Coffee is one of the most beloved food substances in the world; therefore there’s plenty of people wondering whether it can affect your skin. Countless coffee lovers are terrified that their favourite beverage is actually what’s causing their acne.
However unlike foods such as the pomegranate, there is no simple answer. The coffee bean which coffee comes from is one of the most complicated food substances in the world; it contains caffeine of course, but it’s also loaded with a truly massive variety of other natural compounds.
These include chlorogenic acid, quinides, lignans, dipertenes such as cafestol and kahweol, and a massive range of different antioxidants. Coffee is so complicated that a simple assessment of the compounds in it won’t do; there’s so many that to even try would be foolish.
There’s also a massive amount of anecdotal reports about coffee’s effect on acne but they almost all contradict each other.
Therefore, the only way to find out the truth is to perform a gigantic analysis of all the studies, and that’s what we’re going to do in this article.
Does coffee cause insulin resistance?
First you need to know what insulin resistance is. Insulin is the hormone that shuttles nutrients into your cells, but it is also notorious for causing acne. If you have high levels of insulin then it will stimulate your sebaceous glands to produce more oil, and also enhance the ability of your other hormones to do the same. Your level of insulin sensitivity is basically a measure of how well your body reacts to insulin, so if you have low insulin sensitivity, your body has to pump out more insulin to make up for it.
This is the situation we call insulin resistance and it leads to chronically elevated insulin levels, and thus oily skin and acne.
There has been a lot of research into the effects of coffee on insulin sensitivity but the results have been extremely conflicting. What they do agree on is that caffeine causes insulin resistance.
Numerous studies show that drinking caffeine can crush your insulin sensitivity; this study gave either caffeine or a placebo to 12 volunteers, and found that those who ate caffeine became far more insulin resistant. This study concluded that caffeine is a big cause of insulin resistance, and finally this study found that not only did giving caffeine to humans reduce their insulin sensitivity, but also that the effect lasted for as much as a week.
The evidence is extremely clear that caffeine causes insulin resistance and therefore it should in theory cause acne.
However the results on coffee itself have been extremely mixed, even though caffeine is a massive part of it. Some studies have still found a negative effect; this one gave high amounts of coffee to humans and found that after 3-4 weeks their fasting levels of insulin had increased. However plenty of other studies actually show benefits for your insulin levels. This one, this one, and this one all found that drinking coffee can enhance the power of insulin to do its job properly.
The truth – we know for sure that caffeine causes insulin resistance, but the evidence that coffee itself does extremely weak. It therefore seems highly likely that one of the many substances in coffee has a beneficial effect that cancels out all the problems from caffeine. Indeed, one of the studies does show that the quinides in coffee have an insulin sensitivity enhancing effect, and another one found that the chlorogenic acid had a positive effect.
Also, the one study that showed problems used a very high amount of coffee. Therefore, drinking a cup of coffee per day will probably not destroy your insulin sensitivity.
Conclusion – coffee’s effects on insulin are extremely murky and unclear, but it’s probably safe.
Coffee and cortisol
Cortisol is the stress hormone and it is notorious for causing acne. It is the reason why you always get acne before an exam period or when you’re busy at work; it’s the reason why everyone knows that stress causes pimples to appear.
Coffee has a huge ability to increase cortisol and this is one of its best known effects. The villain in chief is caffeine and it has been shown time and time again to cause a big increase in cortisol. This study shows that coffee caused a big increase in cortisol compared to the placebo, and this one also shows a big increase.
However, this is not necessarily a massive problem as long as you don’t drink too much. Having a small increase in cortisol will not cause an explosion of acne on your face if everything else is in order. Therefore as long as you don’t go overboard, this is not a reason to completely eliminate coffee.
The very best thing you can do is to keep your coffee intake low, but fairly regular; this study found that if you drink coffee regularly you begin to develop some resistance to its cortisol boosting effects.
Conclusion – coffee increases cortisol levels but this is fine if you drink it in moderation.
Coffee is full of antioxidants
Coffee is the victim of a ton of disputed myths and legends but one thing is certain: it is loaded with a massive range of antioxidants.
An average cup of coffee has an ORAC score of approximately 16,000. That is higher than almost every fruit and almost every vegetable; it’s even higher than renowned antioxidant powerhouses such as blueberries and pomegranates.
In fact, coffee contains so many antioxidants that it is the number one source of them for the average American. The antioxidants are extremely varied and they include chlorogenic acid, polyphenols, flavonoids, and all sorts of others.
How does this improve your acne? Antioxidants are vital for preventing your sebum from oxidising. When your sebum oxidises it forms squalene peroxide, which is great at blocking your pores and is basically the king of all substances when it comes to doing so. Getting more antioxidants prevents all of this and thus your pores do not get blocked and acne doesn’t appear.
You might know from the rest of this website how important it is to get more antioxidants and coffee is a great way to achieve that. There is variation in the antioxidant content of coffees, but a decent quality cup will contain a huge amount and even the low-grade ones will still contain some.
Conclusion – coffee is an excellent source of antioxidants that can prevent blocked pores.
Does coffee block your nutrients?
There are some rumours circulating the internet that coffee, and in particular caffeine, will prevent your body from using all of your nutrients and thus wreck your health.
The truth is that there is an effect but for most nutrients it is very small. Coffee seems to have only a tiny effect on zinc absorption (luckily, because zinc is extremely important), and no effect on magnesium. There’s also evidence that coffee can enhance your vitamin D levels; a study done on Saudi Arabian teenagers found that those who drank more coffee had higher vitamin D levels. It seems like a strange connection but it could be that coffee increases your ability to make vitamin D from the sun.
Overall this is not something you need to worry about. Coffee can also inhibit your absorption of vitamin B6 and vitamin B12 but again, the effect is minor. The only nutrient that coffee can really disrupt is your iron; it can reduce absorption by about 70%.
Therefore it is best to not drink your coffee with a meal. You can still eat a small snack with your coffee like almost all coffee drinkers do; the key is to not drink it with a big meal that you want to get significant nutrition from. In particular, you shouldn’t drink coffee with meat as that is the biggest dietary source of iron for most people.
Conclusion – coffee can interfere with nutrient absorption, but the effect is not strong enough to affect your acne.
Does coffee fuel the fires of inflammation?
Inflammation is one of the two biggest causes of acne. It is a situation where there are far too many inflammatory chemicals being pumped through your body and this leads to your acne getting red, swollen and painful. Coffee might cause inflammation but then again it might not; like with insulin resistance the studies are extremely conflicting.
- This study analysed Japanese women and discovered that the more coffee they drank, the less c-reactive protein they had in their bodies. C-reactive protein is a classic indicator of inflammation that is widely used as a marker of it in studies. Basically it is produced as a result of inflammatory chemicals doing their work, so it is perfect for discovering how high levels of those chemicals are.
- This study also found that coffee reduces c-reactive protein.
- However, this study found that drinking coffee increased several key inflammatory chemicals, including interleukin-6.
- This study found that giving coffee to mice reduced inflammation in their bodies.
- This study found that a higher consumption of coffee was linked to less deaths from inflammatory diseases (and also less deaths from heart disease).
We don’t know for certain whether coffee affects inflammation, but the bulk of the studies suggest that it has a positive effect. This could be due to the antioxidants, which will have an anti-inflammatory effect, or it could just as easily be due to an unidentified anti-inflammatory compound in the coffee.
Conclusion – we don’t know whether coffee is anti-inflammatory or not but the bulk of the evidence suggests that it is.
Is coffee full of toxic mould?
One of the classic arguments against coffee is that it is full of mycotoxins. Mycotoxins are a class of natural chemicals produced by fungi or mould that are found in a huge amount of foods, but particularly nuts, cheese, chocolate, vegetables, and beans. They have a reputation for causing inflammation in the body as well as all sorts of other problems like brain fog and joint aches. People are terrified of these natural toxins lurking in our food and they are particularly scared of coffee, because it is one of the very biggest sources of them.
However I do not recommend that you worry about mycotoxins too much. Just because a substance is toxic doesn’t mean you can’t eat it; the human body is well adapted to eating low levels of toxins.
Mycotoxins are bad for you, but that doesn’t mean that eating tiny amounts of them will actually have any effect on your acne in any noticeable way. If our bodies couldn’t handle even a small amount of toxins then our species would have died a very long time ago, because every single plant in existence has some minor form of defence mechanism.
Potatoes have glycoalkaloids, many fruits and vegetables have oxalic acid, and nuts contain phytic acid. All are harmful but the benefits far outweigh the problems, and the same applies to mycotoxins in coffee.
Mycotoxins are also in just about every food anyway, so if you never ate them you wouldn’t be eating anything at all. It is still best if you find a coffee that is lower in mycotoxins, as they can have some bad effects, but the amounts will not be enough to give you acne.
Coffee producers use a lot of methods to keep mycotoxins down. One such method is wet processing, and the roasting process that nearly every coffee bean goes through reduces the mycotoxin count substantially.
The only time when mycotoxins will really be a problem is if you buy some dirt-cheap, bargain basement coffee that was not processed properly and made with poor quality beans. Conclusion – mycotoxins in coffee may be bad for acne but the amounts are far too low to worry about.
The final answer – should you be drinking coffee?
The answer is yes, you can still drink it. If you are one of the millions of people that love coffee then you have nothing to fear.
Coffee may well have some harmful effects, for example it certainly could cause insulin resistance, but the evidence is not strong enough to recommend against it.
We know for sure that coffee has plenty of advantages; it is full of antioxidants and that makes coffee an excellent way to boost your daily total.
With that said I do recommend that you don’t go overboard. The one acne causing problem that coffee has been proven to cause is higher cortisol levels, and if you drink gallons and gallons then your levels will get far too high. You can keep this increase within safe levels by keeping your coffee intake to two cups per day (for example).
It is also by far the best option to drink your coffee in the morning. Your cortisol levels vary throughout the day on a regular and natural rhythm; they will be highest first thing in the morning, and they gradually decline to reach their lowest point while you sleep. If you drink your coffee in the morning, then you won’t disrupt this cycle anywhere near as much and you’ll still enjoy low cortisol in the evening…
…and you’ll also ensure an excellent night’s sleep. The same buzzing and stimulating effect that you get from coffee is great at keeping you awake; you probably know about that already and maybe you’ve used coffee to stay awake at night. The problem is that caffeine persists in the body for a lot longer than people realise, because it has a half-life of roughly six hours.
Therefore you might drink some coffee in the evening without any intention of trying to stay awake and work, and then struggle to fall asleep. Sleep deprivation is extremely bad for acne, so that’s another reason to drink your coffee in the morning.
Watch out for coffee sensitivity!
The one circumstance in which you shouldn’t drink coffee is if you as an individual have a bad reaction to it. Coffee contains so many different substances that there’s a much greater chance you will be sensitive to it compared to other foods. If you are sensitive then it might cause an acne-boosting inflammatory response.
Therefore if you have the signs of coffee sensitivity it’s best to avoid it. I won’t tell you the symptoms of coffee sensitivity because if you have it you probably already know. You might have noticed that whereas your friends love the effect coffee has on them, it seems to make you feel extremely bad.
There’s a fairly substantial amount of people on the internet reporting acne from coffee, so clearly the sensitivity is there and should be watched out for. Caffeine sensitivity is also a proven phenomenon, since some people lack the gene in their liver to metabolise it efficiently.
The best type of coffee?
The best type of coffee is a high quality coffee, black, and not decaffeinated. You might be surprised to hear that decaffeinated is worse, seeing as caffeine is responsible for most of the problems. The problem is that decaf coffee is often made with very poor quality beans; the beans used are often some of the worst for mycotoxins. The manufacturers use some of the worst beans in the business because they are far easier to extract the caffeine from.
Additionally, the process of removing the caffeine is very unhealthy; it is achieved by using chemical solvents such as ethyl acetate or methylene chloride. Supposedly they are removed from the coffee but trace amounts will remain. It is commonly claimed that decaf coffee tastes a lot worse and that is because many of the beneficial substances are destroyed. The normal roasting of coffee beans will reduce the antioxidant levels to some extent, but with decaffeinated coffee they are reduced a lot more. The healthy chlorogenic acid is particularly reduced.
So while it is true that no caffeine is better, the other problems generally mean that you might as well stick to normal coffee. It’s especially not worth it when you consider that the caffeine in two cups per day is not enough to harm you anyway.
My other recommendations are more obvious; black coffee has no milk and less sugar and thus it will be better for your skin. High quality coffee will be more nutritious and it will also be well within the safe limit for mycotoxins.
Here’s a helpful bonus tip: if a cup of coffee tastes stronger, richer and more flavoursome, and it doesn’t have any dodgy added substances, then that’s a good indicator that it’s particularly rich in antioxidants and other substances. That means that better tasting coffee is actually better for your acne, so if you find a particularly tasty coffee brand, keep drinking it!
Coffee is almost certainly safe for your skin as long as you drink it in moderation.
The caffeine may pose problems but most of them are neutralised by the other benefits in the coffee. The only real problem is the cortisol increase but you can reduce that harmful effect by reducing your intake and also keeping it regular so that your body gets used to it. It’s also important to drink your coffee in the morning.
There is a chance that you will react to one of the countless substances in coffee, but if you don’t then you can enjoy coffee without worrying about the effects on your acne.
Thanks for reading!