Mindful Nutrition: Dairy, Friend or Foe in Acne?

Learn more about the studies that look into the milk-acne connection

Credits: Milk splash
Steven Lam
Edited By:
Raja Sivamani , MD, MS, AP

Our skin is our first interface with the outside environment. Therefore, skin issues often lead to frustration and psychological discomfort stemmed from the feelings of embarrassment, shame, and disappointment. An individual’s skin is their largest organ; for one to be ashamed and embarrassed by it directly affects their quality of life.


Acne's Social Impact

Acne is what many people experience when faced with constant whiteheads, blackheads, or pimples on their face. The severity of acne can vary, ranging anywhere from one small blemish to severe acne covering the face, chest, shoulders, and back. Severe acne can be socially devastating. For example, an individual may decide to stay home rather than going swimming with friends to prevent the embarrassment of stares and questions about their condition. The question then becomes, how do I prevent acne from arising? Acne is a skin issue that is difficult to prevent because many factors play a role in causing it such as stress, sleep, genetics, and nutrition. 


Nutrition and Acne

It’s no surprise that alongside genetics, nutrition plays a large role in how the body grows and functions. Foods such as milk, ice cream, cheese, butter, and yogurt are all popular dairy products in people’s diets. Many consume dairy products but are unaware of the effects it may take on their acne.

Researchers have looked into the connection between dairy and acne. In several studies, researchers found that people who experience acne outbreaks more often reported that they consumed moderate to high levels of dairy compared to individuals with lower levels of dairy consumption. Acne is worsened by excessive insulin secretion and can also be triggered by the hormone IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor-1), which causes insulin to increase in the bloodstream. Dairy leads to increased levels of insulin and IGF-1, which together can activate the acne causing and oil-producing tissue in the skin (known as sebaceous glands). Also, dairy products contain hormones that may further stimulate the sebaceous glands. Overall, increased dairy intake is scientifically linked to acne.

Varying diets call for different protein-intake requirements. Dairy is a common protein source; thus, we can expect athletes and individuals who frequent the gym to fall suspect to consumption of dairy (such as whey protein). In order for muscle growth, most athletes are seen to respond best when eating 2.3-3.1g/kg of lean body mass per day of protein. Considering an average male or female, that’s a lot of protein! In order for athletes to reach such a high protein mark, they supplement their diets with products such as whey protein, unaware of its effect of possibly worsening acne. Other individuals who also may fall suspect to dairy consumption would be people who simply have a love for sweets such as ice cream, cheese, and milk-based products. Yogurt might be an exception, as it is not linked to acne, although yogurt that is full of sugar can still spike insulin levels.   

Dairy isn’t the only factor to worsen acne, but it does play a role in individuals that consume moderate to high levels of it. We all would love to consume dairy in our everyday diets since it is in a large selection of yummy foods but some of us just cannot afford the effects it takes on our skin. Whether you are a fun-loving ice cream addict or an athlete looking to build muscle, it depends on a per person basis whether dairy is your friend or foe. If you experience a high frequency of acne and also consume lots of dairy products, try cutting it out and see if a change occurs. It may save your skin!

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