As it’s Sugar Awareness Week, we’re looking at what the controversial ingredient can do to our skin.

Sugar. It’s one of those food groups that is sometimes swept under the carpet. We all know that consuming too much will affect us in a negative way, but most of us are far more concerned with how many calories were in the sandwich we ate at lunch to even second-guess how much sugar was in all those cocktails we drank at the weekend. While calories seem to be our main health burden, sugar can affect us in more ways than you might think.

I wanted to find out what sugar, and cutting it out, does to our skin. There are myths and rumours and assumptions about the affect it can have and how it causes spots, but I wanted to dig deeper than that. I quizzed skin and hormone specialist, Dr. Sophie Shotter, to find the answers to what I was looking for.

Dr. Shotter’s first exclamation was a prominent one:

“Sugar is one of the evil S’s for skin – sun, stress and sugar are three key factors in affecting how our skin ages.”

Dr. Sophie Shotter

When I asked what it was exactly that sugar does to our skin, I was expecting extra blemishes, perhaps some redness of skin. However, Dr. Shotter explained that by consuming an excess amount of sugary substances we thoroughly speed up our ageing process. “When we ingest excess sugar, the glucose binds to proteins in our body, forming Advanced Glycation End Products (AGEs). These cause the collagen and elastin fibres responsible for our skin’s structural integrity to become rigid and possibly even break and lose their structural function. These AGE molecules will accumulate in the skin throughout the ageing process, and cause antibody formation and inflammation within the skin. The effect of this includes reduced suppleness of the skin, tissue sagging, increased wrinkling, and a loss of radiance leading to a dull and tired appearance.”

 I had no idea. Refined sugar is such a common ingredient in nearly all foods, that it’s practically impossible to avoid, so how exactly do we prevent the extent of this from having too much of an impact on us? Dr. Shotter told me that while glycation can’t be completely stopped, we can do certain things to divert it’s course. “We can slow its progress by minimising our intake of refined sugar products, and choosing complex carbs such as brown rice and whole grains instead.”

Now, here was my biggest question. It’s something that I’ve pondered on for years, ignoring whispers that my beloved food was bad for me and shutting out the haters. Do natural sugars, you know, the ones that are found in our every day fruity snacks, have the same effect as refined sugars? Praying that the answer was no, I took note. ” Unfortunately yes, but in the scheme of things I wouldn’t focus on fruit. Fructose is the biggest culprit of the different sugars, and is the one predominantly found in fruit.” It makes sense, and while Dr. Shotter continued to explain that in a perfect world, we’d ideally limit ourselves to small pieces of fruits in a day, along with cutting out any other sugar from out diet, however it’s just not realistic to do in our modern life. Her advice was to simply be mindful of what we’re eating, and to not “suddenly give up cakes for just fruit.”

So, now we’re aware of the impact that sugars have on our skin. But how do our bodies react when we remove the sugar from our diets, either in small amounts or completely? Dr. Shotter revealed that it will essentially have a reversed effect. “Giving it up will improve the skin’s radiance and make it feel bouncier and more supple. Sugar is also the culprit in many breakouts – cutting back on sugar can decrease acne due to lower levels of inflammation in the skin. It will also help your skin to be more resilient – the presence of AGEs in the skin decreases your antioxidant activity in the skin, making it more vulnerable to sun damage/pollution. So giving up sugar will make your skin better able to fight the effects of other stressors on the skin.” She told me that some results of reducing the sugar in your diet can show really quickly. By decreasing the insulin levels means that inflammatory factors disappear quite quickly.

The radiance part to the results might take a little longer than the inflammation, these could begin to show after a few weeks. There also are some side effects of giving up sugar if your mind and body is used to an excessive amount of it. Dr. Shotter advised that you could see a change in moods or suffer from withdrawal headaches. “This bonus of clear skin will cheer you up if you do experience mood swings and headaches from the sugar withdrawal.”

The important thing we need to remember is that sugar is an essential part of a healthy, balanced diet, so there is no point in trying to avoid it wholly. Dr. Shotter’s final piece of advice to me was that due to the fact that even healthy snacks such as nuts contain sugar, she “would always advocate minimising refined sugar intake and supporting your skin with great skincare products.”

So, don’t instantly run to your cupboards and rid of any delicious treats, and don’t go emptying your fridge of healthy fruits, because you need the sugar in your system for it to be balanced. Instead, be mindful of how your food could be affecting more than just your diet, and focus on eating everything in moderation. If you are planning on cutting sugar out of your everyday diet, consider any extra effects it could have and make gradual changes instead of one big one.

Sugar isn’t all bad, but if you want to stay looking and feeling young forever, maybe cut back on some of your favourite sugary snacks. Make them a treat instead so that not only will you help your skin, but you’ll enjoy your treats more.

Feature image: Botanica Day Spa