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Does soy cause acne? Here’s what the research says

It may or may not! But that doesn’t mean you should go carte blanche.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Aug 17, 2023 • 7 min read
Medically reviewed by Meredith Hartle, DO
soy milk inside glass bottle
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Aug 17, 2023 • 7 min read
Medically reviewed by Meredith Hartle, DO
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

Soy and soy products are readily available and inexpensive, which contributes to their popularity in food and skincare products. But you might be wondering, does soy cause acne? Maybe, but there isn’t a concrete consensus just yet. 

Here we’ll explain how food can impact skin health and dive into several ways soy may affect the skin—the good and the bad. Using effective ingredients for your unique skin is an important part of skincare, especially if you have acne. The food you eat counts, too.

What you eat has an impact on your skin

The saying “You are what you eat” has some merit when it comes to your skin. It’s not that eating good-for-you foods directly changes the composition of your skin or that drinking water magically hydrates the epidermis (outer skin layer). Rather, what you eat and drink plays a role in overall health—and that includes skin health. 

Just like drinking water helps keep your body hydrated, a balanced diet gives your body the essential nutrients it needs for your health and your skin’s health. Omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants such as vitamins A, C, and E are known to be good for your skin, and they’re found in fatty fish, nuts, fruits and veggies.¹ 

Here’s a quick nutrition lesson—if you want to take a deep dive into your diet, we recommend consulting with a nutritionist or dietitian. 

  • Vitamins A, C, and E are important for maintaining healthy skin.² Vitamin A promotes skin regeneration, which is the cornerstone of how retinol and retinoids benefit anti-aging and acne. Vitamin C and vitamin E are both powerful antioxidants that help keep skin hydrated and promote the formation of collagen. 

  • Omega-3 fatty acids are healthy fats that may improve skin barrier function.³ Omega-3 fatty acids, like flaxseed oil, may also improve transepidermal water loss (TEWL), skin hydration, and skin sensitivity.⁴ 

  • Antioxidants neutralize free radicals (unstable molecules) and help prevent oxidative stress. Sun exposure and environmental pollutants can damage healthy cells.⁵ Antioxidants—like those found in green tea and pomegranate—help keep your skin healthy by protecting collagen and elastin from breaking down.⁶

teenage boy with acne problem

Soy and your skin

Research shows that certain foods may cause acne, like sugar, dairy, and whey protein powder. Soy protein may also contribute, which is why acne from soy is a common concern. Soy contains a high content of isoflavone,⁷ which is structurally similar to a type of estrogen. In the body, isoflavone can act as a lower-strength form of estrogen, due to its structural similarity. This phenomenon can result in either an increase or decrease in estrogen activity. A decrease can happen because the isoflavones are not as strong as natural estrogen, and this can affect the number of androgens the body produces.

Soy comes from the soybean or soya bean, an edible legume native to East Asia. Traditional food sources made from soy include soy milk, tofu, edamame, meat substitutes, soy sauce and tamari, and protein shakes and bars.

variety of plant based meat

As mentioned, research doesn’t fully support that soy can lead to acne. In fact, a few studies show that this ingredient may actually be beneficial for acne:  

  • Research suggests soy can reduce acne. A small randomized controlled trial found that people who consumed 160 milligrams of soy (extracted from isoflavone) daily resulted in fewer acne lesions. The trial also suggested isoflavone to have an anti-androgenic effect—it showed decreased levels of an androgen known to cause acne vulgaris.⁸

  • Soy may cause variable effects on estrogen. In the body, an agonist mimics another substance and can initiate a similar physiological response. As previously mentioned, some studies have suggested that isoflavones can act as estrogen in the body. But a systematic review found that it may depend on a person’s stage of life—whether they are pre- or post-menopausal. This research reported that soy isoflavones may only act as estrogen after menopause due to the low-estrogen environment.⁹ Before menopause, there’s enough naturally occurring estrogen that soy doesn’t act like estrogen. That means there aren’t too many androgens (which can cause acne). We’ll explain more about hormonal acne below.

Just as research shows soy might not contribute to acne, other studies explain why soy could still contribute to acne: 

  • Soy may contribute to hormonal acne. As we explained earlier, it’s theorized phytoestrogens can cause acne. The process may work like this: Our bodies strive to have a healthy balance of androgen and estrogen. These hormones have designated spots in the body called receptor sites. As agonists, isoflavones can be quick to “steal” these receptor sites from estrogen produced by the body. But because isoflavones aren’t as strong as the real thing, this can create a hormonal imbalance in the body.

  • The topical application of soy acts as a comedogenic ingredient. Lots of formulas use soy as a filler because it’s affordable and easily accessible. But used topically, it can cause acne because it’s comedogenic. Comedogenic ingredients clog pores, which can cause acne breakouts in some people. Here’s a list of ingredients to avoid if you’re worried about clogging your pores. 

We don't advise Curology members to increase their soy intake, but we also don’t tell them to go out of the way to avoid soy. There just isn’t strong enough evidence either way. 

What are the types of acne triggered by food?

All types of acne can be triggered by your diet. Certain foods can trigger acne (we’ll list those in the next section). Acne forms when pores become clogged with dead skin cells and sebum. It can be mild—blackheads and whiteheads—or more severe when bacteria feed on the sebum and cause inflammation. Inflammatory acne leads to papules and pustules and can also lead to cystic acne.

Eating a balanced diet definitely won’t hurt your skin—in fact, it can help you out. But taking care of your skin using skincare ingredients proven to treat and prevent acne is your best defense. Using moisturizers, foundations, and makeup formulated for acne-prone skin is part of a good skincare routine.  

Here are some dietary changes to make to avoid breakouts 

Again, you shouldn’t necessarily avoid soy. If you have acne-prone skin, however, there are some foods that are generally known to affect your breakouts more than others. Here’s what you need to know about the foods that can cause acne: 

  • Sugar and simple carbs, like bread, crackers, and cereals, increase insulin levels and can increase sebum and inflammation—both contribute to acne flare-ups.

  • Dairy products can trigger acne in some people.¹⁰ Cow’s milk increases insulin and insulin growth factor-1 (IGF-1), which can increase the occurrence and severity of acne.¹¹ 

  • Whey protein powder is made from the fluid left behind in cheese manufacturing. Like cow’s milk and other dairy products, it’s a rich source of protein, but it may cause acne because it enhances the hormone IGF-1.¹²

It may be helpful for some people to modify their diet to avoid breakouts. If you’re struggling with acne, ask a professional skin care provider, such as a licensed dermatology provider on Curology’s team, for guidance.

Curology products on lavender bath tub - How to get rid of pores on your nose

Curology is at your service

Knowing which ingredients can affect the skin is critical when it comes to managing acne. Curology’s licensed dermatology providers evaluate your skin to create a personalized treatment plan and custom prescription formula that uses effective, clinically researched ingredients.

Founded in 2014 by a board-certified dermatologist, Curology’s full-service skincare can help you tackle skin concerns like acne, rosacea, and signs of aging. Our providers create personalized treatment programs to help you discover what works best for you and your skincare goals. Our skincare products are non-comedogenic, vegan, and cruelty-free. 

Becoming a member is easy. Answer a few questions and snap a few selfies to help us get to know your skin. If Curology is right for you, we’ll pair you with one of our in-house licensed dermatology providers, who will design a personalized prescription formula and guide you in your skincare journey. We’ll send you a prescription formula and other recommended products to try.* And if you have any questions, we’re here for you. Sign up to try Curology now!

FAQs

What you eat has an impact on your skin?

The saying “You are what you eat” has some merit when it comes to your skin. It’s not that eating good-for-you foods directly changes the composition of your skin or that drinking water magically hydrates the epidermis (outer skin layer). Rather, what you eat and drink plays a role in overall health—and that includes skin health. 

What are the types of acne triggered by food?

All types of acne can be triggered by your diet. Certain foods can trigger acne (we’ll list those in the next section). Acne forms when pores become clogged with dead skin cells and sebum. It can be mild—blackheads and whiteheads—or more severe when bacteria feed on the sebum and cause inflammation. Inflammatory acne leads to papules and pustules and can also lead to cystic acne.

• • •

P.S. We did the homework so you don’t have to:

  1. Mchalak, M., et al. Bioactive compounds for skin health: A review. Nutrients. (January 2021).

  2. Paravina, M. The role of diet in maintaining healthy skin.Journal of Dermatology and Cosmetology. (2018).

  3. Parke, M.A., et al. Diet and the skin barrier: The role of dietary interventions on skin barrier function.Dermatology Practical and Conceptual. (January 2021).

  4. Parke, M.A., et al. Diet and the skin barrier: The role of dietary interventions on skin barrier function.Dermatology Practical and Conceptual. Ibid.

  5. Baek, J. and Lee, M.G. Oxidative stress and antioxidant strategies in dermatology.Redox Report. (2016).

  6. Mchalak, M., et al. Bioactive compounds for skin health: A review. Nutrients. Ibid.

  7. Chen, L.R., et al. Isoflavone supplements for menopausal women: A systematic review.Nutrients. (November 2019).

  8. Riyanto, P, et al. Advantage of soybean isoflavone as antiandrogen on acne vulgaris.Dermato Endocrinology. (January-December 2015).

  9. Chen, L.R., et al. Isoflavone supplements for menopausal women: A systematic review.Nutrients. Ibid.

  10. American Academy of Dermatology. Can the right Diet Get Rid of Acne? (n.d.).

  11. Ismail, N.H., et al., High Glycemic Load Diet, Milk and Ice Cream Consumption are Related to Acne Vulgaris in Malaysian Young Adults: A Case Control Study. BMC Dermatology. (2012, August 16).

  12. Simonart, T, Acne and Whey Protein Among Supplementation Bodybuilders. Dermatology. (2012, December 13).

Meredith Hartle is a board-certified Family Medicine physician at Curology. She earned her medical degree at Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine in Kirksville, MO.

* Subject to consultation. Subscription is required. Results may vary. 

• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Meredith Hartle, DO

Meredith Hartle, DO

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