How Sugar Affects Your Skin

Preventing Skin Damage from Within

Sugar has zero nutritional value— it ruins both your figure and your skin. Sugar is highly addictive, affecting the brain like heroin, and it doesn’t contribute to satiety, so overeating is inevitable. Your skin represents your internal health, and the effects of sugar on both can be horrifying.

How Sugar Affects Your Skin

When excess sugar circulates in the bloodstream, it attaches to proteins in a process called glycation, producing advanced glycation end products (AGEs). AGEs cause protein fibers to become stiff and malformed. The proteins in your skin that are most prone to glycation, collagen and elastin, are the same ones that produce a youthful, radiant, supple complexion. AGEs accumulate in the collagen and elastin of your skin, causing it to become thin, discolored and rigid, resulting in sallowness, wrinkles and sagging. Furthermore, AGEs deactivate your body’s natural antioxidants, leaving you more vulnerable to sun damage and environmental toxins. Youthful skin is more resilient, but the damage accumulates and starts to show its aging effect in your 30s. If you are young and not worried about aging yet, be aware that sugar and high-glycemic foods raise insulin levels and lead to total body inflammation. In the skin, this presents as rashes, rosacea and acne breakouts. A 12-week randomized controlled trial looking at 23 males between the ages of 15 and 25 who adhered to a strict low-glycemic diet had significant improvement in their acne. Another study looked at 32 Korean adults, 20-27 years old, who ate a low-glycemic diet for 10 weeks. Skin biopsies revealed that both the size of the oil glands and amount of inflammatory cells were reduced.

Bottom Line

• Most of your carbohydrates should come from vegetables and real foods. Avoid packaged and processed foods, as these quickly convert to sugar. Avoid hidden sugars in food— barley malt, dextrose, corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, maltose, maple syrup, molasses, turbinado, agave syrup and honey. Especially avoid high-fructose corn syrup, which produces more AGEs that other types.

• Include more antioxidants in your diet. Antioxidants have a protective effect against the formation of AGEs by preventing sugar from attaching to proteins. Colorful vegetables, berries, nuts and green tea are essential.

• Exercise. Regular exercise uses up excess sugar in the bloodstream as fuel, making it unavailable to produce AGEs. Keep moving!

• Supplement your diet with vitamins B1 and B6, which are potent AGE inhibitors. Chromium, B3, and magnesium improve blood sugar control, making sugar less available for AGE formation. The amino acid carnosine can protect against AGE buildup.

• Spice it up. Certain spices may help inhibit the formation of AGEs, among them cinnamon, cloves, oregano, allspice, ginger and garlic.

• Wear SPF 30-plus sunscreen with zinc oxide every day. AGEs occur more frequently in sun-exposed skin, and AGEs make skin more prone to UV damage, so daily broad-spectrum sun protection is crucial.

• Topical nourishment with retinoids (retinol, tretinoin, retin-A) nightly will help build new collagen and actually reverse some damage. SkinCeuticals A.G.E. Complex specifically targets AGEs in the skin. Every morning, use a high-quality topical vitamin C serum or cream underneath your sunscreen.

Jennifer Haley, MD, FAAD

Jennifer Haley, MD, FAAD is a board-certified dermatologist with a degree in Nutrition Science from Cornell University. She has been an NPC bikini competitor and a consultant to the US Capitol. She enjoys an active lifestyle in Scottsdale, AZ and Montrose, CO with her husband and three boys.