Does Salt Cause Acne? (Hint: Not That Straightforward)

In efforts to improve health in general, sodium or salt in the diet is often restricted by some. While too much sodium is not ideal in the presence of certain chronic diseases or conditions like high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, heart disease, or chronic swelling, healthy individuals shouldn’t necessarily be too concerned.

When eating a balanced diet primarily consisting of limited processed and whole foods, the body is very good at regulating sodium levels. In fact, it’s what our kidneys are very good at.

But what about sodium consumption when it comes to skin health? Is there a correlation between the two for individuals struggling or trying to prevent acne?

Let’s first explore what sodium is exactly and possible associations found in the available research.

What exactly is salt or sodium?

Sodium is an important electrolyte and mineral in the body. It’s necessary to help hold onto fluids in or out of different cells and it assists in nerve and muscle function. Our kidneys tightly regulate sodium levels via urination and several hormones. We also lose sodium by sweating.

Having too high or low sodium levels is dangerous. Too much sodium can lead to high blood pressure, higher heart rate, and altered mental state. Low sodium levels are associated with diarrhea, fatigue, and heart failure. Both states of sodium levels can be related to dehydration as well.

In short, we need our sodium levels in an optimal range to feel our best and ultimately survive. Furthermore, having sodium in a lot of available foods is actually a good thing. It means we don’t have to go out of our way to make sure we are giving our body the sodium it needs.

As we know, sodium is found in a variety of different foods, whether they are unprocessed or processed. Although processed foods are typically seen as very high sodium containing foods, many companies have made modifications to their products offering low sodium or no added sodium options.

Granted, many highly processed processed or packaged foods are found on the shelves to contain more than 1,000mg per serving or more. Finding a packaged product with less than 300-600 mg of sodium per serving is a great find from a dietitian’s perspective.

While it is a great idea to prevent excess sodium consumption, not eating enough sodium daily can be an area of concern. A common symptom may include dehydration as there is not enough sodium to help hold onto water in the body. This could therefore be related to dry skin, energy levels, digestion issues, and more.


Is salt consumption related to acne?

While the research related to diet and acne is abundant, the specific connection between acne and sodium is somewhat limited.

One study from 2015 set out to further understand the relationship between diet and acne, specifically related to spicy and salty food. Participants with acne were found to consume significantly higher amounts of sodium in comparison to control groups after 24 hour dietary recalls.

While there was a strong correlation in this study, authors did acknowledge that it was only just that. Meaning we do not know the causing factor definitively. Other possible correlations could have been increased sugar or dairy intake as well.

Another review concluded a strong relationship between high-glycemic index foods and dairy, however results were inconclusive for salt specifically.

One expert was noted to report that there has been no known positive association between acne and salt intake in the current research, as well as chocolate and saturated fat.

Sodium and Inflammation

While the research is lacking in concrete evidence, sodium’s relationship to inflammation in general has some merit in possible explanation.

One cross-sectional study set out to determine the relationship between sodium and inflammation in healthy adults. Consumption of sodium was noted at over 3,000mg daily which is significantly greater than the recommended intake of <1,500mg per the American Heart Association.

In the end, a positive association was determined between excessive sodium intake and inflammation.

Another study explained the relationship between a high salt diet and the triggering of T-cell differentiation, which in general promotes tissue inflammation.

As we know, there is a strong link between acne and inflammation in the body. Acne is also referred to as an inflammatory disease.

While inflammation can stem from many causes, it’s likely beneficial to address a diet high in excess sodium to prevent unnecessary presence of inflammation. Prioritizing a diet lower in sodium would likely overlap with other helpful health benefits, leading to improved skin health as well.

Sodium and Hydration

Another possible connection to sodium intake and acne could be hydration status.

We know a big factor in promoting ideal skin health is preventing dry skin and staying hydrated. Dry skin can increase the chance of pores breaking open and allowing acne causing bacteria to enter the skin more deeply.

While there are many topical creams and ointments to help prevent dry skin, addressing any dehydration is an important first step.

What’s the connection to sodium though? Remember, having adequate levels of sodium in the body helps us to hold onto fluids we need. If sodium intake is restricted too greatly, the body will have a harder time staying hydrated, regardless of how much fluid you consume.


Summary

So what’s the verdict? The research is mixed when it comes to sodium consumption and presence of acne, however there are some probable connections including inflammation and hydration.

Should you restrict your sodium intake if you struggle with acne? Maybe, but probably not. If your daily consumption of sodium is drastically over 2,000mg, it may be worth discussing with your doctor or Registered Dietitian to find an ideal balance.

If you however eat a diet balanced with lots of whole foods and limited highly processed foods, the chances you consume excess sodium is low and the need to reduce intake is very small.

Further yet, if you are an athlete or avid gym goer of any kind, your sodium needs will be greater and limiting is not a good idea.

Remember, every situation is different and while a specific dietary component such as sodium may be on your mind, there could be something else going on as well. Always consult your doctor or Registered Dietitian for ideal recommendations related to nutrition for acne.

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Analyzed by Elizabeth Merrill, MS, RDN

I’m a Registered Dietitian on a mission to help individuals make nutrition less stressful in their busy lives. I have three years of experience in the field. Connect with Elizabeth on LinkedIn. Read more of Elizabeth's articles.