How your mocha Frappuccino is ruining your skin (and probably your mental health too)

A Starbucks mocha-frappcino against a black background

It is a guilty pleasure for all of us. You stop somewhere, grab a coffee drink and start sipping while your sleep deprived brain explodes in thanks and caffeine. We all know it’s bad for our teeth, but did you know that it’s bad for your skin?

Let’s start with the skin itself.

A diagram of the layers of human skin
Bet you thought you’d never see this again after graduating high school biology.

There are three layers to skin: epidermis, dermis, and subcutaneous tissue. Epidermis is the skin’s surface. It is mostly composed of keratin and provides defense and water-resistance. This layer of skin is also where dead cells are shed and where melanin (the pigment that gives skin its dark color) is found. 
The second layer is the dermis. This thicker layer, which is composed of nerves, fats, blood vessels, elastin, and collagen fibers, provides elasticity.
The deepest layer, the subcutaneous layer, is composed of fat. Its main function is to provide insulation and keep the organs in place.

After the age of 20, your dermis starts producing one less percent of collagen each year. The collagen and elastin fibers become thicker, more clumped, and looser. In your twenties, the skin’s exfoliation process decreases by 28%. This causes dead skin cells to accumulate and stick together for longer. In your thirties, the transfer of moisture from the dermis to the epidermis is slowed and fat cells start to shrink.  The skin gets thinner and starts to look dull. By your forties, collagen is no longer produced. The collagen and elastin fibers break, thicken, stiffen, clump together, and lose their elasticity. This results in wrinkles and aging lines. Finally, in your fifties, the skin becomes dry and is easily bruised, damaged, or broken because oil glands have decreased in size. Then, you have the super fun event of menopause to look forward to. Since menopause causes a decrease in estrogen levels, this leaves the skin drier, thinner, and less toned. As always, being both woman and mortal is buckets of fun.

Sugar damages your skin through a natural process called glycation. Glycation is the bonding of a sugar molecule to a protein without the need for an enzyme. But how is this bad? The sugar in your bloodstream attaches to proteins to produce harmful free radicals called advanced glycation end products (AGEs). As AGEs accumulate, they damage the proteins around them. This hurts skin proteins by causing them to be more brittle and less elastic. And the more sugar you have in your body, the faster this damage accumulates.

When most people think of sugar, they think of cakes, cookies, and soda. But those aren’t the only culprit. White bread, ketchup, pizza, processed meats, and prepackaged meals all contain added sugar.

Why Is There So Much Sugar In Everything?

A chart explaining the sugars found in every day foods such as soup, bread, salad dressings, and twinkies.
I got this chart from the American Heart Association. I don’t know why they think that Twinkie is hiding how much sugar they contain. No one has ever eaten a Twinkie thinking it was healthy.

Let’s start at the beginning. In 1789, Congress enacted the Tariff of 1789. Enacted to prevent the destruction of the country’s newly emergent manufacturing industry after the Revolutionary War, this legislation had the side effect of creating trade protection against foreign-produced sugar. With its interests protected, the sugar industry boomed without any competition.
Meanwhile, America started to grow enormous amounts of corn. For most of the 19th century, America was able to produce more corn by simply using more land to grow more food. But by the 1890s, numbers stagnated. This worried the federal government, who then started to subsidize corn by building dams to bring farming to desert areas, and creating railroads from faraway farms to transport food to cities for greater demand.

Jump to the 1950s, where American scientists tried to turn glucose from corn starch into fructose, but the process was too inefficient to be scalable. Then, Yoshiyuki Takasaki, a scientist in Japan, developed a heat stable enzyme that be could mass produced. In 1967, the Clinton Corn Processing Company in Iowa bought an exclusive license for this enzyme and started mass producing High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS).

With tariffs preventing Americans from getting sugar anywhere but America and subsidies propping up the ever growing corn industry, America had an absolute abundance of high fructose corn syrup. And since it was cheaper than sugar, tasted sweeter than sugar, and created food items that had longer shelf lives, industries started putting it everything. Between 1970 to 2000, there was a 25% increase in “added sugars” in the U.S. All of this lead to the average American consuming 22.1 pounds of HFCS and 40.3 pounds of refined cane and beet sugar in 2018.

Is all sugar bad?

Three images side by side of a stevia plant, a glass of honey in the sun, and an agave plant.

Surely more natural sugars, like unprocessed cane sugar, honey, and agave, are better than refined white sugar? Nope. AGES are created whenever your blood sugar spikes, which is whenever sugar is digested quickly. Sweeteners and refined starches are going to be the main causes of this. If they contain the same number of grams of sugar, your body is going to treat white bread, fruit juice, and a candy bar all the same sugar wise. The only exception seems to High Fructose Corn Syrup, which seems to have some weird side effects on the body even when compared to people who ate the exact same amount of refined cane sugar. Compared with a beverage with a high amount cane sugar, a beverage with a low amount of high fructose corn syrup impaired hepatic insulin sensitivity more than cane sugar. It did not impair whole-body insulin sensitivity, pointing again to the pathophysiological effects that fructose can have on the liver. So HFCS should be avoided above other added sugars, though it’s best to avoid all.

Most Americans consume far too much sugar – an average of 22 teaspoons per day. The World Health Organization recommends that you consume less than 10% of your daily calories from sugar, and that there are additional health benefits from making that number less than 5%. For the average women, this mean limiting your daily sugar intake to 100 calories per day (25 grams or 6 teaspoons). The average man can stay under that ten percent by having less than 150 calories (37.5 grams or 9 teaspoons) of sugar per day.

25 grams sounds like something the average person can work with. But as someone who is a self described sugar hound, let me assure you it’s not. The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has 56 recognized and accepted names for just sugar. That doesn’t even include artificial sweeteners. Say you only get a mocha Frappecino twice a week. At 62 to 80 grams of sugar, you’ve consumed 124-160 grams of sugars that week. Your total weekly added sugar allotment is 175 (though you shouldn’t judge by weeks, you should judge by days and even hours to prevent sugar spikes).
But say you stay away from sugary drinks (including fruit juice) and stick with only water. And in the morning, you have a serving size of Honey Nut Cheerios with Silk vanilla soy milk. You’ve just ingested 16 grams of added sugar. Which is over half your daily allotment, and you’ve only gotten though one meal.
Sugar can hide in surprising places. A cup of low fat yogurt contains 47 grams of sugar, 100 grams of store bought granola is 24 grams of added sugars, and a protein bar have around 30 grams of sugar, making them the equivalent of a candy bar.

Oh God How Do I Stop Eating So Much Sugar Then?

A close up of various fruits closely grouped together
Until this picture, I wasn’t aware that avocado was a fruit. Joke’s on me, it’s a berry.

There is good new though: fruit doesn’t count. The fruit has to be raw or frozen, and it can’t be made into a drink, but if you’re avoiding sugars, fruit is basically your cheat card. Fruits are loaded with both soluble and insoluble fiber, water, and have significant chewing resistance. When fruit is eaten whole, these two fibers form a gel-like “latticework” on the inside of the duodenum in the small intestine. That latticework prevents a significant portion of the fruit’s sugar from being absorbed early on during the digestive process. Instead, the sugar and other components of fruit move farther down the small intestine to the jejunum and ileum. While the early part of the digestive tract is largely free of bacteria, these later structures are home to trillions of gut microorganisms and is your gut biome. These bacteria ingest and digest the sugar for you, so you don’t absorb it and create sugar spikes within your blood.
Not all fruits are created equal. If you want to focus on nutrients, focus on fruits with more skin. That’s one of the reason berries are considered so healthy, they have a high skin to body ratio. If you are counting calories or avoiding sugar even within fruit, any dried fruit, lychees, and mangos are going to be the ones to avoid. And blending or juicing the fruit, like when it’s made into a smoothie, takes away most of its benefits and just leaves the sugar.

Want to learn more about how sugar can actually change both your thoughts, and the way you think? Stay tuned for part two of this article: How sugar affects your mental health.

As always, an enormous thanks to The National Center for Biotechnology Information and National Institutes of Health.


  1. C. Collin. How Does My Skin Anatomy Change as I Get Older? (2005). (26 Jan 2013).
  2. S. Obagi. Why Does Skin Wrinkle with Age? What Is the Best Way to Slow or Prevent This Process? (27 Jan. 2013).
  3. M. Witmer, Unrepaired skin molecules cause wrinkles as we age (2006).  (26 Jan. 2013).
  4. World Health Organization. (2014, April 1). Draft Guideline: Sugars intake for adults and children. Retrieved May 2, 2020, from
  7. White J. S. Sucrose, HFCS, and Fructose: History, Manufacture, Composition, Applications, and Production. Chapter 2 in J. M. Rippe (ed.), Fructose, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Sucrose and Health, Nutrition and Health. Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014.
  8. Bray G. A. (2013). Potential health risks from beverages containing fructose found in sugar or high-fructose corn syrup. Diabetes care36(1), 11–12.
  9. Meyers AM, Mourra D, Beeler JA. High fructose corn syrup induces metabolic dysregulation and altered dopamine signaling in the absence of obesity. PLoS One. 2017;12(12):e0190206. Published 2017 Dec 29. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0190206

17 thoughts on “How your mocha Frappuccino is ruining your skin (and probably your mental health too)”

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