Do You Have ‘Sugar Face’?

What's all this sugar doing to my face?
What’s all this sugar doing to my face? Photo: Conny Marshaus/Getty Images

Julianne Moore introduced the world to “sushi face,” the phenomenon of eating sushi for dinner the night before and waking up with a puffy sodium face. David Kirsch, Kate Upton’s trainer, has talked at length about “carb face,” one of the reasons why he puts the model on a no-carb, no-sugar diet. Now, the word “sugar face” has been bubbling up in beauty vernacular.

I first noticed my own sugar face when I gave up sugar for a few sad weeks. Offsetting my sorrow at saying no to every dessert that passed though my office was the fact that my face generally looked better. My skin appeared brighter, my wrinkles seem less pronounced, and I even seemed to need less under-eye concealer. A few of my colleagues who have tried giving up sugar have noticed similar positive benefits. Was this all in our heads? I interviewed a few dermatologists to find out.

Okay, so how is cake making me look old? Read the anti-aging book of any major dermatologist and there will be an extensive chapter devoted to the dangers of glycation, the effect sugar has on the skin. Dr. Frank Lipman, holistic doctor to Gwyneth Paltrow (and author of the charmingly named book 10 Reasons You Feel Old and Get Fat), talks at length about sugar’s “toxic” effect on the body. The legendary Dr. Frederic Brandt used to say that giving up sugar could make you look younger by ten years.

Dr. Harold Lancer, dermatologist to Kim Kardashian, Beyoncé, and half of Hollywood, explains in layman’s term how sugar affects the skin in his book. In a nutshell, it breaks down collagen, the springy substance that makes your skin look plump, youthful, and lifted. Also, “Sugar can weaken the immune system, and a suppressed immune system is bad at fighting off bacteria.” Bacteria clogged in pores creates pimples.

And sugar triggers insulin production, which triggers protein-utilization malfunctions. Sugar acts as a kind of signal scrambler, affecting the production of the proteins and amino acids that build up collagen and elasticity. “Sugars bind to the amino acid chains and they gunk up the work,” explains Dr. Lancer.

It also creates more testosterone. “Testosterone makes pores larger, skin is oilier, it turns your beautiful female skin into ruddy football player skin,” Dr. Lancer says.

Great. So I can try to eat fruit instead, right? Well, you also need to be careful of “sugary” fruits, and vegetables, like beets and carrots. Processed sugars, like those found in gummy bears and most delicious desserts, are reviled by all dermatologists. But some like Dr. Lancer also stress that you pay attention to where a food falls on the glycemic index. Foods that rank low on the glycemic index manage insulin production, which will slow down glycation. “Your body will burn energy instead of storing it as fat,” explains Dr. Lancer.

Watermelon and cantaloupe are high on the index, while kiwi, blueberries, and blackberries are lower. That doesn’t mean you should cut out fruit completely and never again know the taste of a mango, but keep in mind that Dr. Lancer personally considers a big, juicy apple to be a treat. “You cannot have low levels of insulin, low testosterone production if you’re eating fruit 12 times a day.”

What is sugar doing to my face? Going back to testosterone, too much can harden blood vessels. Sugar is a dehydrating agent, so it increases oil production. It also affects water binding so your skin looks less perky and bouncy, and doesn’t appear as oxygenated. “The skin becomes sallow, lackluster and you get those unwanted dark circles,” explains Dr. Lancer. Dr. Shereene Idriss, a dermatologist at Wexler Dermatology, agrees. “You get mild swelling and breakouts.”

And what about wine? “Drinking too much red wine can affect you too. Alcohol dehydrates and causes capillaries to dilate so dark circles will show under the eyes more prominently,” says. Dr. Idriss. It appears that “wine face” is a thing.

Is not eating sugar why Tom and Gisele look so beautiful? Let’s face it, Tom Brady and Gisele Bündchen would probably still look like Tom and Gisele (albeit a puffier version) even if they ate a soufflé every day. But their famous anti-inflammation diet does rule out sugar — inflammation is lifestyle-created and can be caused by stress, lack of sleep or relaxation, and, yes, sugar.

But what about honey? Dr. Lancer’s ruling is that a quarter a teaspoon is okay, but eating it for every meal is not.

Fine. You’ve convinced me to give up cookies for the sake of my skin. When will I notice the effects? Dr. Lancer says people see changes within 72 to 96 hours. “They’ll feel better, their color will look better, their skin won’t be so oily and they won’t be so dry. Their circles will be reduced, perkier.”

But you need to be committed and actually eliminate it. “If you go from three Sprinkle cupcakes to two, that’s not really giving up sugar,” he says.

Does this mean you have to choose between eating Lady M mille-crêpe cakes and having great skin? No. It’s up to you to decide how far you want to take it. “Kudos if you can do it,” says Dr. Idriss. “I’m not going to tell people to do it, because it’s probably not realistic.”  

In any case, great skin is made up of a combination of factors including genetics, skin care, and environmental and lifestyle factors. Asked to rank sugar on a list of good-skin “enemies” from bad to worst, Dr. Lancer placed environmental toxins like air and ultraviolet light as first, inflammatory foods as second, stress as third, lack of sleep as fourth, and general lifestyle, including skin-care routine and sugar, as last. So if you want that gummy bear, go ahead. 

Do You Have ‘Sugar Face’?