many natural energy-boosters that you can use instead of pre-workout, most of which will also be much more nourishing for the body. As I always say, natural alternatives will always be better for the skin than loading ourselves up with artificial chemicals. In addition, following a healthy, balanced, and anti-inflammatory diet is the best way to achieve and maintain clear skin: this means avoiding pre-workout caffeine and sugar.

1. Artificial sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners increase the body’s production of insulin and IGF-1, can stimulate the production of androgens, which overstimulates sebum oil production. Unfortunately, artificial sweeteners are heavily featured in many pre-workout products – it’s these artificial sweeteners that give pre-workout that sugary strawberry or vanilla taste.

2. Caffeine

Overconsumption of caffeine can dry out the out the skin, and disrupt the skin’s oil production. Dry skin and acne do not mix well: when the skin is dry, it will overproduce sebum and compensate for your skin’s lack of hydration: this can lead to clogged pores, oily skin, and dreaded skin pimples. 

Additionally, excessive caffeine consumption can contribute to stress and anxiety, which can also lead to acne prone skin.

On average, pre-workout formulas contain up to 400mg of caffeine, vs. 95mg in coffee. So basically, a single serving of pre-work contains the caffeine of 4+ cups of coffee.

Because studies generally recommend an adult daily intake of no more than 400mg of coffee, pre-workout ingredients could spell disaster for the management of your acne-prone skin. So if you’re looking to keep your skin as free of acne triggers as much as possible, you should probably avoid pre-workout altogether and stick with a single cup of coffee per day.

3. Refined Salts

Refined salts can also worsen acne prone skin by aggravating the gut microbiome and increasing sebum oil production. Refined salts can lead to a reduction in beneficial bacteria, like Lactobacillus bacteria. This increases the chances of intestinal issues like leaky gut syndrome, and acne.

Refined, iodized salts are commonly found in highly processed foods, like chips, fast food, and desserts. Although these foods are highly correlated with acne prone skin due to their high omega-6 fatty acid content the refined salts are not helping improve your skin health. Because of this we recommend avoiding all food items and supplements with a high number of refined salts.

4. BCAAs

Branched chain amino acids (BCAAs), specifically Leucine, can contribute to acne breakouts by spiking the IGF-1 factor and causing hormonal fluctuations.

Leucine has been proven to spike IGF-1 factor which has been shown to increase sebum oil production in the body. By consistently spiking your IGF-1 with a daily pre-workout you can condition your skin to produce more oil than necessary.

Additionally, leucine plays a role in activating the mTOR (mammalian target of rapamycin) pathway, which is crucial for muscle protein synthesis and growth. While this is great for improving performance in the weight room, the mTOR pathway is also implicated in sebum production and skin cell growth. Over-activation of mTOR can lead to increased oil production in the skin, potentially clogging pores and contributing to acne development.

5. Androgenic testosterone boosters

Acne is one of the most common symptoms of elevated testosterone levels. This is because unnaturally high testosterone levels cause more sebum oil production. The amount of androgenic testosterone boosters varies widely depending on the brand of pre-workout you use. Some will contain none, where as others would get you banned from a professional sports competition.

Is there any kind of pre-workout I can use if I have acne?

If you have to use pre-workout use a low sugar and caffeine version. Many companies that produce protein powders and pre-workout supplements will offer caffeine-free versions of their best-selling products.

Does C4 pre-workout cause acne?

C4 use is highly correlated with acne breakouts due to its formula: C4 is laden with sucralose, and this artificial sweetener is a staple pre-workout ingredient known to cause acne breakouts. Like all artificial sugars, sucralose triggers a spike in the hormone insulin, which stimulates the oil glands and can cause acne. 

There are numerous bodybuilding forums that show athletes complaining about acne breakouts shortly after beginning C4 use.

If you still want to use C4 pre-workout, the brand offers a Sucralose-free, naturally sweetened alternative called C4: Extreme Zero. If you believe your acne breakouts are caused by sucralose, changing to this formula might help your skin. However, this pre-workout still contains 200mg of caffeine, so it might not be the best choice. 

6 Acne safe pre-workout alternatives

Because pre workout contains so many potential acne triggers, it’s best to avoid pre workout all together if you have acne prone skin. Below we have a list of several natural pre workout alternatives that will give you an energy boost during your workout with risking hormonal fluctuations or insulin spikes:

1. Matcha Green Tea

Matcha green tea is a much healthier alternative than pre-workout for those with acne-prone skin due to its combination of moderate caffeine content (roughly 70 mg per serving) and the presence of L-theanine, an amino acid that promotes a more balanced, sustained energy boost without the jitters often associated with high-caffeine products.

Additionally, Additionally, the catechins found in matcha, are loaded with antioxidants, which support skin cell health and regeneration.

Most importantly, matcha does not cause a spike in insulin levels, making it a steadier source of energy and a better choice for blood sugar management compared to sugary pre-workout mixes.


2. Beet Juice

Beet juice is a superior pre workout alternative to pre workout for acne sufferers because beet juice is caffeine-free and offers a stimulant-free energy boost.

Additionally, beet juice can enhance blood flow, improve oxygen efficiency, and potentially boost stamina and exercise performance due to its high nitric oxide content, making it beneficial for workouts.

There’s no substantial evidence suggesting that beet juice causes any significant hormonal changes, making it a safe and effective option for enhancing physical performance naturally, without risking hormonal changes that could cause excessive sebum oil production.

3. Sugar Free Electrolytes

Although electrolytes are necessary for proper hydration regulation in the body most “electrolyte supplements” are filled with high amounts of sugar which cause insulin spikes and promote acne breakouts, including pre workout.

In order to get the benefits of electrolytes without the insulin spiking side effects you can take supplements like magnesium and potassium, or find a sugar free electrolyte powder like LMNT.

4. Fruit

Fruit contains natural sugars, fiber, and carbohydrates: snacking on fresh fruit before your workout is a healthier way to top up your energy for optimal gym performance. As I explain in my ebook, Unmasking Acne, low-fructose fruits are the best when it comes to combatting acne. These include raspberries, pineapples, cranberries, and strawberries.

5. Sweet Potatoes

Sweet potatoes are full of antioxidants like vitamins C & E which help keep your skin and pores. Because of this sweet potatoes are one of my top food recommendations for anyone dealing while prolonged acne breakouts. 

6. Dairy-Free Coffee

Although coffee is not exactly a recommended acne-buster, I don’t insist that you give up your morning cup of joe altogether. You can use coffee to stimulate the body during exercise and give you the quick energy boost needed for your cardio routine or your lifting. If you really need caffeine for your workout, I’d recommend a small-sized cup of coffee instead of a caffeine-loaded pre-workout drink. Mix your coffee with an acne-friendly creamer, avoiding milk and overly sugary dairy replacements. However, it is important to keep in mind that lots of caffeine can trigger acne breakouts.

What other supplements trigger acne breakouts?

Although pre workout contains several ingredients that are highly associated with acne breakouts there are a few other supplements you should stay away from if you are trying to keep your skin clear of pimples and zits. Below we have a list of a few of the worst supplements for clear skin.

1. Whey protein

Whey protein (and all high lactose dairy prodcuts) are one of the worst possible foods you can consume if you are dealing with hormonal acne breakouts.

Numerous studies show that dairy is already bad for acne-prone skin: dairy products contain casein and whey protein, which stimulate IGN (insulin-like growth factor) levels and send our oil production into overdrive.

Oftentimes, pre-workout shakes promising a vanilla or chocolate flavor, contain a small amount of milk and whey to help with the texture and flavor. When this is combined with high caffeine and other pre-workout sweeteners, consuming these products risks being a massive detriment to an otherwise healthy, skin-centered diet.

Because of this you should avoid protein shakes and pre-workout products if you want to clear your skin without having to use powerful antibiotics, like Accutane. 

2. Multivitamins

Most multivitamins contain several B vitamins, particularly biotin, that are known to trigger acne breakouts.

Lots of multivitamins are packed with 500% of the daily value of some vitamins which can contribute to the development of acne breakouts.

Although most people view multivitamins as a general “health and immunity insurance policy”, multivitamins vary widely in both the quality and quantity of ingredients. This is why its important to thoroughly check the ingredient label of any supplement you are considering buying.

Does creatine trigger acne breakouts?

Taking a normal dosage of creatine (3-5 grams) should not cause acne breakouts in anyone with normal hormone levels. However, taking excessive amounts of creatine or taking creatine with hormonal imbalances could incite an acne breakout due to creatine’s ability to increase DHT levels by as much as 50%.

Some pre workout brands contain creatine in their mixture, so its important to read the nutrition label to understand how much creatine you are actually consuming.

How to avoid acne when exercising

Many people develop acne breakouts when beginning a new exercise regime during the first few weeks. While skin-aggravating pre-workout ingredients can often cause this, it can also be caused by not taking necessary precautions before and after exercise. If you’re embarking on a fitness regime and want to avoid acne breakouts, I’d recommend the following tips for keeping your skin clear while working out:

Always Shower Within 30 Minutes of Finishing Your Workout

One of the worst things you can do for your skin is let sweat, bacteria, and sebum linger on your skin. Gyms can be highly unhygienic, so it’s essential to take a shower as soon as possible after completing your workout. If you can’t take a shower at the gym, go straight home. If you’re unable to take a shower at the gym, this means that lunch break workouts are a no-no. 

Change Your Workout Gear Regularly

Sweat and bacteria thrive in damp, moist environments. So if you throw your used workout clothes in your gym locker and re-wear them the next day, you’ll be creating an environment where pore-clogging bacteria will thrive, ready to clog your pores.

Do Not Wear Makeup During Exercise

Makeup + sweating = a perfect combination for clogged pores! Sweat will mix with your makeup and often get trapped under the skin when you work out. This can lead to pimply breakouts and congested skin, so save your makeup for after your workout. 

Originally Published: October 29, 2023

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sam wood is GoodGlow's Chief Editor
Analyzed by Sam Wood

Hi, I’m Sam Wood, the chief editor, lead acne expert, and health coach at GoodGlow, as well as a best-selling author for one of the top acne books on Amazon. I struggled with acne for over 10 years, and began studying the effects of diet on skin quality while pursuing a degree in Nutrition Sciences at the University of Missouri. After shifting from mainstream skincare trends to in-depth research in medical journals, I experienced significant personal success in managing my acne. This inspired me to start GoodGlow, where I simplify complex scientific findings into easy-to-understand advice. With over 10 years in the field, I’ve helped more than 2,500 people achieve clearer skin through natural, holistic methods, and I’m dedicated to personally assisting those seeking guidance on their acne journey.

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