Although gluten is an often-overlooked piece of the acne puzzle, foods containing this protein can be a significant cause of breakouts for many people. While other foods, like dairy, chocolate, and sugar, are commonly cited for their acne-causing abilities, gluten is a lesser-known culprit of breakouts.
Although not all acne cases can be attributed to gluten consumption, many people are unaware that the bread, pasta, cookies, cereal, and pastries they eat could play a significant role in impeding their acne journey.
In this article, learn more about what gluten is, which foods contain it, how this protein can cause acne, and the top questions people have about gluten and acne.
Gluten 101: What Is Gluten and What Foods Contain It?
First things first: What is gluten? Gluten is a name for the group of proteins — primarily gliadin and glutenin — found in wheat, barley, rye, and sometimes oats.
As the name gluten comes from the word ‘glue,’ you can imagine that this protein gives dough its stretchy elasticity, providing bread products with their classic chewy texture.
The most well-known foods that contain gluten include:
- Pasta and noodles
- Cereal, pancakes, and waffles
- Barley, couscous, farro, spelt flour, and semolina flour.
- Baked goods (cookies, cake, pastries, croissants, etc.)
- Wheat tortillas or tortilla chips
- Most breaded and fried foods, like fish sticks, chicken nuggets, onion rings, etc.
- Oats — while oats are naturally gluten-free, some processing facilities cross-contaminate oats with gluten.
Gluten can also be added to salad dressings, bouillon cubes, canned soups, candy, and ice cream — continue reading this article for a complete list of sneaky foods that contain gluten.
Does Gluten Cause Acne?
Gluten can be a significant trigger for people with acne, especially in those with gluten sensitivity or celiac disease — a highly severe autoimmune reaction to eating gluten.
While people with celiac disease cannot consume or use any food or product that contains gluten without having gastrointestinal distress or dozens of other symptoms, those with gluten sensitivity are less likely to have immediate and noticeable symptoms. Many people who are slightly intolerant to gluten don’t even know it, yet their body is internally reacting to the protein.
When people with gluten intolerance consume this protein, they develop internal inflammation, which damages the intestinal tract. Repeated gluten exposure — and the subsequent inflammatory response — can create small, microscopic holes in the intestinal lining.
Typically, the gut lining, which is only one cell layer thick, has tiny gaps between each cell that allow for nutrients to pass through. However, gluten exposure in a sensitive person can widen these gaps, causing intestinal permeability — also known as ‘leaky gut.’
As the gaps get bigger and bigger, unwanted things like bacteria, toxins, and food components, like the relatively large gluten protein, can migrate from the gut into the bloodstream. When these toxins and proteins enter the bloodstream, our immune system treats them as foreign invaders, mounting an inflammatory and immune response to get rid of them.
One of the areas that this inflammation manifests is in our largest organ — the skin. Although we don’t have any published research looking at the effects of gluten consumption or elimination on acne, many people anecdotally report that taking gluten out of their diets leads to skin improvement.
As there are no verified and straightforward tests that can assess your gluten sensitivity, a gluten-elimination diet for two to three weeks should help you gauge gluten’s effects on your skin.
The Connection Between Carbs and Acne
While gluten consumption can certainly cause acne in people who are sensitive, intolerant, or allergic to it, it’s also possible that the link between gluten and acne has more to do with the carbohydrate content in these foods, rather than the gluten itself.
As gluten-containing foods are typically higher in carbohydrates — think: bread, pasta, tortillas, pastries — someone who is breaking out from eating glutenous foods may also want to consider the glycemic index or glycemic load of the foods they are eating.
The glycemic index is essentially a scorecard that analyzes how quickly a food will impact your blood sugar. Ranging from 0 to 100, a food closer to the upper end (like white bread) will cause a more rapid and more intense blood sugar spike than a food closer to the lower end, like kale or broccoli.
Similarly, the glycemic load is a ranking system that considers both the glycemic index and the typical serving size for each food. This is important because some foods can have a high glycemic index but a low glycemic load.
For example, watermelon has a glycemic index of 72, which is on the higher side. But, when we take into account the typical serving size of watermelon — about one cup — the glycemic load is much lower, at about 8.
The reason why a high glycemic load can lead to acne comes down to a hormone called insulin. Insulin is made in the pancreas, with the primary job of taking glucose (sugar) from the foods we eat and shuttling it from the bloodstream into various cells for energy or storage.
When we constantly consume foods with a high glycemic load, the pancreas has to pump out more and more insulin to keep glucose out of the bloodstream. Higher amounts of circulating insulin can stimulate sebum production in the skin and boost androgen hormone secretion. Excessive amounts of androgen hormones, like testosterone, can promote acne, especially in women.
Hyperinsulinemia (high amounts of insulin in the blood) can also increase levels of insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1), another hormone that can significantly progress acne development. High levels of IGF-1 have been shown to further stimulate androgen hormone and sebum production, creating a vicious cycle that worsens acne.
Overall, even if you aren’t sensitive to gluten, a high glycemic diet can, without a doubt, advance acne development.
Common Questions about Gluten and Acne
These are a few common questions that people have about gluten and acne — feel free to ask questions in the comments if yours isn’t answered here!
The short answer is: any and all foods that contain gluten may be problematic for someone prone to acne, especially if they are gluten-sensitive. Foods that may aggravate acne the most are ones that contain gluten and also have a high glycemic load, like high-carbohydrate bread, pasta, noodles, pizza, and baked goods.
These foods could increase inflammation, promote intestinal impermeability, and boost unhealthy insulin, IGF-1, and androgen hormone production.
As the prevalence of gluten intolerance or allergy has risen in recent years, so has the availability of gluten-free alternatives. When shopping, look for “Certified Gluten-Free” labels and check the ingredients to see what type of gluten alternative is used.
However, many gluten-free foods utilize other high glycemic ingredients, like rice flour or potato starch, which would still be problematic for acne. There are some healthy grain-free and gluten-free flour alternatives, like almond, cassava, or coconut flour.
Some grains or legumes are gluten-free and relatively low glycemic due to their high fiber content, like quinoa, lentils, beans, chickpeas, and buckwheat — despite the ‘wheat’ in its name, buckwheat is a naturally gluten-free grain. However, these grains and legumes should be consumed in moderation, as larger amounts could lead to hyperinsulinemia.
Surprisingly, many acne patients do well with small quantities of white rice as a carbohydrate source. Overall, it may take some trial and error to determine what level of carbohydrates work best for you and your acne.
Due to the uptick in inflammation and immune response that consuming gluten can cause, many people find themselves with “gluten skin.” While this can entail acne and breakouts, it also may manifest with rashes, puffiness, or bloating in the face.
Gluten consumption in intolerant people can also cause keratosis pilaris, or “chicken skin”, showing up as tiny bumps and rough patches that most commonly appear on the backs of arms, legs, and buttocks. If you have these skin conditions and gluten is the culprit, they should resolve relatively quickly after eliminating gluten.
While we know that bread- and dough-based foods made with wheat will contain gluten, dozens of unexpected foods and drinks can sneakily have gluten in them, including:
– Soy sauce — a gluten-free alternative is called tamari
– Candy, ice cream, and frozen desserts
– Broth or bouillon cubes
– Some types of vodka or other liquor
– Alcohol with malt extract
– Premade soups or pasta dishes
– Medications and nutritional supplements
– Processed meats, like deli lunchmeat or hot dogs
– Veggie burgers and other meat alternatives
– Granola or energy bars
– Sauces and gravies
– Cosmetics and hair care products
Verdict: Can Gluten Cause Acne?
Gluten can definitely cause acne, especially in people who are allergic, intolerant, or sensitive to the protein.
Gluten consumption can increase inflammation in the gut, leading to increased intestinal permeability that can mount an immune response and show up as acne.
Gluten-containing foods also tend to be high in carbohydrates, which increases blood sugar and insulin. High levels of insulin in the blood can increase the production of sebum in the skin, boost levels of androgen hormones like testosterone, and stimulate the synthesis of IGF-1, a growth hormone that aggravates acne by causing more sebum production.
To best support skin health, try eliminating gluten from your diet for two to three weeks while being sure to consume only low-glycemic, gluten-free alternatives in their place.
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