Does Dairy Cause Acne? The Skinny on Milk, Cheese and Breakouts
Milk and cereal go hand in hand. What about milk and acne? That’s a debate that’s raged for years. So what does the current science say about the diet and acne connection when it comes to dairy — does dairy cause acne?
The answer is: not exactly.
“Dairy, or any food for that matter, does not cause acne per se,” said Shanna Miranti, MPAS, PA-C, a certified physician assistant at Riverchase Dermatology. “However, if you’re already prone to acne, certain dairy products could make it worse.”
Read on to learn more about whether dairy has a place in an anti-acne diet.
How milk may aggravate acne
More research is needed, but several studies show a connection between milk and acne. Why milk could make your complexion spottier is — pun intended — not entirely clear, but sugar and hormones are two suspected culprits.
Acne, inflammation and milk
“Certain foods are pro-inflammatory, and milk may be one of them,” Miranti said. “Milk can worsen other inflammatory skin conditions, such as eczema and psoriasis, so it’s not surprising that it would have the same effect on patients with acne.”
Inflammation isn’t just an effect of acne after pimples develop. “We now know it’s present during the entire process of acne development,” said Miranti. In other words, more inflammation may equal more acne or more severe acne.
The sugar content of milk, while fairly low, could contribute to inflammation, especially if you consume a lot of milk. Sweet, high-carbohydrate foods and drinks cause spikes in blood sugar that raise inflammation. These same spikes may trigger increased production of pore-clogging sebum, and change the composition of that sebum.
Acne and hormones in milk
Then there are hormones. Artificial growth hormones are given to some cows to boost milk production. Organic milk is produced by cows that are not given added hormones, but all cows produce their own hormones.
“Hormones play a big role in stimulating acne in people of all ages,” Miranti said. “It’s possible that the hormones in cow’s milk could upset your natural hormone balance in a way that aggravates acne.”
For example, cows produce insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1, which surges during puberty in humans and contributes to acne. They also produce sex hormones called androgens, which can also contribute to acne.
Skim milk vs. whole milk
Your choice of milk could affect whether it contributes to acne. Some of the few published studies on acne and milk suggest that skim milk and low-fat milk may be more likely to exacerbate acne than whole milk.
One reason may be that skim milk has a somewhat higher glycemic index than whole milk. The glycemic index indicates how fast a food increases your blood sugar.
Another possible explanation is that skim milk contains fewer skin-friendly fatty acids. These same fatty acids help your body absorb the vitamin A and vitamin D in milk, and both these nutrients are essential for healthy skin.
Does cheese cause acne?
Cheese has a bad rap when it comes to its effects on skin complexion. It’s true that cheese, especially hard cheese, contains a good deal of saturated fat, but cheese lovers can relax: According to the American Academy of Dermatology, there’s no evidence that cheese worsens acne. Yogurt’s story is even better: Eating yogurt is thought to decrease inflammation.
Does whey protein cause acne?
Whey is one of the two main proteins found in milk, along with casein. It constitutes the liquid portion of cheese and is the main ingredient in whey protein powders, popular with some athletes.
Whey has been shown to raise levels of the hormone insulin, which can make acne worse. Very small studies have suggested a link between whey protein supplements and acne, but not nearly enough research has been done to establish cause and effect.
The decision to cut milk
If you’re considering dropping milk from your diet to see if it improves your acne, follow these tips.
Talk to your dermatologist first
Talk to your skin care provider before cutting out milk, since it’s more likely that other factors are behind your breakouts.
Every acne patient is different, so avoiding milk may not have an effect on your acne,” Miranti said. “If it does help, it’s not going to clear your acne completely because there are other contributors, such as genetics, that altering your diet can’t solve.”
Consider how you’ll get calcium
Keep in mind that eliminating milk may have health consequences. Many people get most of their calcium from dairy products, and calcium is essential for bone health. Before you give up milk, talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian about how to make up for the lost calcium.
Try cutting back or switching to whole milk
Instead of giving up milk entirely, you could try changing your milk consumption habits. If you usually use skim milk, switching to whole milk might be enough to reduce breakouts if milk is in fact a trigger for you. Or you could cut back on the amount of milk you consume, since some studies suggest milk aggravates acne only if you drink a lot of it. Remember that even if you don’t drink milk by the glass, the milk you add to cereal, coffee and smoothies can add up.
It could take several weeks or even months to see a difference in your skin when you make a change in your milk consumption. But don’t be surprised if your acne doesn’t budge as a result of a dietary tweak.
“Diet may be just one part of the puzzle,” Miranti said. “If you have persistent acne, see a dermatology provider, who can recommend treatments that have much more scientific evidence backing their effectiveness. Most acne patients will need an acne-friendly skin care regimen as well as prescription medications.”
Medically reviewed by Shanna Miranti, MPAS, PA-C
Written by Jessica Brown, a health and science writer/editor based in Nanuet, New York. She has written for Water’s Edge Dermatology, Prevention magazine, jnj.com, BCRF.org, and many other outlets.