No matter how many people experience outbreaks from individual foods, so consistently that it can’t be denied, mainstream dermatologists still state that “there is no evidence to suggest that diet causes acne“. Many people are venturing down a years-long path of failed antibiotics and accutane because of this. Dairy and chocolate are two of the only foods to have been tested.
The fact is that you don’t need direct studies to realise the truth. All you need are normal powers of deduction, and moderate levels of real acne knowledge to know the truth about almost every food you encounter.
For example, orange juice is extremely high in sugar, which is a nightmare for acne due to increasing inflammation. Coffee is mostly skin-friendly, but the caffeine is able to crank up stress hormones when drunk in excess. A donut is an acne-causing feast of vegetable oils, wheat and trans-fats, all of which cause acne.
Always remember that you don’t need studies for everything, you just need a brain. But there’s one food which is proven to cause acne – sunflower seeds.
The end of sunflower seeds
Being a member of the seed group, sunflower seeds are already a suspect food for acne if you eat large amounts daily. Over the last few years, reports have been flooding in from the acne underground as well, speaking of sudden breakouts after eating them based on their healthy reputation.
Then in 2014, a study examining whether eating sunflower seeds causes acne confirmed the link. The scientists in this study had previously concluded that applying sunflower seed oil to the face was effective at reducing acne, due to the anti-inflammatory effects of the linoleic acid it’s rich in. So naturally, they wanted to see what eating sunflower seeds would accomplish.
50 patients were gathered, who were 72% female and in the classic acne age range of 15-30. One group of 25 was told to avoid sunflower seeds for two weeks, while the other was ordered to eat 25 grams of sunflower seed-containing food daily. They tested their skin using the acne severity index (ASI). This is an assay you’ll often see in studies; for this study the calculation was simply “2 x pustules + 1 x papules + 0.25 x comedones”.
After two weeks, there was no significant difference in the control group, but in the sunflower seed group, acne worsened substantially. The ASI index increased from 62 to 86.2, a change of 24.2. The ASI in the control group only increased by 4.1, a small change that could have easily been down to week to week fluctuation.
Another test assay, the global acne grading score (GAGS), “did not change by a significant amount” in either group, but was still slightly higher in the sunflower seed group. After the follow up period where the diets were discontinued, 88% of the sunflower seed group still had higher acne than previously, compared to 33% in the control group.
Specific types of acne were also examined. Comedones (whiteheads/blackheads) increased by 17% in the sunflower seed group, compared with 6% in the controls. For papules it was 69% vs 23%, while for pustules it was 60% vs 22%. Finally, there was no change in nodules in the control group, compared to a 50% increase in the sunflower seed group. All this led the scientists to conclude that “sunflower seed intake appears to aggravate acne vulgaris“.
Sunflower seeds have a reputation of being extremely healthy, since you feed them to your pet bird and also because they taste bland, which is a good thing according to the avoid all pleasurable foods theory of health (which is not true). However, they have a sinister secret.
But why? The answer is simple
When you look at the sunflower seed’s nutritional profile, it’s very clear why regular consumption would ruin your skin. In fact, I would have advised against eating them daily without this study. By far the biggest problem is the sunflower seed’s fat profile.
In this article on pumpkin seeds and acne, we discussed how pumpkin seeds are very rich in zinc and amino acids, but have to be restricted because of excessive levels of omega 6 fatty acids. Well, sunflower seeds have a much worse fat profile. 100 grams of sunflower seeds contains 49.8 grams of fat, with 39.2 grams being omega 6s. Pumpkin seeds contain 42.1 grams of total fat per 100 grams, with only 19.2 grams of omega 6s.
Omega 6s (also known as linoleic acid) are extremely pro-inflammatory when your fat intake is unbalanced towards them. Nowadays, an excess of omega 6s in the diet a is very common problem, and thus a common cause of acne, as well as many other chronic problems like brain fog and joint aches.
Based on that fat profile alone, sunflower foods are a forbidden food for acne. Eating 25 grams daily like in the study is a very effective way to get acne. Sunflower seeds have such a healthy reputation that millions of people are eating them daily, particularly vegans, who often rely on seeds and nuts for amino acids. 25 grams isn’t even a massive amount; many people will be eating 50 grams or more daily.
Other potential toxins
Also interesting is that mild, skin-inflaming allergic reactions to sunflower seeds are fairly common. While omega 6 overdoses can cause many problems, instantaneous allergy symptoms are not among them. Therefore it’s very likely that other compounds within sunflower seeds are at play. These allergens won’t account for all of the acne, given that most members of the sunflower seed group deteriorated, but it could explain a small amount.
Sunflower seeds also contain other natural plant toxins, with one notorious class being lectins. Lectins’ worst powers for acne show up after months of heavy consumption, through chronic damage to digestion, but they can trigger immediate inflammation as well. Oxalates are another type of defensive plant toxin, but sunflower seeds contain only low amounts compared to other seeds.
Then there’s a toxin which doesn’t automatically appear in sunflower seeds, but frequently does: mycotoxins. This study from four months ago found that commercial sunflower seeds are widely contaminated with a mould family called aspergillus, which generates mycotoxins called aflatoxins. Aflatoxins are an overlooked cause of acne in coffee, chocolate, and peanuts, causing oxidative stress and inflammation. Mycotoxins are produced solely though poor production techniques, such as being left in damp conditions which the moulds seize upon to grow.
The study found that nearly 60% of sunflower seeds grown in Tanzania were contaminated with aflatoxins. 14% of samples were contaminated with aflatoxin levels above 22ppb, the level deemed to be a health (and thus acne) risk. Some sunflower seeds were in the hundreds of parts per billion range. Therefore, it’s even possible that mycotoxin contamination accounted for all of the acne, if the Iranian scientists had a massively contaminated batch.
Overall though, while the toxins above will have made a difference in the study, and will make a difference if you switch to a heavy sunflower seed diet, the fat profile was and is the biggest factor. The omega 6s are one danger which never goes away.
All in all, the results of this sunflower seed study are unsurprising: based on the facts we know, they’re exactly what you would expect.
Sunflower seeds have benefits too…
In the article on pumpkin seeds we also discussed how despite their flaws, they’re a smart, tactical source of skin-friendly amino acids for a vegan. Sunflower seeds are a similarly strong source. 100 grams contains 1240mg of glycine, which is vital for acne due to its role in collagen production and glutathione. They also contain 795mg of lysine. Sunflower seeds are inferior to pumpkin seeds, with 1358mg and 1386mg respectively, but still useful for when meat and eggs are off the menu.
Sunflower seeds are also extremely rich in other nutrients, beating most other seeds in their nutritional density. The most notable nutrients (per 100 grams) are…
Magnesium: 81% of the RDA, versus 65% for pumpkin seeds.
Vitamin E: 166% of RDA. Pumpkin seeds contain none.
Selenium: 76% of RDA, versus none.
Zinc: 33% of RDA, versus 69% in pumpkin seeds.
The minerals in sunflower seeds are more accessible as well, since they’re lower in mineral-binding phytic acid. Sunflower seeds contain high amounts, at 1800mg, but pumpkin seeds contain 2130 mg. Furthermore, sunflower seeds specialise in vitamin E, and only minerals are affected by phytic acid. For basic nutrition, sunflower seeds actually beat pumpkin seeds.
Sunflower seeds also have strong antioxidant powers, according to this study. Countless seeds, nuts, fruits and vegetables were analysed in this study, and sunflower seeds stood out as having one of the highest antioxidant counts in the seed group.
…but you can’t take advantage of them
As you can see, sunflower seeds have some strong powers for acne. If it wasn’t for the dodgy fat profile and lectins, eating a cleanly sourced, mycotoxin-free handful a day would be a great strategy for acne.
Unlike pumpkin seeds though, which are safe if carefully controlled, sunflower seeds are just dodgy enough to plummet over the cliff edge into acne-causing territory. It’s possible that if a study was performed on pumpkin seeds, they would be found to increase acne as well, but sunflower seeds are worse for all the factors we know about.
Despite the nutrition, the benefits are all inaccessible. To take advantage of vitamin E, antioxidants, and selenium, you have to eat a food consistently. That’s not an option for sunflower seeds, as the study showed. Eating sunflower seeds every few days is safe for acne, since an occasional snack isn’t enough to skew your fat intake, but an occasional snack will also be a minor blip in your nutrient intake.
Furthermore, there are no unique benefits that we know about. The vitamin E can be found in almonds, the selenium can be found in Brazil nuts, while the antioxidants can be found in countless fruits and vegetables. Pumpkin seeds are already a superior vegan amino acid source.
For acne, the only reason to eat sunflower seeds is if you’re a big fan of the taste. The study could still have been flawed; it could have been a freak coincidence that the sunflower group worsened dramatically, but with a 25-strong sample, it’s unlikely.
It could have been a highly contaminated batch of sunflower seeds, or perhaps the participants (who were Iranian) were eating a diet which was heavy in omega 6s already, meaning that their skin was unable to withstand more. Theoretically, it’s possible that sunflower seeds have hidden anti-inflammatory properties which are strong enough to outweigh the omega 6s. However, all this is unlikely: the study mirrors reality perfectly.
Stay away from sunflower seeds if you want clear skin. This is also a clear illustration that apparently healthy foods can also cause acne; it isn’t just fast food and candy you have to avoid.
Thanks for reading!