There are plenty of stories from people who claim they achieved clear skin after cutting back on their coffee habit, but you might be wondering whether scientific evidence backs up these claims
Coffee is unlikely to cause acne on its own, but there are some ways it could trigger breakouts in people who are acne-prone.
In this article, we’ll explain the effects (both positive and negative) of coffee on skin, and discuss whether it’s worth cutting out of your diet.
Please note that this article contains affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualified purchases.
Does coffee cause acne?
Unfortunately, there haven’t been any studies on the effects of regular coffee consumption in people with acne.
However, there are some science-based theories (listed below) on how coffee might trigger breakouts in acne-prone skin.
1. Often paired with milk and sugar
Let’s start with the simplest explanation for why your morning brew might be causing acne: milk and sugar.
Cow’s milk contains a hormone called insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1), which has been linked with acne in multiple studies (1, 2, 3, 4).
Non-dairy alternatives like almond milk, flax milk, or soy milk are better choices for anyone trying to achieve clear skin.
It’s also best to avoid adding lots of sugar, flavored syrups, and sweetened non-dairy milk to your coffee.
These ingredients can cause blood sugar to spike, which triggers the release of hormones that instruct the skin to produce excess sebum (oil) (5, 6, 7).
Instead, try cutting the sugar in half or using sugar substitutes like stevia, or simply learn to enjoy your coffee unsweetened!
2. Contains caffeine
A typical 8 ounce cup of coffee contains 80-100 mg of caffeine (8).
Caffeine acts as a stimulant by blocking the actions of adenosine, a chemical that causes drowsiness and regulates the sleep-wake cycle (9, 10).
Because its structure is very similar, caffeine is able to bind to adenosine receptors in the brain and prevent drowsiness from occurring (9).
There are a few ways that caffeine might increase the risk of acne breakouts:
Studies suggest that caffeine can increase levels of cortisol, a hormone that is secreted during stressful situations, to help the body adapt (11).
There is some evidence linking elevated cortisol levels to acne, because it can increase sebum (oil) production on the skin (12, 13).
However, this rise in cortisol only occurs in people who don’t normally consume caffeine — regular coffee drinkers don’t seem to be affected (14, 15).
Alters blood sugars
Caffeine may also have negative effects on blood sugar by reducing insulin sensitivity and increasing blood sugar levels (16, 17, 18).
These spikes in blood sugar lead to excessive sebum (oil) production on the skin and increased IGF-1 levels, both of which are linked with acne (5, 19).
Interestingly, people who drink coffee on a regular basis don’t seem to experience these same effects (16).
Some evidence has even linked long-term coffee consumption with better insulin sensitivity and a lower risk of type 2 diabetes (20).
Can disrupt sleep
Some coffee drinkers can fall asleep quickly no matter when they drank their last cup, but that’s not the case for most of us!
Over time, sleep deprivation can increase cortisol levels, which we know can trigger acne breakouts (12, 21, 22).
General advice is to quit drinking caffeinated coffee 4-6 hours before bedtime, but some people may need to stop as early as 12pm to avoid any impact on sleep.
Does coffee have any benefits for skin?
1. Provides antioxidants
In the United States, coffee is one of the main dietary sources of polyphenols, a class of antioxidant compounds found in plants (23).
They can help combat acne by lowering inflammation and reducing sebum production (24).
2. May improve gut health
Acne has been linked with poor gut health and dysbiosis, an imbalance of bacteria in the intestines (25, 26).
Drinking coffee can improve your gut health in several ways, including:
- Promotes regular bowel movements in people with constipation (27).
- Stimulates the production of stomach acid, which helps digest food and is often low in acne patients (28, 29).
- Increases the number of beneficial bacteria in the gut (30, 31).
This is good news for coffee drinkers, but it’s still important to support gut health in other ways, like eating plenty of fiber-rich and fermented foods.
Should you quit coffee for clear skin?
Well, it depends. You’ll need to ask yourself a few questions to figure out whether caffeinated coffee is your friend or foe.
1. Are you overusing caffeine?
It’s easier than you might think to overdo it on caffeine, and people don’t always realize that it’s happening to them.
Here are some signs you might be getting too much caffeine (8, 32):
- Upset stomach
- Jittery feeling
- Rapid heart rate
Most health organizations recommend limiting caffeine intake to 400 mg per day, which is equivalent to 4 or 5 cups of coffee.
And don’t forget that caffeine is also found in plenty of other foods and beverages, including tea, soda, energy drinks, chocolate, and kola nuts (9).
To stay on the conservative side, I typically recommend no more than 1-2 cups of coffee or 2-3 cups of tea per day.
It also helps to take regular breaks (2-3 days each week) to avoid becoming dependent on caffeine.
2. Do you pair coffee with food?
As we discussed earlier, caffeinated coffee can increase your blood sugar, potentially triggering breakouts.
Pairing coffee with food, especially protein, helps prevent these dramatic spikes in blood sugar (33).
Simply drink your coffee with a protein-rich meal or snack, or you can add protein supplements like collagen or protein powder.
3. Do you have a caffeine sensitivity?
Some people may simply be more sensitive to caffeine due to genetic factors.
Variations in the CYP1A2 gene can slow down the rate at which caffeine is metabolized (broken down) in the body (34).
This means that caffeine stays active for longer periods of time, increasing the risk of side effects like anxiety and insomnia (34).
You might have a caffeine sensitivity if you experience symptoms like anxiety, insomnia, and rapid heart rate after drinking just one or two cups of coffee (8).
If this sounds like you, it might be worth trying a caffeine-free lifestyle to see if you feel better.
4. Have you ever tried to quit coffee?
If you’ve answered “no” to all of the previous questions, then your coffee habit probably isn’t having a negative impact on your health or your skin.
Still, if you’ve never done a caffeine-free trial, it couldn’t hurt to try.
While you wean yourself off caffeine, keep a symptom diary to help you monitor how you feel and what happens to your skin.
After a couple of months, look back over your diary and decide for yourself whether you need a long-term break from coffee.
How to wean yourself off caffeine
Quitting caffeine cold turkey may work for some people, but for most it’s a pretty miserable experience.
This approach typically leads to symptoms of caffeine withdrawal, including (35):
- Brain fog
- Difficulty concentrating
- Depressed mood
Instead, try slowly weaning yourself off caffeine over a period of several weeks — this can reduce your risk of experiencing caffeine withdrawal.
I usually recommend reducing caffeine by 25% each week until you’ve fully transitioned to decaf or some other caffeine-free drink.
For example, if you normally drink 2 cups of caffeinated coffee every day, start by cutting back to 1.5 cups for a week, then 1 cup the next week, and so on.
Quitting caffeinated coffee isn’t easy, but replacing it with a different warm, comforting beverage can make the transition a little smoother.
Try these lower-caffeine alternatives:
- Decaf coffee (2-15 mg per cup) (8)
- Green tea (~30 mg per cup) (36)
- Matcha green tea (19-44 mg per ½ teaspoon powder) (37)
- Hot chocolate (10-15 mg per cup) (38)
Or, go completely caffeine-free with these options:
- Celestial Seasonings Roastaroma
- Teeccino Chicory Herbal “Coffee”
- Four Sigmatic Mushroom Elixir
- Gaia Herbs Golden Milk
Although coffee itself doesn’t cause acne, caffeine and other ingredients found in coffee may trigger breakouts in some people with acne-prone skin.
Consuming too much caffeine can raise cortisol levels, disrupt sleep, and alter blood sugars, all of which have been linked with acne.
Some people might benefit from cutting back on caffeine, while others who are more sensitive may do best following a caffeine-free lifestyle.
If you decide to give up coffee, don’t quit cold turkey! Instead, slowly wean yourself off to avoid caffeine withdrawal symptoms.
Changing your coffee habit can be difficult, but it helps to replace it with other hot beverages like decaf coffee, green tea, chicory “coffee,” and golden milk.