How Sugar Impacts Your Skin

Sugar might get a bad rep, but don’t get the wrong idea: Sugar isn’t inherently bad. Like most things, it’s fine in moderation, though less so in high amounts — like the ones we tend to encounter come holiday season. An overload of sugar impacts systems throughout your body, manifesting externally in several common skin conditions. Instead of cutting it out completely — which derms and dieticians alike agree is an unnecessarily strict approach — consider taking a balanced approach. 

“It’s nearly impossible to eliminate all sugars,” says Amy Ross, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at Palm Harbor Dermatology in Tampa, Florida, and MONAT scientific advisory board member. If you’re trying to moderate intake, try the simpler option of shifting toward naturally occurring sugar sources, like fruits with a low glycemic index (think: cherries, pears, and grapefruit). “As with most things, moderation is key to lessening the effects on skin,” says Ross. 

Another lifestyle tip is to focus on the foods you can increase to improve overall skin health. “Prioritize colorful vegetables and fruits to increase the antioxidants you consume, and increase your water intake too,” says Jessica Sepel, a clinical nutritionist based in Sydney, Australia, and founder of JS Health Vitamins. “Vitamin C is especially great for skin health, and can be found in citrus fruits, kiwis, berries, and dark green leafy vegetables.” To regulate gut health, which research has shown to directly impact skin function, she suggests incorporating a daily probiotic supplement.

The other half of the equation? Being smart about your topicals. Here, we’re taking a deep dive into glycation and other common beauty consequences of too much sugar, as well as how to treat them. Read on for your full Sugar Face skin regimen.

How Does Sugar Cause Glycation?

We can’t talk about sugar and skin without mentioning glycation, the consequence most frequently discussed by experts. “Glycation is a reaction between sugars and proteins in our body that can change the way important building blocks in our skin and other organs behave,” says Ross. “When sugars bind with collagen in the dermis of the skin, they form advanced glycation end products, or AGEs.” 

It sounds complex, but chances are, you’re already familiar with the process. The combination of amino acids, sugar molecules, and heat is the same thing that happens when you caramelize onions. It’s just that the effects happen to be different when they’re happening inside your body, instead of on a kitchen pan.

This type of binding and subsequent chain of chemical reactions causes collagen to structurally harden and become less flexible, according to Joshua Zeichner, MD, Director of Cosmetic & Clinical Research in Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. Since collagen is the material responsible for keeping our faces plump and firm, glycated collagen shows up as development of fine lines and wrinkles, as well as overall weakening of the skin.

How to Boost Collagen

Studies have shown that glycation of collagen isn’t a reversible process, but that doesn’t mean you’re left without a solution. Derms recommend investing in active ingredients that boost new collagen production and help minimize the effects of glycation.

“Make sure to incorporate collagen-stimulating ingredients into your skincare routine,” says Zeichner. “Topical retinoids are your number-one best bet.” In case you’re unfamiliar, retinoid is an umbrella term for a group of vitamin A derivatives, from prescription-strength adapalene and tretinoin, to milder over-the-counter options. If you’re new to the ingredient, we recommend easing in with retinol, which will give you the same sought-after benefits with less potential for irritation. Adding retinols to your routine helps clear pores, brighten hyperpigmentation, and increase skin cell turnover and collagen production.

Try the encapsulated retinol featured in the Avocado Melt Retinol Sleeping Mask and Avocado Melt Retinol Eye Sleeping Mask, which wraps the powerful ingredient in a protective barrier to encourage time-released, deeper penetration. Even if you have dry or sensitive skin, an encapsulated formulation will allow you to get the line-smoothing, plumping benefits of retinol with a much lower risk of reaction.

Other Common Ways Sugar Impacts Your Skin

Glycation is the most prevalent effect of high sugar levels, but it’s not the only one. “The increase in insulin throughout the body promotes inflammation,” says Ross. Skin inflammation isn’t always a bad thing, but in this case it can cause flare-ups of existing conditions including rosacea and eczema, along with general redness and swelling. Soothe an inflamed face with products that contain high levels of anti-inflammatories and antioxidants. Plum Plump Hyaluronic Serum, for instance, locks in layers of moisture while flooding your skin with vegan collagen and antioxidant-rich kakadu plum. 

As for the most common skin condition, acne, sugar could also be the cause of your breakouts. “High sugar levels in the bloodstream promote inflammation and activate oil glands,” says Zeichner. “This is why certain foods can lead to acne.” If you get a surprise pimple after indulging, treat it as you would any other breakout. Zeichner recommends adding exfoliating acids like salicylic and glycolic to your routine to move excess oil and slough off dead cells. Reach for our Watermelon Glow PHA+BHA Pore-Tight Toner, which cocktails soothing watermelon aminos, hydrating cactus water, and pore-tightening acids that will smooth your skin in no time.

Keep reading about how to treat common skin reactions: