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Can Refined Sugar Harm Your Skin? We Asked Experts To Weigh In

August 22, 2023

It’s no secret that the American diet is too sugar heavy. With sugar hiding under so many different names in the grocery store — dextrose, maltose, and molasses, just to name a few — a high-sugar diet almost feels unavoidable. We already know that sugar has negative health effects, from diabetes and high blood pressure to weight gain. But, is it actually affecting our skin health too? To get to the bottom line on how sugar and skin health are linked, we asked experts to weigh in.

‘Added sugar’ versus ‘natural sugar’

First things first, it’s important to understand the distinction between added sugar and natural sugar. Added sugar is typically processed and refined (think: table sugar), whereas natural sugars are unprocessed, whole foods, like fruit and milk.

When reading nutrition labels, Sarah Wenig, RDN, founder of New York Nutrition, recommends looking for ‘sugar’ versus ‘added sugar’ and watching out for names with ‘syrup’ (e.g. high fructose corn syrup, brown rice syrup, or carob syrup) and anything ending in ‘-ose,’ which indicates a type carbohydrate that breaks down into sugar.

Refined sugar and skin health

The relationship between sugar and skin is complex and, as a result, sugar can impact your skin in a number of ways. According to Kristina Derrick, MD, Clinical Assistant Instructor of Dermatology at SUNY Downstate, a diet high in sugar can worsen psoriasis, melasma (brown patches on the face), and acanthosis nigricans (velvety brown patches on neck and armpits). But, the most common side effect? Acne.

Dr. Derrick explains that sugary foods and drinks can cause a rapid spike in insulin (aka a ‘sugar rush’) to remove the glucose from the blood. And, with all sugar rushes, come the ‘crashes’ where there is a sudden decline in blood sugar. This can not only leave you feeling shaky, hungry, or nauseated but also can impact the skin. The excess glucose can be converted to fat which is inflammatory and can cause acne flare-ups.

In addition to blood sugar spikes, Wenig points out that added sugar can also result in gut disturbances since added sugar has been shown to lead to negative changes in the gut microflora. Lastly, research has found that elevated sugar levels can accelerate the production of advanced glycation end products (AGEs). “AGEs make it harder for collagen to repair and regenerate, resulting in reduced skin elasticity, more fine lines and wrinkles, and damage to the skin barrier,” Wenig says.

You can still eat sugar and have healthy skin

Unless you’re adopting a sugar-free diet for health reasons, odds are you’ll be indulging in some sugary treats this summer. We are human, after all. To prevent flare-ups, it’s all about striking the proper balance.

From a dermatological perspective, Dr. Derrick recommends skin products that contain vitamins  C and E, resveratrol, niacinamide, and/or silymarin to help reduce some damage to the skin, along with a broad-spectrum tinted sunscreen that’s SPF 30 or higher to prevent any further skin damage. Dr. Derrick adds that citrus flavonoids (from fruits or supplements) may also help to reduce sebum production and cellular stress that’s been induced by a high-glycemic diet.

When thinking about managing sugar consumption from a nutritional standpoint, Wenig gives us the green light to indulge a little. “For most people, having added sugar in moderation will not result in negative consequences on the skin,” Wenig says. That being said, Wenig adds that you can minimize risk by consuming sugar with a well-balanced meal or snack that contains protein, fiber, and healthy fats. “This helps to reduce the impact of sugar on the body and allows it to be consumed with other important nutrients. If trying to reduce sugar intake, opt for something like chocolate-covered nuts, since nuts have protein, fat, and fiber,” Wenig advises.

The bottom line? Added sugar and skin have a unique relationship, but it’s okay to indulge every now and then. “Restriction is only going to lead to more negative consequences in the long run,” Wenig says. “Think about creating balance around the high-sugar food and include protein, fiber, and healthy fats with your meal.”

Read next: 5 Foods High in Collagen For Glowing Skin

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