My reviews usually touch on skincare products and their positive/negative effects on my acne but diet has a huge role in how bad my breakouts get (probably the same for most acne-prone duckies). Last year I was having a good time enjoying my smoother skin (thanks Curology!) but then hit a rough patch where cystic acne around my chin/mouth begin rearing up again.
Initially I was horrified my complexion may have gotten "used to" my acne products and I needed to try something new <gloomy face> but then I begin brainstorming whether I'd changed anything in my diet that could account for this downturn and came to some surprising conclusions.
I started re-reading the ingredient labels in everything I was consuming, really thinking hard about each item and realized that over the previous few weeks I'd been drinking way more soy milk -- as a cereal companion and just solo. Cutting cow milk out a few years ago cleared up 90% of my body acne and I always attributed this to the positive effects of reducing my hormone consumption but what could soy milk be doing to me?? Soy milk was supposed to be the more "healthy" substitute! Besides, I'd been drinking it since cutting away regular milk so why were things worsening now?
Well, it turns out switching to Costco's Kirkland Signature soy milk was the turning point. This brand uses carrageenan, a common food additive that thickens and binds ingredients. Since it's derived from seaweed, carrageenan is considered "safe" but animal studies have linked it to inflammation in the gut and other issues. A little online exploration showed me it's actually controversial enough now many food items will sport "No Carrageenan" labels.
Folks with acne tend to have higher levels of systemic inflammation and I'm not surprised that along with breakouts I've always been prone to IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) symptoms. I'm the person who eats dinner at a restaurant with a group of friends and ends up the only one with diarrhea afterwards. Even when I share food from the same plate with someone else they'll be fine but I'm stuck with cramps. If gut inflammation promotes acne inflammation then I was only throwing fuel on the fire with the carrageenan-laced soy milk. >_<
And then came another awful realization....
I'd seen carrageenan before listed on CosDNA. It has a "5" rating (the highest) for an acne trigger and if I'd actually bothered to remember this earlier I could have made the connection I shouldn't be drinking it at all. If it's no good for my skin then consuming it orally was probably beating up my gut. <forehead slap>
Through internet research I realized soy itself can be another acne trigger because it contains plant hormones (phytoestrogens) that mimic our human hormones to the point the body might be confused between the two and decide "Hey! I don't need to produce as much estrogen because I've got enough circulating about already." Low levels of estrogen are associated with (surprise, surprise) acne. To be fair, there were some online comments about soy helping a lucky few in their acne troubles but those appeared rare and I'm never that lucky.
My first reaction: "WAIT, if I cut out soy milk then what will I eat cereal with?!" (That question has still not been answered satisfactorily haha) Right now I'm eating cereal dry because it's forever a beloved snack and no, I will not use water instead per my unhelpful friend's suggestion.
Second reaction: Maybe other common food additives that serve as thickening agents (xanthan gum, acacia gum, locust or carob bean gum, gum arabic, etc) are problematic, too? I googled each of them along with "and acne" as search terms and found random commenters stating they experienced a link between eating them and extra breakouts. In general, thought, I couldn't find any concrete studies specifically investigating connection between them and acne. It doesn't make sense to just lump all of these polysaccharides (sugars) together but to be safe I'm going to avoid them in the future anyway. I have one particularly personal experience that inclines me towards a "better safe than sorry" attitude.
During all the brainstorming and furious online research I made the connection that the COSRX BHA Liquid I reviewed in 2015 (the one that broke me out terribly) has.... wait for it... xanthan gum! <insert dramatic music> My bottle was long disposed of but I looked up the ingredients once more on cosDNA and it appeared towards the end of the list. I consider this further confirmation that these food additives are off-limits to me and my crappy gut. Many are derived from "natural" things, like plants, so I've never questioned if they're right for me or not but I have no problem reading a few extra ingredient labels from now on if it'll save my complexion.
I already eat very little sugar/processed junk so it's no huge change to my diet to stay away from the food bars, chocolates, desserts, etc that contain these thickeners. Over the years I've lost my sweet tooth (thank goodness) and now stick to fruit if I ever have a craving. Every day I'm surprised at how common these additives can be and I'm torn between feeling accomplished that I'm able to avoid them versus betrayed that I've already consumed so many over the years. I guess they're too cheap not to use when companies need a way to bind certain ingredients or promote a specific texture in food.
I'm going to keep an ear out to see if anyone else feels xanthan gum or any of the other additives act as acne triggers. Most people obviously consume them without issue but I'm not most boohoo... It's like falling down a rabbit hole as I read about all kinds of gut inflammation theories or why my body hates food and makes acne its revenge. If I cut out everything that's supposedly an acne trigger I'd starve to death!
As of now it's only been a few months that I've limited my soy intake and I'm still not certain I can stop eating it completely. My precious tofu, a favorite staple in Asian culture, is too much of a comfort food for me to eliminate at the moment. Soy lecithin is in so much as well (check your labels, it really is). My game plan is to stop consuming as much as possible and then if my complexion makes positive gains I'll slowly introduce a bit back at a time. Maybe in a few months I can provide a happy update!