TCM perspective How certain foods can cause acne 1

TCM perspective: How certain foods can cause acne?

People often get anxious when they experience acne breakouts.. However, it is often an unavoidable part of life, with almost everyone having at least a mild form of acne at some point in their lives.

While there is no foolproof way to prevent acne from ever occurring again, there are some lifestyle choices you can make to help reduce the risk of bad breakouts. Specifically, the relation between our diet and acne. How well do you know about the relationship between your diet and acne? What are the foods you should avoid or consume less of? Let us break it down for you!

How does acne form?

Pores on our skin are connected to oil glands through follicles. The oil glands produce sebum that carries dead skin cells through the follicles to the surface of the skin. If excess sebum is produced, it builds up under the skin and follicles get clogged with sebum, dead skin cells, hair, and even bacteria; to form a plug.  As the bacteria multiplies, this causes infection and inflammation around the clogged pore, creating a pimple. 

In western theory, it is believed that there are a range of factors that may trigger acne, which include:

  • Hormonal changes
  • Diet 
  • Certain Medications
  • Stress
  • Improper removal of makeup

TCM takes a different perspective/ outlook on the causes of acne, and explains the formation of acne in three ways. 

Firstly, when a person with a Heaty body constitution, especially having Lung Heat, is being invaded by Wind, the Heat in the body is triggered to travel up to the face, thus causing acne. 

Second, overconsuming spicy, oily, flavourful food, generates Dampness-Heat in the body, which will in turn, affect the face as this damp heat travels upwards in a similar way to a steam. 

Lastly, people with weaker Spleen have a compromised transportation of fluid in the body. Fluid stasis tends to cause Dampness and Phlegm, which will then cause Heat formation if they are accumulated for a prolonged period. When Dampness, Phlegm, and Heat combine, they trigger acne formation on the skin. 

Types of Acne

TCM perspective How certain foods can cause acne 2

Acne usually appears on the face, forehead, shoulders, chest, and upper back.

Why do certain foods need to be avoided?

In TCM, it is believed that the food or drinks you consume can affect your zang-fu organs and even contribute to the formation of your body constitution, similar to the saying ‘you are what you eat’. That is why you should avoid certain foods that can lead to the three causes as mentioned above: heaty body constitution, Dampness-Heat generation, and weakened Spleen.

People with acne problems are always advised not to consume ‘heaty’ foods. What does that mean?

‘Heaty foods’ are usually the foods that can generate Heat or Dampness-Heat in your body and cause symptoms like redness, swelling, heat, pain, and pus formation. 

Example of heaty foods include

  • Alcohol
  • Mutton 
  • Milk 
  • Cheese
  • Curry
  • Chilli
  • Ginger, onion, garlic 
  • Cinnamon, star anise, pepper
  • Leaks, chives
  • Oily foods, deep-fried foods
  • Biscuits, cookies, chips
  • Sugar
  • Sweetened foods/drinks
  • Some fruits such as durian, jackfruit, longan, lychee, rambutan, mango 

Besides that, foods which can weaken Spleen and cause Phlegm-Dampness are also to be avoided. Phlegm-Dampness tends to cause nodules and cysts like acne on the face.

Example of foods that weaken spleen and generate Phlegm-Dampness include 

  • Ice, ice cream
  • Chilled drinks
  • Chilled fruits/vegetables
  • Raw foods
  • Sweetened foods/drinks
  • Oily foods
  • Heavy taste dishes

On the other hand, it is suggested in modern-day studies that foods with high glycemic index (GI), containing high amounts of omega-6 fatty acids, foods you are sensitive to, and milk, especially skimmed milk, are most likely to cause acne. This is because foods with high GI and milk interfere with the hormone secretion in your body, whereas the omega-6 fatty acids and food sensitivities induce inflammation.

Examples of high GI foods 

  • White rice
  • Porridge, congee
  • White bread
  • Cake
  • Cornflakes
  • Sugar
  • Sweetened food/beverages/products
  • Watermelons, pineapples
  • Potatoes (fries, baked, boiled, or mashed), sweet potatoes
  • Chips, rice crackers, cookies

Examples of foods containing high amount of omega-6 fatty acids

  • Peanuts, walnuts, almonds
  • Sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds
  • Tofu
  • Eggs
  • Safflower oil, canola oil, sunflower oil, corn oil

What food can help with acne?

Some foods with ‘Cooling’ properties, Dampness-removal properties are usually recommended to help reduce acne breakouts. These foods help to clear the Heat and Dampness from our body, and reduce the occurrences of breakouts. Here are some recommended recipes:

TCM perspective How certain foods can cause acne 3


  • Wintermelon with skin 冬瓜(带皮)500g
  • Chinese barley 中国薏米 60g
  • Dried lotus leaf 荷叶 12g
  • Lean meat 瘦肉250g 


  1. Cut winter melon into big cubes, retaining the skin in the process.
  2. Rinse all the ingredients with water. 
  3. Put the rinsed lotus leaf into a filter bag.
  4. Put all the ingredients into a pot of 1.5 litre water.
  5. Boil with high heat, and reduce to medium-low heat after the soup boils.
  6. Cook for 1 hour. Turn off the heat and season with 1 teaspoon of salt.
TCM perspective How certain foods can cause acne 4


  • Chinese barley 中国薏米 70g
  • Green bean 绿豆 50g
  • Rock sugar 冰糖 10g
  • Pandan leaf (optional) 班兰叶 5~8 pieces


  1. Rinse all the ingredients with water.
  2. Put chinese pearl barley and green bean into a pot of 1 litre water.
  3. Boil with high heat, and reduce to medium-low heat after the soup boils.
  4. Cook for 30 minutes.
  5. Put in the pandan leaf and boil for 8 minutes. (optional)
  6. Turn off the heat and put in the rock sugar, stir until the rock sugar melts.
TCM perspective How certain foods can cause acne 5


  • Honeysuckle 金银花 6g
  • White chrysanthemum 杭白菊 6g
  • Tangerine peel 陈皮 6g


  1. Break the tangerine peel into small pieces.
  2. Placeall the ingredients into a tea bag
  3. Pour boiling/hot water into the cup.
  4. Let it steep for 5 minutes.

Tips for acne prevention and management

Here some tips to deal with acne and to keep yourself acne-free

  • Refrain from touching your face unecessarily
  • Wash your face twice a day, and keep your face moisturised after washing. Do not over-cleanse your face as it can cause dry skin and worsen existing acne. 
  • Wash hands frequently, especially before touching your face or applying skincare  and makeup.
  • Choose non-comedogenic makeup and if you have oily skin, opt for water or gel-based products to reduce the tendency of clogged pores. Remove makeup and cleanse your skin before sleeping.
  • Try to keep cool and dry in hot and humid climates, and avoid excessive sun exposure.
  • Manage anxiety and stress, as it can increase production of cortisol and adrenaline, which exacerbate acne.
  • Do not scratch your skin or burst pimples, as this may push the infection further down or spread throughout your skin, causing more blockages, swelling, redness, and even scarring.
  • If acne is on the back, shoulders, or chest, try wearing loose clothing to let the skin breathe.
  • Wash your pillowcase and face towels regularly.
  • Change your face mask regularly, or wash it regularly if it is reusable. Wash your face after removing  your face mask.

PULSE Acne Management Programme

From TCM’s point of view, acne can be due to a variety of internal disharmony. Ultimately, your face mirrors your internal health. When problems manifest on the skin, it is often signalling a deeper imbalance going on somewhere in the body. Each type of imbalance is reflected in its characteristic symptoms and signs, i.e. shape and appearance of pimples, body areas in which pimples develop.

As there is “no one size fits all” treatment plan, a consultation with a physician to more accurately diagnose your body constitution is best. Depending on your condition,  a personalised herbal formula and acupuncture treatment can be prescribed to restore healthy skin.

Click here to learn more.

Note: Information provided is not a substitute for a physician or any form of medical care. Individual symptoms differ due to different body constitutions and diagnosis. One should consult a licensed TCM practitioner for accurate diagnosis and treatment.

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