It’s no mystery that sugar is one of those foods that—much to any sweet tooth’s chagrin—should be enjoyed in moderation. In terms of physical health, too much sugar can mean spiked blood sugar, diabetes, weight gain, and more. As if that's not bad enough, it can also do a number on our complexions as well.
This exact effect has even earned its own nickname—sugar face. Although we’d love to say it’s an endearing nickname from your grandfather, it’s actually the buzzy internet term given to the way your face looks when its been affected by sugar. The symptoms? Sugar face shows itself as pronounced fine lines or wrinkles; a pasty, less radiant tone; and the worst of the worst—adult acne.
Curious to learn more about how something found in so much of what we consume can affect your breakouts? So were we. We chatted with two dermatologists to get to the bottom of this not-so sweet matter.
This Is What Really Causes the Trouble
“Healthy skin is a product of a healthy body,” says Dr. Dendy Engelman, Director of Dermatologic Surgery and Laser Medicine at Metropolitan Hospital in New York. “If we have an unhealthy, un-balanced gut environment, toxins can be released into the bloodstream and cause inflammation throughout the body.”
“Sugar can directly result in breakouts and exacerbate acne by sending hormones into overproduction.” One such hormone is testosterone, which can actually increase when insulin is spiked (say from sugar). An increase in testosterone can mean oilier skin and large pores—a perfect storm for acne.
As if that weren’t quite unsettling enough, even if you’re an artificial sweetener addict, you’re not in the clear yet. Even fake sugar can still have real results. “Artificial sweeteners have been shown to be able to affect our hormones in the same way as sugar so, therefore, they may also contribute to acne,” explains Dr. Hadley King, dermatologist at SKINNEY Medspa in New York.
Sadly, acne isn’t the only potential result of too much sugar. Several studies have shown that skin’s vitality (meaning how plump and bouncy it looks) and youthful glow can also be affected. Think of collagen as the building blocks of the skin. When those blocks are compromised and damaged (i.e. tainted by too much sugar), this is when trouble can occur.
That trouble is due to a process called glycation. “Excess sugar molecules bond to collagen and elastin through a process named glycation, resulting in AGEs or advanced glycation end products,” Dr. King says. “This process ultimately causes the collagen and elastin fibers to lose their strength and flexibility, contributing to aging of the skin.” Bottom line: Sugar can actually attach to your skin’s collagen and cause its barrier to be compromised, leading to the appearance of more sallow, less taut skin.
What Can You Do?
Thankfully, this is a relatively easy fix. First things first: Cut back on the sugar. Now, we’re not saying you need to restrict yourself entirely—everything in moderation!—but being cognizant of how much sugar you’re consuming is important.
In general, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends no more than 6 teaspoons (25 grams) of added sugar per day for women and 9 teaspoons (38 grams) for men. Unfortunately, studies report the average sugar consumption in America is actually closer to 19.5 teaspoons (82 grams) daily. And remember, sugar isn’t just found in cookies and cakes—it's present in healthy foods like yogurt and fruit. And its often snuck into items you wouldn't expect like pasta sauce and salsa. So check the label if you're struggling with acne—it just might save you from your next breakout!