No matter how many people break out 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.
In reality, you don’t need direct studies to know the truth about almost every food you encounter. You only need powers of deduction and moderate levels of acne knowledge.
For example, orange juice is extremely high in sugar, a nightmare for acne due to increasing inflammation. Coffee is mostly acne-friendly, but the caffeine cranks up stress hormones when drunk in excess. A donut is an acne-causing feast of vegetable oils, wheat and trans-fats.
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
As a seed, sunflower seeds are already a suspect food for acne if you feast on them daily. 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 sunflower seeds and acne confirmed the link. The scientists had previously concluded that applying sunflower seed oil to the face was effective at reducing acne, due to the anti-inflammatory effects of its linoleic acid. Naturally, they wondered what eating sunflower seeds would accomplish.
50 patients were gathered, 72% female and in the classic acne age range of 15-30. One group avoided sunflower seeds for two weeks, while the other ate 25 grams of sunflower seed-containing food daily. They tested their skin using the acne severity index (ASI). This is an assay you’ll commonly see in studies; for this study the calculation was simply “2 x pustules + 1 x papules + 0.25 x comedones”.
After two weeks, the control group barely changed, 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, almost certainly minor 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 more acne than previously, compared to 33%.
Specific types of acne were also examined. Comedones (whiteheads/blackheads) increased by 17% in the sunflower seed group compared with 6%. For papules it was 69% vs 23%, while for pustules it was 60% vs 22%. Finally, nodules didn’t change significantly in the control group, but increased by 50% in the sunflower seed group. The scientists therefore reached the undeniable conclusion that “sunflower seed intake appears to aggravate acne vulgaris“.
Sunflower seeds have an extremely healthy reputation, since your pet bird eats them, and they taste bland, which is excellent according to the avoid all pleasurable foods theory of health (which is not true). However, they have a sinister secret.
The simple explanation
When you examine sunflower seeds’ nutritional profile, it’s clear why daily consumption would ruin your skin. I would have advised against them without this study. Why? Because of their fat profile.
In this article, we discussed how pumpkin seeds are very rich in acne-clearing zinc and amino acids, but must be restricted because of their omega 6 fatty acids. Well, sunflower seeds have a much worse fat profile. 100 grams contains 49.8 grams of fat, with 39.2 grams being omega 6s. Pumpkin seeds contain 42.1 grams of total fat with only 19.2 grams of omega 6s.
Omega 6s (AKA linoleic acid) are extremely pro-inflammatory when your fat intake is unbalanced towards them. Nowadays, an excess of omega 6s in the diet is commonplace and a common cause of acne, and also other chronic diseases like brain fog and joint aches.
The fat profile alone makes sunflower foods a forbidden food for acne. Following the study and eating 25 grams daily is a very effective way to get acne. Sunflower seeds have such a healthy reputation that millions of people eat them daily, particularly vegans, who rely on seeds and nuts for amino acids. 25 grams isn’t even massive; many people eat 50 grams or more.
Other potential toxins
Skin-inflaming allergic reactions to sunflower seeds are also common. Omega 6s can cause inflammation, but not instantaneous allergic inflammation, so there’s almost certainly some hidden allergens within sunflower seeds too. The fat profile is likely the worst acne villain, given that the whole sunflower seed group deteriorated, but allergens could explain a small amount.
Sunflower seeds also feature notorious natural toxins called lectins, which wreak your digestion. Lectins are deadliest for acne after months of heavy consumption, but can trigger immediate inflammation as well. Oxalates are another natural plant toxin, but compared to other seeds, sunflower seeds only contain low amounts.
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, depleting antioxidants and increasing inflammation. Mycotoxins are produced solely though poor production techniques, like being left in damp conditions which moulds seize upon to grow.
60% of sunflower seeds grown in Tanzania were contaminated with aflatoxins, while 14% of samples contained aflatoxin levels above 22ppb, the level deemed to be a health and thus acne risk. Some samples even contained hundreds of parts per billion. Therefore, if the Iranian scientists acquired a massively contaminated batch, it’s even possible that mycotoxin contamination accounted for all of the acne.
Overall though, while the toxins above will have impacted 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 fades away.
The results of this sunflower seed study are unsurprising: based on what we know, they’re exactly what you would expect.
Sunflower seeds have benefits too…
In the pumpkin seeds article we also discussed how despite their flaws, they’re a smart, tactical source of skin-friendly amino acids for a vegan. Sunflower seeds are similarly strong. 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 dense in other nutrients, beating most other seeds. 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%.
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
If it wasn’t for the dodgy fat profile and lectins, eating a cleanly sourced, mycotoxin-free handful of sunflower seeds 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 increase acne as well, but sunflower seeds are worse for all the confirmed risks.
Despite the nutrition, the benefits are inaccessible. To take advantage of vitamin E, antioxidants, and selenium, you have to eat a food consistently, and that’s not an option for 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 acne nutrient intake.
Furthermore, no unique benefits are known. The vitamin E can be found in almonds, the selenium 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 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 were eating an omega-6 heavy diet already, making their skin unable to withstand more. Theoretically, sunflower seeds might have hidden anti-inflammatory properties which are strong enough to outweigh the omega 6s. However, this is all 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. Fast food and candy aren’t the only villains.
Thanks for reading!