What Does Sugar Actually Do to Your Skin?
State of Skin is our monthlong exploration of what women love, hate, and need to know about their skin — from the most common concerns to the best kept secrets in beauty.
Whether or not you have an obvious sweet tooth, the truth is that it's pretty hard to avoid eating sugar. According to the University of California, San Francisco's Sugar Science study, 74% of packaged foods contain added sugar. Everything from breakfast cereals to pasta sauces, white breads, wine, and instant oatmeal can have surpisingly high levels of the stuff. On top of that, there are numerous types of sugar listed within the ingredients of those same foods, including fructose, sucrose, maltose, and dextrose — none of which do the body good.
"Sugar gets broken down into glucose in our bodies, which raises our insulin levels," Dr. Tanuj Nakra, double board-certified ophthalmologist, cosmetic surgeon, and co-founder of AVYA Skincare tells InStyle. "Insulin spikes are a major trigger for inflammation in our bodies. Chronically high sugar levels can also lead to diabetes, even autoimmune inflammation, which has catastrophic effects on multiple organs, including the skin."
The inflammation caused by high sugar intake can worsen a variety of skin ailments, the MD explains. Conditions like eczema, acne, and rosacea can all be triggered by the ingredient, which can lead not only to further and prolonged breakouts and flare-ups, but also dull skin tone, and premature aging.
"Chronically high glucose levels alter the protein structure of our skin, with the breakdown of collagen and elastin," Dr. Nakra says. "This results in accelerated sagging and wrinkling of our skin."
But, if you're someone who generally eats a well-balanced diet, has clear skin, and only reaches for candy or chocolate every once in a while, your skin probably won't hate you for it. "An occasional sweet treat can be a reasonable indulgence," the MD confirms. "Truly rare doses of sugar won’t cause breakouts or wrinkles."
If you tend to notice your skin flare up around your period — and also get mean sugar cravings at that time — it's always good to keep in mind that if you're already dealing with a condition like acne or eczema, there's always a risk that any sugar can further provoke your skin when your hormones are already raging. "The process can become a vicious cycle, as sugar can worsen inflammation," he says. "Try your best to maximize sleep, eat a healthy diet, and exercise around the time of your period." Think of your skin like your mood around PMS: It's already irritable, thanks to hormones. Throwing anything else volatile into the situation probably won't help.
Regardless of your eating habits (whether or not your hormones are on 10) if you're noticing any of the effects of sugar consumption on your skin, thankfully, there are a few solutions. If you want to combat the issue topically, Dr. Nakra suggests using products that are rich in turmeric, peony, neem, and other active botanicals to soothe inflammation. Ingredients like niacinamide and vitamin C also stimulate collagen production, which can improve skin tone over time.
And making some changes to your diet is key for getting to the root of the problem. "Foods that are high in fiber can help slow absorption of sugar by the gastrointestinal system," Dr. Nakra confirms. "The best strategy is to avoid any processed foods with added sugar, and to enjoy a whole food diet."
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If you've found that you can't completely kick sugar out of your diet, there's a good explanation for that.
"Our brains receive a large dopamine surge with sugar intake — dopamine is associated with pleasure, and is also the target of highly addictive drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamines — which produces an addiction to sugar," Dr. Nakra explains. "If you are constantly craving sugar, in the form of candy, chocolate, or Frappuccinos, for example, then it is likely you are addicted to sugar."
While the surgeon explains that there are no forms of sugar that are "good" for the skin from a medical perspective (yes, that includes unrefined brown sugar, coconut sugar, and maple syrup), there are still some better alternatives for anyone who wants to be mindful of the sweets they're putting into their bodies.
"Natural sugars found in plants and vegetables are absorbed much more slowly when consumed in the whole food form, because these sugars are generally complex carbohydrates and coexist with natural fiber," he says. Apples, raisins, and dates are all examples the doctor would recommend.
Each of these foods can be used as substitutes for sugar in a variety of recipes to help you glow from the inside out — and that's just sweet.