Caffeine and Acne: Why Coffee Is Bad for Skin

Caffeine and Acne: Why Coffee Is Bad for Skin

Caffeine can affect our gut health and lead to dehydration, which are acne triggers. Learn more about the connection and what to consume instead.

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Coffee and Acne: How Caffeine Causes & Worsens Acne

As I ironically write this from a coffee shop (don’t worry, I ordered tea), a morning cup of coffee or tea has been a tradition in most cultures for generations. It’s become routine for most at this point. But why are we filling our empty stomachs with acid first thing in the morning when we should be alkalizing? So, does coffee cause acne? There are endless amounts of research that backs up caffeine being linked to acne breakouts, so I’m going to break it down for you.

Caffeine increases your stress (physiologically)

If you consume caffeine on a semi-regular basis, it increases androgen production (the “male hormones”) and causes your adrenals to artificially react. “Androgens cause our bodies to experience stress, which is directly linked to the overproduction of skin cells and clogged pores, as well as the release of the stress hormone cortisol,” says the Holistic Health Herbalist. She goes on to say, “Cortisol triggers overt amounts of oil to be produced on the skin. As more and more of this oil accumulates, germs and bacteria multiply in the clogged pores which causes white blood cells to rush to the infection. The resulting inflammation is called acne.” One study showed that a person who was stressed and consumed caffeine had a cortisol increase of 211%. That is a crazy increase! 

In addition to coffee, there are a range of foods and caffeinated beverages that we consume daily that can cause an acne breakout. If you suffer from acne, we strongly recommend that you look into an anti-acne diet and review our list of pore-clogging ingredients. By using skincare for acne-prone skin, you will be well on your way to more clear and beautiful skin. Please be sure to also combine topical treatments such as our anti-aging & anti-acne stem cell serum.

Caffeine causes dehydration

You are thirsty. Most of us are chronically dehydrated anyhow (did you know that 3 Liters a day is what is actually needed for optimal skin? MORE if you exercise!) Now add caffeine (a natural diuretic) to the mix and you’ve got to drink more water to account for that too. With so many environmental toxins getting into our bodies from food, water, products, and our modern environment, we need as much hydration as we can get just to help our bodies flush these things out (like clogged pores). Give your system a break and only have coffee on the days you really, really need it. Caffeine and acne do not get along!

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Coffee can contain mycotoxins from mold

Probably one of the most concerning facts about coffee is that it contains toxins known as mycotoxin formed from mold that grows on the coffee crops before and after harvesting. Molds most commonly grow on coffee plants grown in lower altitudes with hot, humid climates. “Mycotoxins are terrible for acne and for your overall health. They can mess your immune system up and slow it down from responding quickly to bacteria and other invaders. They also mess up your sex hormone levels, mainly estrogen. Furthermore, they are cancerous.The good news is that not all coffees contain the same high levels of these mycotoxins. Coffees grown at higher altitudes are usually harvested and processed with more care, but as a result, they are also more expensive.” – Facing Acne blog

Coffee can cause gut dysbiosis

Gut what? Let’s dissect this. Your gut is home to many different kinds of bacteria, both good and bad. When your gut is healthy and functioning normally, the good bacteria effectively do their job and overpower the bad bacteria. This is referred to as gut symbiosis. However, when bad bacteria begin to outgrow these good bacteria, the gut resorts to an unhealthy or dysbiotic state. The microbiome can grow imbalanced by antibiotic use, physiological and psychological stress, autoimmune disorders and other diseases, and diet (to name a few). As coffee is highly acidic, it can lead to disruptions in the gut flora, eventually causing dysbiosis. 

So what exactly does gut dysbiosis do to the body? For starters, it can lead to malabsorption, or the inability to absorb nutrients from food. Even if you follow a strict anti-acne diet, you will not reap the benefits if your body cannot take in essential vitamins and minerals. If you’re deficient in zinc, selenium, or iron and drink coffee on a regular basis, chances are it’s the reason you’re deficient! Try to have coffee as far between meals if you can. One study revealed that coffee consumed with a meal or within an hour before or after a meal impaired iron absorption by 72%. 

Zooming in on inflammation

Dysbiosis can also lead to inflammation and a lovely syndrome called leaky gut. Leaky gut, aka intestinal permeability, refers to damaged intestinal lining and causes a disruption in the digestive process. Inside our gastrointestinal tract, we have about 4,000 square feet of lining that act as a barrier to the rest of the body. Taking a closer look at the small intestine, we see this lining consists of small finger-like projections called villi that are responsible for letting digested nutrients pass through to the bloodstream (how we absorb essential vitamins and minerals). When leaky gut is present, these villi break down creating holes in the intestinal lining. With the barrier to entry compromised, undigested and unwanted substances can pass through to the bloodstream including toxic bacterial matter and destructive digestive metabolites. Once in the bloodstream, these toxins circulate throughout the body causing inflammation, and (you guessed it) acne. 

The good news is, you can take simple steps today to work towards a healthy, symbiotic microbiome. The bad strains of bacteria have quite the sweet tooth. They feed on sugar and carbohydrates, so the more sugar you consume, the more you feed these bugs and help them grow. Eliminating (or at least greatly reducing) sugar from your diet is the first step to curing gut dysbiosis. Focus on a low-carb diet packed with nutrient-rich vegetables and healthy fats, and cut back on inflammatory triggers like sugar, dairy, wheat, alcohol and (yep!) coffee. Stick to  “low glycemic” foods whenever possible, and when you do have something that is just carbs, balance it out with protein to avoid a blood-sugar spike.

Speaking of the gut, what’s up with the gut-brain (and skin) connection?

It should come as no surprise that the gut and brain have a long-standing relationship. Think getting “butterflies” in your stomach before a first date, or having a “gut feeling” about a tough decision. Nausea and vomiting often come as symptoms of migraines just as mental stress can cause digestive issues like constipation or diarrhea. But what causes this connection? And how does this affect the skin? Let’s take a look.

You may be familiar with serotonin, or the body’s happy “hormone.” This neurotransmitter stabilizes our mood, happiness, and overall feeling of well-being. But did you know that 95% of serotonin is actually produced in the gut? Yep, the gut plays a massive role in our mental health. Remember those good bacteria we talked about? These powerful organisms are the key players in serotonin production. So when the good strains become overrun with their not-so-good counterparts (ahem, dysbiosis) our mood can be directly affected. 

Beyond serotonin, one strain of probiotic bacteria called Lactobacillus rhamnosus contains a neurotransmitter called GABA that calms anxiety and regulates brain activity. When your body isn’t producing adequate amounts of serotonin, GABA, and other essential neurotransmitters, your mood can quickly take a hit. As previously mentioned, elevated levels of stress and anxiety lead to overproduction of the stress hormone, cortisol, which increases sebum production in the skin leading to acne. The high levels of caffeine and acidity in coffee can negatively affect the gut’s good bacteria in supplying the body with a healthy balance of hormones. 

Some key takeaways

Before I get into the exciting (and delicious!) world of coffee alternatives, let’s take a moment to digest (yes, pun intended) some conclusive points of the intricate relationship between coffee and acne. 

  • High caffeine levels in coffee lead to the production of androgens, causing the adrenals to release the stress hormone cortisol, which triggers acne.
  • Some coffee plants contain mycotoxins, which can alter the immune response and slow your system from responding to bacteria and other invaders.
  • As a natural diuretic, coffee causes dehydration which slows the healing process of the skin.
  • The acidic nature of coffee can disrupt your gut microbiome leading to an unhealthy balance of gut bacteria. 
  • This gut dysbiosis can lead to malabsorption of essential nutrients and whole-body inflammation, including inflammation of the skin.
  • An unhealthy gut can increase stress levels due to the gut-brain connection, which leads to overproduction of oil in the skin. 

Is tea instead of coffee better?

Yes! We LOVE organic green tea, Pu-erh, and the Mushroom blends available now- plus they actually keep you focused for longer and you’re able to stay happy & productive while avoiding the dreaded coffee crash. If you just need that bit of caffeine in the morning, tea is a great substitute. Plus there’s literally hundreds to choose from (so fun!) and you can experience lasting health benefits. In terms of caffeine and acne, teas with higher caffeine levels can still impair your body’s ability to absorb minerals, but overall is far better for your skin, mind, and well being. Being non-acidic and caffeine-free, herbal tea is your best bet packed with many benefits. 

However, I’m not denying that coffee withdrawal is real. If you’re an avid coffee drinker looking to decaffeinate yourself, your best bet is to ween off your caffeine intake to avoid potential symptoms such as headaches, nausea, fatigue and brain fog. If herbal tea is your end goal, try starting off with higher caffeinated teas and slowly building up (or down, that is) to a caffeine-free lifestyle! Try beginning your initial caffeine detox with one of these tea alternatives: 

  1. Matcha: This foamy green latte craze can not just replace a cup of coffee, but also comes with vast health benefits. Matcha is a ground powdered form of Japanese green tea leaf. Since matcha is made up of the whole tea leaf as opposed to steeping and discarding, it comes packed with about ten times the nutritional value (and almost three times the amount of caffeine). However, matcha still contains significantly less caffeine than coffee, with 70 mg per cup of matcha versus up to 200 mg in a cup of coffee. Still convinced on the switch? Matcha is grown in shade which increases the production of an amino acid derivative called L-theanine. Found almost exclusively in tea, L-theanine acts as a natural mood stabilizer by stimulating the production of alpha waves in the brain (aka those yummy brain waves found in deep meditation and relaxation). And if we understand one thing, it’s that less stress = less acne. This healthy balance of (lowered) caffeine and L-theanine provides a stable energy source without the jitters and crashes experienced with coffee.
  2. Black Tea: An 8 oz cup of tea contains anywhere from 14-60 mg of caffeine, with black tea being on the higher end of the spectrum. Just like green tea, black tea contains a collection of healthy ingredients such as powerful antioxidants and polyphenols. While coffee is inflammatory in nature, black tea can help reduce inflammation in the body (and of course, the skin). If you’re a latte lover, try brewing a cup of Earl Grey or Chai tea, adding a splash of your favorite non-dairy milk, and blending it up for a frothy way to begin your morning!

I can’t get down with tea… are there other coffee alternatives?

Yes again! Here are some of our favorite coffee alternatives, beyond the world of tea…

  1. Four Sigmatic: This LA based company specializes in mushroom beverages and products. While they still offer a variety of crash-free and immune supporting coffees, they also provide an array of coffee substitutions. Understanding that mushrooms like Lion’s Mane and Chaga supply a natural source of plant energy, while Reishi can lower stress levels, Four Sigmatic has mindfully spun these superfoods into delicious beverage mixes that will most definitely outrank your morning cup of java. 
  2. MUD\WTR: MUD\WTR is another coffee alternative business making headlines. Made with organic mushrooms, cacao, masala chai, turmeric, sea salt and cinnamon, Mud is jam-packed with superfoods and contains only 1/7 of the caffeine in a normal cup of coffee. 
  3. Rasa: For a completely caffeine-free (and energizing) beverage, try Rasa’s coffee substitute. Formulated to combine elements of Ayurvedic, Chinese and Western herbalism, Rasa contains chicory, burdock and dandelion roots, along with several other adaptogenic ingredients that provide sustained energy all day long. Dandelion root also helps with liver detox which can flush acne from the inside out. 
  4. Hot Cacao: For your chocolate fix, try a healthy version of your typical hot cocoa. Like coffee, cacao is rich and robust in nature, but is packed with iron, magnesium, and antioxidants (and contains more calcium than dairy milk!). Heat up your favorite dairy-free milk and blend with a tablespoon of raw cacao powder and a few drops of honey for a chocolatey superfood treat. 
  5. Golden Milk: Similar to hot cacao, golden milk is made by blending a plant-based milk and optional natural sweetener like honey, maple syrup, or stevia. However, instead of cacao, golden milk calls for turmeric to make it, well, golden! Turmeric has anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties that can fight the bacteria Propionibacterium acnes (P. acnes), aka the bacteria that contributes to acne.  
  6. Lemon Water: For perhaps the most detoxifying hot beverage, try drinking warm lemon water first thing in the morning. Drinking lemon water on an empty stomach can aid in digestion (especially if it’s warm), prevent cell oxidation, supply vitamin C and potassium, and kick start hydration which we know is vital in clearing acne. 
  7. Apple Cider Vinegar: Another cleansing option is apple cider vinegar. Due to its naturally fermented state, ACV contains gut-healing probiotics as well as B-vitamins, polyphenols, and acetic acid which promotes healthy digestion. Try drinking a tablespoon of ACV twice a day on an empty stomach for optimal benefits.
  8. Smoothies: On the go? Try combining your morning drink with your breakfast for a two-in-one special (with some serious health kicks).  Incorporate leafy greens, vitamin-packed fruits, plant-based milk and almond butter for a balanced mix of nutrients, antioxidants, and healthy fats.

If you are struggling with acne and are drinking coffee every day, take the simple step of eliminating coffee from your diet! Trust me, your complexion will thank you. Looking at coffee consumption as a toxic relationship with your skin may help in deciding to break up with it for good. The best part? You will enjoy other immense health benefits and get to be more creative with your morning beverage!