We’re all pretty familiar with the idea that what we eat affects the way our skin looks. There is no doubt that the food we consume has a significant role to play when it comes to not only our general well-being but skin health also. Glowing, lustrous, youthful skin is a common goal for many people, which is very unlikely to be achieved through skincare alone. But we tend to get a bit hazy about exactly how what we are eating or drinking may damage our skin. It can be very easy to ignore the risks that certain ingredients pose before the damage is already done.

There is a growing body of evidence that shows that sugar contributes to premature skin ageing and inflammation through a process known as glycation, which damages collagen and elastin fibres. Here, I explain how your sugar habit might be showing up on your skin and how to reduce the risks of premature ageing.

What is glycation?

Sugar is a sly villain – it will give our tastebuds a quick hit of pleasure before wreaking havoc on our body, skin included. That’s right, sugar can be just as harmful to our skin as it is to our waistlines. In fact, eating too much sugar will age your skin faster than anything except smoking and UV light, thanks to a process called glycation, which sees the sugar in your bloodstream bind to proteins such as our all-important collagen, causing them to become stiff and inflexible. When this happens, the skin starts to lose its elasticity, and if that’s not enough, it also triggers free radical formation, oxidative stress and inflammation, all of which accelerate the ageing process.

The price your skin pays

We’re all aware that compromised collagen production leads to reduced skin elasticity and sagging in the long run, but sugar also affects hydration levels. This can make your skin appear less plump and bouncy and gives it an overall dull look, enhancing dark circles around your eyes.

And it doesn’t stop there. Sugar also increases testosterone synthesis, making your skin oiler which, in turn, contributes to acne and inflammation.

When you’re in your 20s, the body has more resources available to ward off damage, but when you reach your mid to late 30s, your collagen levels are dropping at a more significant rate, and as the sugar by-products begin to build up, your threshold for damage becomes lower.

How much is too much?

Unfortunately, when it comes to glycation, we’re talking about sugar in all of its forms. So, as well as the sugar you put in your coffee and consume in foods such as jam, cake, chocolate, soft drinks and (sorry) alcohol, you also need to be aware of fruits high in ‘natural’ sugars such as dates, mangos and pineapples. Yes, they’re a much better choice than refined sugar, but as far as your body is concerned, sugar is sugar, and it’s still bad for your skin.

That’s not to say you can’t enjoy these foods in the right quantities – the NHS recommends we consume no more than 25g of sugar a day, so moderation is key. Swap your sugary snacks for protein-rich foods, which break down more slowly and stay in the stomach for longer, making you feel fuller.

How to avoid sugar face

While glycation can’t be completely stopped, it can be slowed down. There is still much work to be done on the evolving science of nutrition and its effects on the skin, but there are clear basic principles that we can follow alongside better lifestyle habits to maintain good skin health.

Minimise stress and sleep more

Healthy skin goes hand in with having a healthy body and mind. When it comes to your skin, getting enough sleep is one of the most basic beauty commandments. It’s even more critical when it comes to the topic of glycation, as sleep deprivation can impair insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance, meaning that glycation is more likely. Avoid this by making sure you’re getting a minimum of six to eight hours of sleep every night.

Watch for hidden sugars

With some foods, it’s pretty apparent that they contain hefty amounts of sugar, but with others, it’s cleverly hidden on the packaging labels under aliases, including corn syrup, maltose, maple syrup, fruit juice concentrate and barley malt.


Loss of moisture in the body can take an instant toll on our skin which means that rehydrating should be your top priority. But as you are drinking plenty of water, you should also be using a daily serum or face cream that contains hyaluronic acid and/or ceramides to nourish skin cells and lock in moisture.

Load up on antioxidants

Glycation is oxidative, meaning it causes skin damage, inflammation and premature ageing. Applying a topical antioxidant such as Vitamin C to the skin helps to counteract that oxidation and stimulate collagen and elastin.