The Bitter Truth About Coffee and Acne

Anna Denson
Written by
Anna Denson

Acne-prone skin? I know it’s tragic. I deal with it myself! But you can’t just hide from the world like some modern-day Quasimodo.

Sometimes you still have to go out and face other people at work, or school, or in the Waffle House at 2am. 

So you cope by making self-aware jokes or by swapping skincare notes with that lady from accounting.

Then she lays it on you:

“Have you tried giving up coffee? You know it’s bad for your skin, right?”

WHAT? Thanks, Karen. Thanks for ruining the entire week. Give up coffee? Is she some kind of lunatic? Coffee is the only thing dragging you out of bed in the morning!

On the other hand...

Your skin has been a problem since forever. Could surrendering your precious, life-giving coffee really be the answer?


Caffeine and Acne

Take a deep breath and don’t panic yet, because there’s no direct correlation between coffee and acne. It seems like this myth got started by some scientists back in 1922, who also thought we should have no spices, no cocoa, no gravy, and no fun. Booooo!

Now take another deep breath, because there are some complicating factors.

Coffee is great for perking you up with a burst of energy or, in my case, sluggishly propelling me through the mid-afternoon slump.

Alas, its concentration of caffeine can also lead to increased stress and anxiety. And while stress on its own doesn’t cause acne, it can make your existing acne worse.

Basically, stress causes increased production of the hormone cortisol, which triggers excess oil on your skin, which can lead to clogged pores. And if you’re anything like me, that new breakout just leads to more stress. It’s a vicious cycle!

Adding insult to injury, the caffeine may be upsetting your sleep, which — guess what? — causes more stress.

The best bet? Stop drinking caffeinated coffee in the early afternoon, so the caffeine has plenty of time to wear off before bed. Guess I’ll need to find some other way through my slump!

If you constantly feel super high-stress, you may want to switch to decaf altogether. Keep your energy up by doing some stretches, taking a short walk, having a healthy snack, or getting skin-friendly hydration from green tea!


Skip the Dairy

Here’s the truth. I’m one of those people who likes a little coffee with my milk. Black coffee makes me hiss and recoil like a vampire from sunlight. The idea of drinking coffee without dairy? No bueno.

So imagine my dismay when I found out that milk may aggravate skin problems!

Increased dairy intake is linked to the occurrence of acne, including that splash (or deluge) of milk we use to mellow out our coffee. This may be due to dairy’s array of acne-triggering hormones, and their ability to throw us into hormonal imbalance.

There’s also evidence that milk can increase our insulin levels, which will do our complexions no favors...but more on that later!

Oddly enough, skim milk appears to be the worst offender when compared to full-fat or low-fat options. Typical. Guess which type of milk is in my refrigerator right now?

Luckily, we’re in the midst of a full-scale milk revolution! If you think that dairy may be affecting your skin, there are plenty of potential swaps.

Nut milks have become hugely popular, and are available at most coffee shops. Almond, hazelnut, coconut...somewhere out there is a nut milk with your name on it! (Probably misspelled by the barista.)

Soy milk is also common but may contain its own skin-worsening hormones. Right now, the evidence is still vague, but it may be wise to steer clear — just in case!


The Sugar Problem

You’ve been dealing with acne for years now, so you already know that sugary foods aren’t good for your skin.

The keyword there? Foods. Because while you may be diligently avoiding the Twinkies and the Ho-hos, it’s all too easy to forget another set of sugar bombs: drinks.

Sugar-sweetened drinks are the number one source of added sugar in the average American diet. And if you’re a fan of sweet sodas or coffees, this could spell trouble for your complexion. 

Take, for example, your favorite Starbucks beverage. Mine is the delightfully seasonal peppermint mocha, a.k.a. the gateway coffee. Seriously, I never even drank coffee until I encountered the peppermint mocha, and then it was a slippery, slippery slope.

My beloved mocha sounds like a beverage but drinks like a dessert, with 54 grams of sugar in a single grande serving. That’s already more than TWICE the recommended daily limit for women, not even counting anything else I may have consumed that day. Yikes!

I’m betting you have a favorite coffee drink of your own, and it may be hiding more sugar than you ever suspected.

So, what is all this excess sugar doing to our skin?

When we ingest a lot of refined sugars, it goes straight into our bloodstream and raises our insulin levels. This sudden influx of insulin can boost oil production and spur the growth of skin cells, two factors that contribute to the development of acne.

If you consistently eat (or drink!) a high-sugar diet, you may also develop insulin resistance. This condition causes your body to produce an even higher amount of insulin in response to sugar. Which, as you might expect, corresponds with severe acne.

More insulin, more oil, more skin cells? More acne!

Excessive sugar is bad for you in all sorts of ways, your skin included. So it’s no surprise that acne patients are encouraged to restrict their intake. But that doesn’t mean you have to give up your cup of joe!

For a healthier coffee habit, try weaning yourself off the dessert drinks for something with a lower concentration of sugar, or making that fancy peppermint mocha into an occasional treat rather than an everyday ritual.

I promise it’s doable! I used to drink hot tea with eight sugars. EIGHT. Per CUP. My husband probably saved my life when he helped me kick that habit.

If you feel like your sweet tooth just can’t be beat, you can also try sugar alternatives like stevia.

But don’t sell yourself short! I believe in you!


Coffee as a Skincare Ingredient

Now you know a few tricks to hack your coffee and make it a little more skin-friendly. That’s great! But have you considered actually using coffee to your advantage?

As it turns out, coffee has some great skin benefits when applied topically! In fact, you could even say that it has a few perks. (Sorry, not sorry!)

  • Exfoliating
  • Reducing cellulite
  • Calming the skin
  • Reducing inflammation
  • Treating fine lines and sunspots
  • Soothing dark under-eye circles
  • Preventing melanomas and skin growths

Holy super ingredient, Batman!

This incredible range of benefits is precisely why Averr Aglow uses coffee arabica extract in our Luminous Complexion Toner.

With the coffee complemented by comfrey and kakadu plum, our toner is bursting with antioxidants that help minimize pores, eliminate breakouts, reduce puffiness, and hydrate skin. And unlike other toners, ours is all-natural and won’t dry you out!

Guess we can have our coffee and drink it, too!

Anna Denson
Written by
Anna Denson