Dairy is a common dietary trigger for multiple health conditions. Many individuals are lactose intolerant (meaning they cannot break down and digest the sugar called lactose in milk). One theory for a large number of individuals who do not tolerate dairy can be explained by a decrease in the lactase enzyme with age. Lactase, which is found in the small intestines, is the enzyme needed to break down lactose in dairy and breastmilk and is at its highest level shortly after birth. Later, lactase activity decreases as infants are weaned from breastmilk and diminishes even further throughout life. In fact, according to a 2006 Clinical Report by the American Academy of Pediatrics, approximately 70% of individuals in the world have a deficiency in the enzyme lactase. Interestingly enough, there are some portions of the population who may have adapted to their lifestyle of dairy farming and often have higher levels of lactase compared to others.[1,2]
Acne & Hidradenitis Suppurativa Linked to Drinking Dairy
Besides the inability to properly digest lactose, leading to bloating and indigestion, there are other components present in milk that may cause health problems for some people. A disruption in skin health is one sign of a possible intolerance, allergy, or sensitivity to dairy. The consumption of cow’s milk (dairy) is linked to the following inflammatory skin conditions affecting the hair follicles:
Acne (acne vulgaris)
Follicles clogged with oil and dead skin
Typically affects the face, back, and chest
Manifests as blackheads, whiteheads, red bumps, pimples, cysts, and large lumps
Hidradenitis suppurativa (acne inversa)
Blocked and inflamed hair follicles
Located in areas with lots of sweat and oil glands (i.e. armpits, groin area, buttocks, and below the breasts) and/or where skin rubs together frequently (i.e. inner thighs)
Manifests as blackheads, red and painful lumps, or cystic nodules, filled with pus (often accompanied by a strong odor), and tunnels that often are infected and take a long time to heal
What is in Dairy?
Dairy has several components that may increase the likelihood and severity of acne and hidradenitis suppurativa:[4-6]
Casein & whey (milk proteins that are common allergens to some individuals)
Progesterone & other steroid hormones found in dairy
Insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1)
The hormones present in milk can cause an imbalance in hormones by raising insulin (the hormone involved in regulating blood sugar levels) and androgen hormones (androgen hormones are the male sex hormones) that can cause acne. The ingestion of the hormone IGF-1 is related to increased levels of androgens which has been shown to increase the risk of acne vulgaris.[3,6]
How to Choose Your Non-Dairy Milk Alternatives
It can be quite challenging to make the switch from dairy to non-dairy alternatives if you are someone who loves dairy. The great news is that there are many options to choose from that are widely available and easy to use in place of dairy. There are non-dairy options for cheese, yogurt, milk, and other food items. Milk is usually consumed more frequently, especially as a drink (i.e. coffee, smoothies, etc.) When making the switch to non-dairy milk it is important to read the nutrition and ingredient labels in order to choose a brand that will be a healthy switch. For example, dairy is fortified and a good source of calcium and vitamin D, and so it may be best to choose a non-dairy alternative that is also fortified. Here are few other factors to keep in mind when choosing non-dairy alternatives:
Many brands have vanilla and flavored versions that are loaded with sugar, and if you are avoiding sugar or trying to lose weight it is best to avoid beverages with added sugar.
A thickening agent (derived from a seaweed) added to many non-dairy milk brands.
There is not enough research on the health effects of consuming carrageenan. A recent study mentions that humans do not have the enzymes needed to break down this marine carbohydrate and that more information is needed to understand how the human gut is actually able to digest carrageenan.
Fortified with Calcium and Vitamin D
Many food crops (especially soy and almonds) are heavily sprayed with pesticides, and so it is best to choose organic options.
The following table can aid you in choosing a non-dairy milk alternative that best suits your dietary needs. The values represented on this table are for plain/original/unsweetened and fortified brands when the information was available on chronometer.com. Each value is approximately one serving of non-dairy/dairy milk at 1 cup or 250 mL.  Please note that different brands will have varying nutritional values and will not be consistent with the values listed here on this table.
Table 1 – Non-Dairy Milk Alternatives
Almonds have a very high calcium content and are also rich in vitamin E, manganese, selenium, magnesium, and more.
One of the few non-dairy alternatives that has a relatively high protein content.
A great alternative to try in your coffee, and also a good source of copper and magnesium.
A very high source of omega-3 fatty acids.
Considered a complete protein (it contains 10 essential amino acids), and is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids.
Contains the highest amount of protein amongst the non-dairy milk alternatives. This is a great source of plant-based protein!
The type of fat in coconut milk (medium chain triglycerides) are more easily digested than other types of fat. It is a very creamy alternative!
Be sure to use unsweetened brands as this alternative is often higher in sugar content.
Table 2 – Nutritional Content of Dairy
Total Fat/ Saturated (g)
If you do choose to drink dairy, it is best to opt for organic and grass-fed sources. Grass-fed cows will provide a higher content of omega-3 fatty acids compared to grain-fed cows. Non-organic milk often contains traces of antibiotics and a higher content of hormones that are likely to be inflammatory.
Skim milk is made to contain zero to minimal amounts of fat, which can be problematic for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K). Another concern with the consumption of skim milk is that the fat is removed and often filled with milk proteins and other solids that are processed with oxidized cholesterol.
Making the Switch with Informed Decisions
As always, it is best to consider your personal nutritional and health needs. Not every individual can tolerate the various non-dairy milk alternatives due to specific sensitivities and/or allergies. It can also be beneficial to consume a mix of options instead of always drinking one type of milk. Each milk will also have different textures and so it may take some time to adjust to knowing which milk will best suit a specific recipe.
Reap the Benefits in Your Skin When Skipping the Dairy
The great benefit of skipping out on the dairy is that you may quickly notice a change in your skin’s appearance. This is especially true if you already deal with acne and/or hidradenitis suppurativa.
* This Website is for general skin beauty, wellness, and health information only. This Website is not to be used as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment of any health condition or problem. The information provided on this Website should never be used to disregard, delay, or refuse treatment or advice from a physician or a qualified health provider.