Vegan Acne: Help, I Had an Outbreak!
The world of Instagram and other social media outlets can make it seem like going vegan is the ultimate cure-all, helping everything from weight loss to mood regulation to improving overall skin health and complexion.
So, it can be frustrating - even worrisome - to find breakouts or changes in skin’s appearance after going vegan.
However, in reality, breakouts and skin changes aren’t all that uncommon for people transitioning to a vegan diet - or any major shift in the way you eat.
In addition to simply reacting to a sudden change in your diet, there are several reasons why you might see an increase in acne when first going plant-based.
Hormonal Reaction to Soy
As many new vegans look to replace meat and eggs as proteins in their diet, they may turn to soy to stand in as their new go-to protein.
While soy products are perfectly safe to eat despite some controversy, there is no getting around the fact that the phytoestrogens in soy products can alter the balance of hormones in the body.
In women’s bodies especially, there is a balancing act taking place between androgens (male sex hormones) and estrogens (female sex hormones). The phytoestrogens block the conversion of androgens to estrogen, resulting in a scenario where there are more male hormones than female hormones.
Some studies show that a month on a phytoestrogen-rich diet led to a 20-30% reduction in estrogen and that imbalance can cause hormonal estrogen.
This is important for new vegans to keep in mind, who might be turning to tofu and soy-based meat alternatives to replace the animal products they have phased out.
Vitamin B12 Overconsumption
Any new vegan knows (or should know) that supplementing vitamin B12 is necessary on a plant-based diet, as it can be difficult to get adequate levels of this vital nutrient from plants.
However, taking vitamin B12 can result in breakouts in some people.
Studies find that, in the presence of vitamin B12, the skin bacteria that is commonly linked to acne begin producing inflammatory molecules that lead to pimples.
This means that previously clear skin can start breaking out and getting pimples in people who take supplements or injections for this vitamin.
Unsure of exactly how much B12 supplementation is necessary, many new vegans actually over-supplement this nutrient to compensate for consuming less of the vitamin through their diet.
To reduce or avoid suffering B12-related acne, make sure you are only supplementing as much as necessary for your body.
Zinc promotes clear, healthy skin by transporting vitamin A to the skin, skin cell renewal, and carrying out all-important hormone regulation within the body.
When a person is deficient in zinc, skin cells clump together instead of dying and falling off the body like they do in bodies of individuals with adequate zinc levels.
The stuck-on skin cells lead to clogged pores, which are the main culprit for acne and breakouts.
Vegans tend to be at risk for zinc deficiency, as many zinc-rich foods like red meat and seafood are obviously not appropriate for a plant-based diet.
Additionally, vegans can experience a one-two punch for zinc deficiency because the vegan diet tends to be higher in grains and beans than an omnivorous diet.
While grains and beans provide their own health benefits, the phytates in these foods bind up minerals, including zinc, and prevent them from being absorbed by the body.
To make matters worse, the zinc from plants is more difficult for your body to absorb, so with the combination of hurdles, vegans are especially prone to zinc deficiency.
If you have white spots on your fingernails, dry skin, hangnails, frequent colds, hair loss, diarrhea, low sex drive, or acne, you may benefit from a zinc supplement to clear up the skin and keep your body healthy and happy.
Our skin is an organ of elimination, helping us remove waste products from inside the body to the outside.
Food allergies, because they start from inside the digestive system, can have a huge impact on acne and blemishes on the outside of skin.
Going plant-based may lead you to introduce foods into your diet that you hadn’t eaten previously, or eat more of something you used to eat sparingly.
If you have an allergy to certain foods, the reactions might manifest themselves in breakouts and blemishes on the skin as your body fights to remove the “toxins” from inside.
If you’re experiencing acne and skin issues after going vegan, it’s worth it to get an allergy panel test from your doctor.
You’ll be armed with information about what causes reactions in your body, so you can avoid foods that cause skin problems, and eat more of the healthy vegan foods that your body doesn’t have any aversion to.
How to Reduce Breakouts After Switching to a Vegan Diet
Luckily, suffering through acne and other unpleasant skin conditions isn’t a requirement for leading a plant-based lifestyle. In many cases, skin can be cleared up through making changes to diet, supplementation, and keeping a good daily skin care regimen.
1. Changes to Supplements
Supplementation is an important part of any vegan diet, but consuming too much or too little of any vitamin or mineral can lead to nutritional issues that result in acne.
Every vegan should take a good B12 supplement, but in this case, more isn’t better.
When supplementing with vitamin B12, be sure to take the right amount of the vitamin for your age, gender, and activity level. Most adults ages 14 and up only need about 2.4 mcg per day, while pregnant and breastfeeding women need 2.6 and 2.8 mcg daily, respectively.
Taking more than the recommended amount may cause the bacteria on the skin responsible for acne to begin producing molecules that lead to pimples, while too little will lead to neurological issues, so it’s best to hit this one right on the money.
On the flip side, adding a zinc supplement to your diet may help clear up frustrating acne, as well as any other deficiency-related side effects.
Adult men should aim to consume 11 mg of zinc per day, while adult women only need about 8 mg. (more info on zinc dosage here.)
Always make sure to take your zinc supplement with or after food, as taking the mineral on an empty stomach can lead to nausea and vomiting.
2. Changes to Food
When first switching to a vegan diet, it might be easy and tempting to simply replace any meat, eggs, and dairy products with soy-based alternatives.
While soy is perfectly healthy in reasonable quantities, a day filled with tofu, soy-based seems-like-meats, and copious amounts of soy milk might lead to a hormone imbalance in the body which can cause acne and breakouts.
If you find yourself consuming larges amounts of soy products as you transition from animal products, consider swapping out some of your soy products for other plant-based foods.
When introducing new plant-based foods into your diet after pledging to go vegan, you may also wind up consuming foods that cause an allergic reaction in your body.
If you’re struggling with acne after giving up animal-based foods and have introduced lots of plant-based foods into your diet, talk to your doctor about running an allergy panel at your next appointment.
This brief test will let you know which foods react negatively with your body so you can avoid them and clear up any frustrating acne.
Your doctor may also place you on an elimination diet - this whittles the diet down to basics and slowly reintroduces foods so you can pinpoint the exact foods that cause issues in your body.
Some common foods and food groups might be wheat, gluten, nightshades, or FODMAPs. Your doctor will be better able to pinpoint any foods causing acne that aren’t cleared up by changes in supplementation or elimination diets.
3. Developing a Skincare Routine
Lastly, a good skincare regimen is a key pillar to keeping acne at bay, whether it’s caused by diet or otherwise.
You can get started keeping breakouts at bay by using a basic acne skin care routine.
- First, get to know your skin type. Do you have dry, flaky skin that tends to be dull, or do you have shiny oil patches on your forehead by the afternoon? Determining your skin type is the foundation of building an effective skin care routine, as it will determine what products and techniques you use to keep skin clear.
- Use a face wash that is suited to your particular skin type, and use this to cleanse your face one to two times daily. Take extra care not to rub your skin, as this can cause irritation and exacerbate breakouts, and pat skin dry with a soft towel.
- Next, moisturize. Your first thought when it comes to curing acne might be to dry your skin out, but this will only make the problem worse. All skin requires moisture, so make sure not to skip this critical step. To help seal in moisture, use the product while skin is damp after rinsing your cleanser. If you have oily skin, you can use a lightweight, oil-free moisturizer to keep skin healthy and clear.
For a full step-by-step daily routine to help treat your acne, along with our favourite products, please see our vegan acne treatment article.
Vegan Diet and Acne
As with any lifestyle change, shifting to a plant-based diet can be a shock to your body, and any changes or food intolerances can result in acne on even the clearest skin.
If you do get acne after cutting animal products out of your diet, don’t panic!
Give your body a few weeks to adjust to your new eating style, and you might see it clear it up on its own.
However, if the issue is from food allergies, hormone imbalances, or a poor skin care routine, it may not simply go away on its own.