3 Reasons Why Coffee Might Cause Acne, and What to Do About It

The effects of caffeine in coffee can be felt within 15 minutes of your first sip and last for several hours.
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Loaded with caffeine to perk you up, a fresh pot of coffee is what gets some people out of bed in the morning. It's no wonder why an estimated 62 percent of Americans drink it daily, per the National Coffee Association.

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There are also some health benefits to drinking coffee regularly: It's associated with reduced risk of diseases like colon cancer, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's disease and stroke, according to John Hopkins Medicine.

Despite its effects on energy levels and potential health benefits, some coffee drinkers may notice an uptick in breakouts. Dealing with acne is never ideal, and the root cause of acne can be difficult to figure out on your own. Here's why putting down the coffee cup or changing what's in your mug may help.

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1. It Contains Caffeine

Coffee doesn't inherently cause acne. But there are components of coffee that can worsen acne under certain conditions — and caffeine is one of them.

Unless you're drinking decaf, the caffeine content in coffee can aggravate skin problems. This has something to do with the heightened stress response in the body that caffeine elicits.

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"Caffeine increases androgen release and causes stress when consumed in excessive amounts, which in turn increases the risk for acne," says board-certified dermatologist Yoram Harth, MD.

There is a relationship between caffeine and elevated stress levels. Caffeine can alter levels of the stress hormone cortisol, according to a small March 2013 study in Stress and Health. When cortisol levels are high, the body enters its natural "flight or fight" response: high blood pressure, high blood glucose levels and so on.

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Another side effect of elevated cortisol levels is acne. Stress correlates with the severity of acne, according to a December 2017 study in Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology.

When under stress, the body produces more hormones called androgens, which stimulate oil glands and hair follicles. This increased oil production in the skin can lead to acne, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.

2. It Might Have Added Sugar

Coffee is known as a bitter herb, and the taste reflects that. The bitterness of plain coffee is often countered by adding teaspoons of table sugar and other sweeteners that are high in refined sugars like flavored coffee creamers and syrups. These added ingredients, while pleasant on the tongue, may not be pleasant for the skin.

"Sugar in coffee may contribute to skin health concerns such as acne," says registered dietitian Nataly Georgieva, RD. "As sugar is consumed, it is absorbed in the bloodstream, leading to spikes in blood sugar and insulin. This, in turn, affects hormones, which may boost oil production in the skin. Too much of this oil and pores may become clogged, resulting in an acne outbreak. Once bacteria enters the picture, the chances of an acne flare-up increase dramatically."

High blood sugar from sugar-laden coffee drinks can also spike cortisol levels, furthering the stress-acne connection.

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3. It Might Contain Dairy

Iced coffees, frappuccinos and other coffee drinks get their creamy consistency from milk and are sometimes topped with whipped cream. The dairy in your coffee order may be linked to your acne flare-up.

Some studies have found a connection between dairy and acne. Women who drank two or more glasses of skim milk per day were observed to have a 44 percent higher chance of having acne, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.

"Although the evidence of a link between dairy consumption and acne is not conclusive, it's important to underscore what we know," says Georgieva. "Milk consumption releases insulin, which increases insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1). At this point, skin cells grow more quickly and sebum production increases. Once again, the stage is set for clogged pores and a possible outbreak."

Dairy products also contain lactose, which some people are sensitive to. "As a naturally occurring sugar in milk, lactose may contribute to an acne outbreak, when consumed by those who are sensitive to or intolerant," Georgieva says.

How to Quell Coffee-Related Skin Issues

Drink It Black

Coffee itself may not be the culprit of your breakouts. If you drink less than the recommended amount of caffeine per day (and aren't sensitive to it), you can still enjoy java with a few modifications. Go for black or decaf coffee and consider what you eat alongside it.

"If you're a coffee drinker who struggles with acne, try drinking it black without added sugar or milk. It's also a good idea to avoid adding any sugar- or carb-heavy snacks (like breakfast muffins and baked goods often sold at coffee shops) with your coffee order," Harth says.

Use Non-Dairy and Sugar-Free Alternatives

Many people are sensitive to the lactose in dairy, and there's a lot of evidence that suggests that milk is linked to acne. Eliminating dairy products for a short period of time may help to see if your skin improves. In the meantime, you can still get that familiar creaminess of milk from non-dairy alternatives.

"Turn to alternative dairy products, namely almond, cashew or oat milk. Doing so will help lower dairy intake," Georgieva says.

"It's important to keep in mind that alternative dairy products also contain sugar. To avoid this pitfall, turn to unsweetened versions. If you have a sweet tooth and need some sweetness in your coffee, try alternative sweeteners such as monk fruit or stevia. They just may do the trick."

Skip Coffee Altogether

An elimination diet is used to pinpoint food allergies and sensitivities. The same concept can be applied to learning food and drink triggers that may contribute to acne. If you've tried decaf, plain, non-dairy and sugar-free coffee, omitting coffee altogether may be the next step to finding relief.

"If you notice you're still getting breakouts after switching to plain coffee, consider removing coffee altogether for some time to see if there are any effects on your skin," Harth says.

Clearing up acne can be difficult. If your symptoms persist, seeing a dermatologist may be helpful.

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