- There is increasing evidence of a cause-and-effect link between dairy consumption and acne in some individuals. Research is ongoing.
- Skim milk, whole milk and soft cheeses are more likely to trigger breakouts than other forms of dairy.
- A dairy-free diet may be beneficial for acne in those susceptible to milk products.
- It’s important to supplement your dairy-free diet with essential nutrients such as calcium and vitamin D to prevent osteoporosis.
- It can take between 2 and 8 weeks to see skin changes after eliminating dairy consumption.
Acne is one of the most common skin conditions in the US, affecting an estimated 50 million Americans each year. When pores get clogged by dead skin cells, dirt and acne-causing bacteria, skin breakouts characterized by blackheads, whiteheads, pustules, papules and cysts can occur.
The correlation between diet and acne has long been hotly debated, with significant evidence for and against dairy’s role in causing or aggravating pimple breakouts. However, everyone’s skin is different, and acne has many causes. Decreasing your dairy consumption may improve your acne symptoms, or your acne may be caused by other factors.
The ‘Myth’ of Dairy and Acne
It’s a commonly held myth that all dairy causes acne, but this isn’t the case. In particular, skim milk has been shown to create more skin issues than whole milk products.
Other studies have found certain types of milk products, such as yogurt, can improve active breakouts. In 2010, a randomized study featuring 36 participants with acne aged 18-30 years discovered consuming fermented milk containing lactoferrin decreased inflammatory and total lesion counts.
Another myth is that consuming dairy causes acne in everyone. Acne vulgaris has many causes, including diet, hormones, medications and stress.
Dairy products thought to cause acne
Not all dairy products are equally problematic for acne. Research shows skim milk causes double the skin problems of whole milk because it commonly contains pro-inflammatory ingredients such as whey protein, while added hormones and sugar can also upset your skin.
Skim milk has more added sugar than whole milk. The sugar raises the glycaemic index of the milk, which some studies show can contribute to acne flare-ups.
However, cow’s milk is also regularly supplemented with artificial hormones that can trigger inflammation and breakouts by throwing your natural hormones off balance. This may be particularly important for those who suffer from hormonal, inflammatory or cystic acne.
Interestingly, researchers have yet to find a correlation between yogurt and hard cheese consumption and increased risk of acne breakouts.
Does Dairy Really Cause Acne? What the Science Says
The question of whether dairy really does cause acne is hotly debated. Until recently, researchers had concluded there was no correlation between the two. However, three landmark studies spearheaded by medical researcher, Clement Adebamowo, cast doubt on that conclusion and reopened scientific examination into the link between diet and acne, and particularly the effect of dairy on acne.
The first study, a large 2005 retrospective analysis consisting of 47,355 female participants, determined there was a positive association between acne and milk consumption, particularly skim milk and cottage cheese.
In 2006, the same researchers found a positive association link between breakouts and whole, low-fat and skim milk in 6,094 girls studied over 3 years, but no correlation between dairy fat content and acne. And a 2008 follow-up study found a positive association between 4,273 boys consuming skim milk and acne, but no significant links between acne and whole, low-fat milk or milk fat.
Also in 2008, it was reported that women who drank more milk as adolescents demonstrated a higher prevalence of severe acne than those who drank minimal milk. And, in 2012, researchers further demonstrated acne was positively associated with frequent consumption of total milk and skim milk.
While the scientific research continues, these studies have shown the association between diet and acne cannot be ignored. Currently, the best approach to the question of whether dairy causes acne is to prepare personalized dietary plans on a case-by-case basis.
How dairy may increase acne
While recent evidence-based research agrees there is a correlation between some kinds of dairy and acne, the jury is still out on what the underlying mechanism might be. However, there are a number of theories, including:
- Growth hormones in milk meant to help calves grow naturally irritate acne. Digesting the whey and casein proteins in milk releases a hormone in humans similar to insulin that’s known to trigger breakouts.
- When combined with refined and processed food, milk products disrupt and elevate insulin (IGF-I) levels, which in turn makes skin more prone to blemishes and breakouts.
- Milk hormones react with human hormones, destabilizing the body’s endocrine system and triggering pimples.
- Those who are lactose-intolerant may trigger an allergic response to this natural sugar by consuming dairy.
- Glycemic load (GL) and dairy consumption changes circulating hormones, binding proteins and receptors. This increases skin cell growth, inflammation and sebum production, activating acne.
Should You Stop Consuming Dairy?
If you’ve noticed more breakouts after consuming dairy, you may want to consider removing it from your diet. Initially, try cutting out dairy for a few weeks. If you don’t see an improvement in your acne, chances are milk isn’t the cause of your pimples.
It’s a good idea to start by cutting out skim milk, because there’s strong evidence its combination of hormones, whey proteins and sugars causes the most skin problems.
A dairy-free diet may also decrease sebum production, making your skin less oily and removing a significant contributor to the blocked pores that are present in acne.
There are other health benefits for your skin in addition to potentially reducing your acne symptoms. These include improved skin texture and tone, decreased incidence of rosacea and less dullness.
Other positives of a healthy dairy-free diet reported include reduced allergies and gastrointestinal issues.
Health risks of a dairy-free diet
Cutting dairy from your diet can lead to a lack of essential nutrients, such as calcium and vitamin D, unless you adequately supplement them with other sources. These deficiencies are particularly important as you age.
Restricting dairy intake can lead to osteoporosis in later life, a disease that causes weakened and reduced bone density leading to bones that break easily.
If you do decide to cut down on dairy, make sure you’re meeting your nutritional needs like soymilk and soy yogurt. Kale and sardines also offer high amounts of calcium almost equal to dairy.
Less fortified options include eating plenty of watercress, okra, broccoli, bok choy, pineapple and almonds. Almond milk makes a versatile alternative to cow’s milk that will be less likely to trigger an acne flare-up.
While still dairy, you should try to include plain, unsweetened yogurt in your diet because the probiotics it contains may help prevent breakouts. For vegans, fermented alternatives such as kefir can also be beneficial.
Results of a Dairy-Free Diet
Deleting dairy from your diet isn’t a quick fix for pimple breakouts. It can take between 2 to 8 weeks before you notice any changes in your skin. This is because it takes time for your body to detox and remove all milk products from your system.
Research suggests acne has many causes. Some people’s breakouts may be triggered or worsened by consuming dairy, particularly skim, low-fat and whole milk, and soft cheeses. However, why that might be so is still unclear. Milk’s added and natural hormones may interact with human hormones, pro-inflammatory factors or high glycaemic index have all been investigated as potential initiators of acne.
Experimenting with your diet by eliminating dairy is worth trying. Start by reducing skim milk, low-fat and whole milk to see whether your skin improves. However, it’s important to be patient; it can take up to 8 weeks to see any changes. Be mindful of replacing calcium and vitamin D with supplements or food high in these essential nutrients for overall health, such as plain, unsweetened yogurt, soy products, almonds, kale or fermented products such as kefir.
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