Does Pre-Workout Cause Acne? (Dermatologist Studies)

Dr. Harshi Dhingra, MBBS, MD
Published by Dr. Harshi Dhingra, MBBS, MD | Medical Doctor
Last updated: June 21, 2024
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As a physician who often consults with athletes, I understand the importance of maintaining peak physical condition. Many athletes, including fighters, find that pre-workout supplements are crucial for enhancing their training and achieving the physique necessary for success in their sport.

However, for individuals with acne-prone skin, these supplements can present challenges. It's a common concern among my patients who are athletes: do pre-workout supplements inevitably worsen acne, or are there skin-friendly options available?

In addressing these concerns, it's essential to understand the relationship between pre-workout supplements and skin health. Here's an expert perspective on what athletes with acne-prone skin need to know about pre-workouts and their potential impact on their skin condition.

Quick Summary

  • Pre-workout supplements may contribute to acne for some individuals due to ingredients that can affect skin health.
  • Certain pre-workout ingredients like high levels of caffeine and artificial sweeteners are implicated in causing skin dehydration and insulin resistance, which can exacerbate acne.
  • A study from the National Center of Biotechnological Information found that participants consuming sucralose showed increased insulin resistance, a condition linked to acne development.
  • In my opinion, while pre-workouts can be effective for enhancing performance, those with acne-prone skin should opt for natural alternatives and consult with a dermatologist.

Is It Possible For Pre-Workout to Cause Acne?

Close up image of a woman with acne

There’s no direct answer to this question, as the exact cause of acne is unknown. Hormonal changes may have a role in acne breakouts.

Besides the anecdotal evidence that some foods and ingredients cause acne or worsen it, there isn’t scientific evidence to back up the claims. Everyone knows that sugary and greasy foods are typically linked to acne.

Precaution must be taken when using pre-workout supplements as even though there is no direct scientific linkage between these supplements and acne breakout but it has been reported by a few individuals.

"It turns out that there are no meta-analyses, randomized controlled clinical studies, or well-designed scientific trials that follow evidence-based guidelines for providing solid proof in dealing with this issue."

- Apostolos Pappas, Ph.D., The Relationship of Diet & Acne

Why They May Cause Acne

Woman holding her face

Acne is the most common skin disorder that almost every person encounters in their life. If you have acne-prone skin, your pre-workout may cause acne.

However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone who uses pre-workout supplements will get acne. Here are some possible reasons why pre-workouts may trigger acne breakouts.

They Are High in Caffeine

Coffee beans close up image

In my experience treating patients who use pre-workout supplements, I've observed that those containing high levels of caffeine, usually in the range of 150–300mg per serving, can provide an energy boost for workouts. However, it's important to note that these high caffeine levels can also stress the skin.

There's a delicate balance to maintain. Excessive caffeine consumption can lead to dehydration, a condition that I've seen frequently result in dry, acne-prone skin in many of my patients.

It's crucial for individuals using these supplements to be aware of these potential skin-related side effects.

But how is this related to acne?

Research from National Institute of Health (NIH) has proven that caffeine has a diuretic effect on your kidneys [1]. This means that caffeine causes you to pee more than usual, which affects your skin in a couple of ways:

Dehydration

First things first, peeing more than usual typically leads to dehydrating your body — including your skin.

Now, dry skin isn’t a problem for most people. But, when your skin is dehydrated, it produces oil to fight the dryness, and that can cause problems for people with acne-prone skin. The oil your dry skin produces to combat the dryness can clog your pores and cause acne.

Inflammation

Furthermore, caffeine can reduce magnesium absorption, causing you to pee out the unused magnesium, so we recommend taking proven pre-workouts without caffeine.

According to NIH, Magnesium is essential for reducing inflammation, and there's some proof that acne is caused by inflammation [2].

They Are Packed with Artificial Sweeteners

A sugar being poured in

Some pre-workout supplements use artificial sweeteners like sucralose to enhance the taste of the supplement.

This may seem unrelated to acne, but researchers have discovered that artificial sweeteners increase insulin levels and insulin resistance in the same way sugar does.

Relevant Studies

A study by NCBI involving 15 participants showed those taking 200mg of sucralose daily for four weeks became more insulin resistant than those on a placebo [3].

Similarly, an NIH study found higher insulin levels in participants consuming aspartame compared to natural sweeteners [4]. This is significant for acne sufferers, as insulin resistance can be a crucial factor in acne development.

So, if you don't want to risk getting acne, you might want to stay away from supplements that use sweeteners or try proven all-natural pre-workouts in capsule form.

They Contain Ingredients That May Cause Acne

Pre workout on the table

The National Institute of Health acknowledges that certain ingredients in pre-workout supplements, like whey protein, may contribute to acne flare-ups in individuals with acne-prone skin [5].

Hormonal changes aside, it's very tricky to pinpoint the exact ingredient that may cause acne flare-ups if you have acne-prone skin.

But besides caffeine and artificial sweeteners, pre-workouts are usually packed with:

  • Protein
  • Creatine
  • Mass gainers (calorie-dense supplements packed with protein, carbs, and fats)
  • BCAAs (branched-chain amino acids)

It’s typically the high carb levels and whey protein that cause the most problems.

Pre-workout supplements are usually stuffed with animal or soy-based proteins, artificial sweeteners, and a whole host of other not-so-natural ingredients. However, any food with a high glycemic index can cause acne, as they cause blood sugar and insulin spikes.

As I mentioned, insulin is a challenge for your clear skin because of the insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) or any of the ingredients I already mentioned.

The Role of Gut Health in Acne and Pre-Workout Supplements

Gut health is key in managing skin conditions such as acne, as gut microbiome imbalances can cause inflammation, potentially worsening acne.

Certain pre-workout supplement ingredients, like artificial sweeteners or high caffeine, might disrupt gut health. Poor gut health impairs nutrient absorption, impacting skin health.

Adding probiotics or digestive enzymes to supplements can help maintain a healthy microbiome and reduce skin issues. Responses to supplements vary, so consult a healthcare professional for tailored advice.

Tips for Reducing Acne

Person holding a pill

If you want to take regular pre-workout supplements and deal with acne, I understand. Here are a couple of things you could do to reduce acne.

1. Take Cold Showers

Cold showers can help your skin in a couple of ways:

  • It reduces oiliness. Hot showers typically strip your skin of its natural, hydrating oils, so your body compensates for it by producing more oil. As I mentioned, this is problematic for people with acne-prone skin, as the oil the skin produces may clog the pores and cause acne. In contrast, cold showers reduce skin oiliness but don't dry out the skin.
  • It helps your immune system. Cold showers also improve your immune function by increasing your white blood cell count. By having more white blood cells, your body will have more power to fight off the bacteria that cause acne.

2. Take a Milk Thistle Supplement

Milk thistle with flowers

Many people supplement with milk thistle because of its liver protective effects, not knowing about its ability to fight acne.

So, I’d advise you to add it to your routine if your pre-workout supplements are causing you skin issues.

Since milk thistle is more natural than antibiotics, I’d recommend it to all fitness enthusiasts fighting skin problems caused by pre-workout.

Take a Fish Oil Supplement

Fish oil supplements are rich in omega-3 fatty acids that offer a significant number of health benefits.

Moreover, the supplement is also packed with EPA and DHA that help reduce inflammation, which we've established is one of the essential factors for acne flare-ups.

So, if you want pre-workout supplements to be a part of your fitness routine, you may want to add some fish oil to it, too.


References:

  1. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21346827/
  2. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24134468/
  3. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30005329/
  4. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22447309/
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3900340/
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About The Author

Dr. Harshi Dhingra, MBBS, MD is a published peer-reviewed author and renowned physician from India with over a decade of experience. With her MBBS from Bharati Vidyapeeth and an MD from Rajiv Gandhi University, she actively ensures the accuracy of online dietary supplement and medical information by reviewing and fact-checking health publications.
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