Originally the favorite foul-tasting beverage of ancient Ethiopian herders, coffee has become a global hallmark of culture today. And not just office culture or workplace culture - coffee has successfully infiltrated every aspect of modern life. We drink coffee when we wake up, enacting a feel-good morning ritual. We drink coffee on our way to school or during school breaks. We drink coffee in offices, in front of vending machines, out on the street, in cars, coffee shops, even religious temples and institution of power. In fact, I’m drinking a cup of coffee right now while writing this, and it’s very likely that you’re having coffee while reading this too.
Coffee is literally everywhere. But...
That is the question. Since coffee has become as ubiquitous as air and water, the question must simply be asked: does drinking coffee affect my skin and cause acne?
If you’re a coffee lover you won’t like the answer, because the short answer is ‘yes.’ But as with anything else, things are not quite so simple. Read on to learn more about the effects of coffee on the skin and take it from there. Perhaps there are some things you could avoid, and something still left to indulge.
Practically everyone can recite them in their sleep, and they’re honestly not that many. Coffee has antioxidant properties, it can help you focus, it can also lift your mood (or make you more jittery) and stimulate hormones like cortisol which help you wake up. But, aside from some studies where coffee is also shown to prevent certain types of diabetes, that’s pretty much it.
However, when it comes to skin health and the effects coffee has on acne, things aren’t looking so great.
To be honest, even I am having second thoughts now. While I absolutely love the dark, warm, homely beverage that comes only second to humanity’s best friend (dogs), I can’t help but admit that it might not be the most productive relationship. Coffee has several acne provoking effects - some of them fairly direct while others less so. But without further ado, here are the most common ways in which drinking coffee causes acne.
Coffee is bad enough on its own when it comes to acne, but humans have found ways to make it even worse for our skin by combining it with sugar and milk. Which is probably the worst thing any person struggling with acne can do. This is because milk contains lactose and various enzymes that are known to complicate skin problems. On the other hand, sugar is also a frequent suspect when it comes to inflammatory effects on the body, what with its ability to drown your body in insulin and burden the immune system. The body deals with this ‘sugar overflow’ by transforming sugar into skin oil (sebum), which then clogs your pores and hair follicles. Sebum overproduction is one of the root causes of acne inflammation, and stuffing on sugar is the necessary precondition. Which brings us to the next problem...
Boosting cortisol production and stress hormones, coffee actually pushes your body to crave more carbs rich in calories. These are - you guessed it - sugars. The metabolic cycle of this is pretty straightforward: coffee causes hyperadrenalism, making your glands drown your body with stress-response hormones (which we experience as sharpened focus and responsiveness). And what happens when the body is under stress? It needs to eat - the more the better - and fast. So we suddenly feel the urge to stuff an extra donut into our mouth, which increases our sugar levels, which creates even more sebum… Which creates more acne.
By making you more responsive to stress, coffee helps the production of acne. As we already mentioned above, coffee stimulates the activity of the adrenal gland, making it pump excessive amounts of the hormones called cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. In normal, coffee-less situations, our bodies produce these hormones in reaction to everyday stressors: unpleasant arguments, aggressive people, traffic jams, you name it. But when the event passes, so does our hormonal activity. The body returns to normal, becoming more relaxed, entering what scientists call the parasympathetic state of the nervous system. This mode also helps prevent acne.
But what happens when you’re chugging coffee after coffee after coffee? Well, you never actually achieve relaxation, your body is kept in stress-response mode, which in turn produces cortisol. Which produces sugars, which, as we mentioned above, become transformed into acne-producing sebum.
The more coffee you drink, the more resistant you become to insulin - the hormone managing excess sugar levels in your body. Insulin helps the body break down carbs in order to make them digestible, but drinking coffee makes your body resistant to insulin. This results in, again, the excess of carbs (sugars) in your blood, which as we said, become eventually transformed into sebum and other body fats and oils.
Some studies have shown a whopping 40% of insulin resistance in men who ate a meal rich in carbs (pasta, potatoes, donuts, pizza) just before chugging a cup of coffee. This means that coffee actually sabotaged their body’s sugar-management system and allowed vast amounts of sugar to be floating freely in their body. We don’t need to repeat where all that extra sugar goes to, right? What’s worse, the remaining, ineffective insulin also stimulates the production of excess skin oil and skin cells, contributing to acne inflammation around the body. In short, drinking lots of coffee and gorging on fast food is a fast track to a close encounter with acne.
It’s called dysbiosis, and it’s not good. Due to coffee’s acidic value, it changes the pH values of your stomach, therefore making it more difficult for your gut’s good bacteria to thrive. With the good bacteria gone, the bad bacteria take over and, well… Your health suffers.
One of the effects of dysbiosis is the lessened ability to absorb important nutrients from food and produce Vitamin B. Not only that, but drink too much coffee and you risk ending up with one or more digestive issues, such as leaky gut syndrome, nutrient deficiencies, food malabsorption and so on. It doesn’t take much to see that a poorly functioning, or a damaged digestive system affects your skin as well. If you want to protect yourself from acne, keep a healthy gut and your skin will follow.
Besides messing with your gut’s flora, coffee also makes it more difficult for iron, zinc, and selenium to reach your body. These minerals play significant roles in our metabolism, regulating a wealth of immune, physical and psychological processes. One study has shown that coffee lessens the body’s ability to absorb iron by a staggering 72%, barring the passage of all that precious iron to our precious red blood cells.
Other minerals, such as selenium and zinc are also diminished by coffee intake, and it is exactly those minerals that promote skin health. In short, the less coffee we drink, the more nutritious everything we consume is.
Or, as the scientific term goes, mycotoxins. Naturally, since coffee comes from a plant, its processing cycle involves picking and drying, which encourages the growth of molds over the crops. What makes matters worse is that these molds thrive in hot, humid climates in low-lying geographical areas - which is incidentally where most of the world’s coffee is made. This means that avoiding mold in coffee is practically inevitable.
But why is mold so bad? Well, the most common mycotoxin types found in coffee are called ochratoxin A and Fusarium, and generally, they are a burden to your immune system. Besides trying to turn your body into a moldy palace of goo (skin and pimples included), mycotoxins also dysregulate your sexual hormones, and last but not least - they’re cancerous. Much as we would wish it to be otherwise, coffee is definitely not good for your skin.
When it comes to healthy skin, the negative effects of coffee outweigh the positive ones. The social custom of drinking coffee with plenty of sugar and milk only makes it worse for your body and skin, turning that much-needed mental focus into excess sugars, fat, and sebum. Not to mention that most coffee contains some variety of mold, which can create a whole set of other problems for your health in addition to harming your skin. All of these factors and more dovetail together in creating an environment that encourages acne inflammations.
If you need an alternative that would energize you, water or herbal teas are much better and healthier choices than coffee. There’s really no other way to say it: If you’re struggling with acne, consider breaking up with coffee. It’s a toxic relationship that’s not good for you.