The 'Western diet' is linked to adult acne in a new study

The takeaway: limit sugar and dairy if you want better skin.

spoon holding sugar over bowl

This photo illustration taken on April 22, 2020 shows a teaspoon of sugar, an item that has been in short supply in Sri Lanka as a result of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus, in Colombo.

Photo by Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/AFP via Getty Images)
  • University of Paris researchers found that the consumption of fatty and sugary products, sugary beverages, and milk seems to increase adult acne.
  • The team used data from over 24,000 participants in a famous French study.
  • Roughly 50 percent of adults in Western countries over age 25 suffer from acne.

The bane of adolescence can be a lifetime recurrence with the wrong diet. According to a new study, published in JAMA Dermatology, the Western diet is associated with an increased likelihood of adult acne.

Acne is the result of dead skin cells and oil clogging hair follicles. This is the stuff of teenage nightmares: blackheads, oily skin, pimples, whiteheads, and even scarring. While the face is often the victim, acne affects other regions with a high number of oil glands, including the upper chest and back.

Acne is purportedly the most common chronic inflammatory skin disease in the world. While it mostly occurs between the ages of 15 and 17, studies show that roughly 50 percent of adults over age 25 continue to suffer from acne, whether intermittently or chronically. That group is predominantly female, and, more relevant to this study, they are from Western countries.

Acne psychologically stunts teenagers, resulting in low self-esteem, social isolation, and depression. These psychological conditions continue into adulthood. As the researchers of this study, led by a team from Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale at the University of Paris write, acne "is reported to have the same emotional, social, and psychological consequences as chronic diseases, such as asthma, arthrosis, epilepsy, and diabetes."

Diet is not the only factor in chronic and persistent acne. Endocrine disorders and genetic predispositions play a role. Environmental and lifestyle factors, such as exposure to pollution, cosmetic products, and tobacco use also contribute. Dietary behavior is also a major factor—perhaps the major factor.

The treatments for acne range from azelaic and salicylic acid to antibiotics and retinoids. The team in Paris suggests a simpler method: eat less high-fat and high-sugar foods and beverages and consume less dairy.

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Using data from over 24,000 participants from the French NutriNet-Santé study, the researchers assessed a dozen food groups, including milk and dark chocolate, refined cereals, vegetables, meat, and sugary beverages. They then classed participants by age, body mass index (BMI), educational status, smoking status, sex, medical history, and physical activity.

The results were clear: there appears to be a link between adult acne and the consumption of fatty and sugary products, sugary beverages, and milk, all major components of the "Western diet."

While proving causation will take time, the researchers offer a few hypotheses as to why these dietary groups could be behind adult acne.

  • High-glycemic diets elevate levels of Insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) and insulin, which ultimately increases levels of oxidative stress and inflammation.
  • Increased IGF-1 stimulates the production of androgens, producing higher levels of sebum, a yellowish, oily substance related to acne.
  • Milk consumption increases IGF-1 production by the liver; drinking milk has similar effects as eating a high-glycemic meal.

As with many post-study analyses, the team noted a number of limitations, including the fact that acne levels were self-reported in the initial study (therefore open to interpretation and personal biases), and the French population was skewed toward women, healthier dietary habits, and higher educational levels, which is not reflective of the entire planet.

Still, given the high prevalence of acne in the Western world and the well-known negative effects of the Western diet, their conclusion seems to stand on solid ground.

"The consumption of fatty and sugary products, sugary beverages, and milk appears to be associated with current acne. Our results may support the hypothesis that the Western diet (rich in animal products and fatty and sugary foods) is associated with the presence of acne in adulthood."


Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter, Facebook and Substack. His next book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source:

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source:

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source:

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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