It’s true. That creamy deliciousness that we all love with our cereal, our baked goods, or even by itself. There is now substantial evidence that milk causes acne, especially in those who drink more milk than usual. Studies have become so prominent that Nestle even published a critical report implying they need to produce milk that causes less acne if they want to keep selling it.
In this article, you will receive an overview about dairy and its effect on acne as well as brief explanations of supporting studies and the process behind it all. Finally, we’ll look at some milk alternatives and whether those may be better for your skin.
It is said that a marriage in Hollywood is successful if it outlasts milk. If this is the case, then the golden anniversary must be when the marriage outlasts the acne caused by milk.
Can milk and dairy products cause acne?
Consuming milk and dairy products does not directly cause acne. However, there is evidence that shows a strong association between dairy products and acne. Acne is an inflammatory condition that may be influenced by the presence of certain hormones. These hormones may be increased by drinking milk and other dairy products.
How does dairy cause acne?
Research in the past 2 decades has underestimated the role that hormones play in acne, especially with regards to insulin and insulin like growth factor 1 (IGF-1). We could go on for days discussing the nuances in how hormones affect acne. For that reason, I’ve dedicated a post of that here. For now, suffice it to say that higher hormone levels stimulate oil glands in the skin and cause more acne.
IGF-1 and Growth Hormone
Studies show that milk and dairy products increase IGF-1 levels. IGF-1, or insulin-like growth factor, is a protein that mediates growth hormone and other functional processes in the body. One study in older adults showed that 3 servings of milk per day for 12 weeks increased IGF-1 levels by 10%. Another study showed 16% higher IGF-1 levels in those who drank 1-2 servings of milk per day as compared to those who drank only rarely.
Overall results showed correlation between IGF-1 and acne. Increased IGF-1 was found with increased sebum production, visible skin pores, and increased skin cell growth. It may be important to note that the effects of IGF-1 were more prominent in women than in men.
DHEAS, or Dehydroepiandrosterone, is another hormone that has been shown to be correlated with increased acne. In an Archives of Dermatology study, higher levels of DHEAS were found in a larger number of women who had acne. It is speculated that DHEAS plays an influential role with IGF-1 and growth hormone.
DHEAS may also increase levels of testosterone and DHT, which are other potent hormones. Theories suggest that increased levels of these androgens may cause acne lesions through a couple of ways.
Increased acne may be due to increased production of these hormones in local skin areas. Paired with an increased sensitivity to these hormones, you may find yourself waking up with more acne. Of course, these factors are highly dependent on individual factors.
You are probably familiar with glycemic index, it measures how quickly certain foods increase blood sugar levels. Insulin index does the same for insulin. It measures how insulin levels increase when given a certain portion of food (approximately 240 calories). For one study, white bread was used as a reference food with an index value of 100. Here are insulin index values that were found for other common foods:
- Eggs 31
- Beef 45
- White rice 79
- White bread 100
- Yogurt 115
As you can see, insulin levels skyrocket after eating yogurt, even more than white bread. It may be fair to note that they probably used commercial yogurt with added sugar. Therefore, the value may be somewhat lower for unflavored, sugar-free yogurt. Still, it is alarmingly high.
So why is insulin bad? Like IGF-1, it can stimulate hormonal acne. But it also increases bioavailability of IGF-1.
Milk Allergies and Lactose Intolerance
Some people are allergic to milk. Their immune system reacts to proteins in milk, usually casein, and treats them as invaders. Symptoms usually include rash and other skin problems. However, allergic reactions to milk do not directly cause acne lesions.
Milk allergy also comes in a less severe form, known as milk protein intolerance. The problem is that common food allergy tests don’t detect this. While milk protein intolerance triggers an immune response similar to milk allergies, no studies have shown that this intolerance causes acne.
Lactose intolerance has been speculated as a way that milk can possibly cause acne. Studies typically report that lactose intolerance is associated with gut problems. These bacterial imbalances in the gut may be a cause of inflammation and oxidative stress, resulting in acne.
For further information on this topic, I’ve written a detailed explanation on how gut problems can cause acne.
FAQ: Dairy Products and Acne
Is it better to drink whole or skimmed milk?
Skim milk is associated with an increase in acne compared to whole milk. The reason for this is unclear. However, it may be due to a higher glycemic index with skim milk compared to whole milk. A high glycemic index can lead to increased inflammation and acne.
Is organic milk better for my skin?
Both organic milk and regular milk contain hormones that may cause inflammation and acne. However, organic milk does not contain added hormones. Switching from regular to organic milk may be an option to decrease acne for this reason.
Does raw milk cause acne?
Raw milk contains the same hormones found in regular milk. Therefore, raw milk can cause acne. Regular milk is raw milk that has undergone pasteurization. Pasteurization removes bacteria, enzymes, and some nutrients. It does not remove IGF-1, which is known to cause acne.
Can I eat cheese if I have acne?
While cheese may cause or worsen acne, it may be less of an effect compared with milk and ice cream. The reason for this is unclear. Regardless, all cheeses, including cottage cheese, still contains hormones that can increase inflammation.
Does greek yogurt cause acne?
Greek yogurt is considered a health food that may cause less acne compared to milk. This might be explained by probiotics found in yogurt that can decrease inflammation. However, it is important to note any added sugar content which can result in increased acne.
What about ice cream?
Ice cream has been found to be associated with acne. The cause is mainly attributed to high glycemic index of ice cream. A high glycemic index can increase levels of certain hormones such as IGF-1 which is associated with acne development.
What about milk alternatives?
If you’ve read this far, you can see that there is ample evidence for milk causing acne. But what about alternatives, like milk made from soy, almonds, goats, etc? Are they safer for your skin? It can’t be said for sure, but here are some pointers:
Milk alternatives such as almond, rice, coconut, and oat milk are unlikely to increase inflammation and acne. There are no direct studies to explain this. These alternatives do not contain the hormones found in milk that have been associated with increased acne. However, added sugar may be a potential concern. As mentioned previously, a higher glycemic index may increase or worsen acne.
There is no credible evidence to show that goat or buffalo milk causes less acne compared to milk. According to one report, goat’s milk does not increase insulin levels as much as cow’s milk. In this case, it could be better for your skin.
If you think about it though, milk coming from a goat or a buffalo is still milk coming from an animal that produces hormones. While the amount of these hormones may differ, they still have a potential to cause acne.
What about Soy? There’s a lot of debate about soy. Some say soy decreases testosterone levels and has a feminizing effect in men. After looking at some studies, the hormonal effects of soy are weak or nonexistent in men (refer to this detailed post about soy). In women, however, regularly consuming soy has been shown to reduce estrogen levels which could aggravate the androgen/estrogen imbalance that causes acne.
Did I miss some dairy alternative? Please post to the comments below and I’ll add it here.
Studies Linking Dairy Products to Acne
So far, we have discussed how acne is linked to hormones and dairy products. But what supporting evidence is there behind it?
A recent meta analysis in 2018 reported considerable evidence that consuming dairy is associated with increased acne. Note: A meta analysis is one the strongest pieces of evidence to support a hypothesis. In this study, data was extracted from 14 different studies which included a whopping 80,000 individuals from five different continents.
Overall results stated that, “intake of any dairy, any milk, full-fat dairy, whole milk, low-fat/skim milk, and yogurt regardless of amount or frequency were associated with a higher odds ratio for acne compared to no intake in individuals aged 7–30 years.”
Looking more closely at the data, skim milk was associated with higher incidence of acne than whole milk. This may be due to the higher amount of total milk consumed with skim milk. While studies may have had limitations with no definitive cause for increased acne, there was also a supporting link found between IGF-1 and acne.
Another relatively recent longitudinal study found that acne may be associated with an overall high glycemic diet. The study reported that, “Although the link between dairy intake and acne is less convincing than that between a high glycemic diet and acne, both deserve considerationwhen providing any dietary advice.”
In other words, drinking milk can contribute to a high glycemic diet which may then cause acne due to increased insulin levels. Either way, it may be a good idea to note whether other foods are causing a flare up in acne and then limiting their consumption as well.
Two other studies evaluated milk and the incidence of acne in teenage girls and teenage boys. In both of these studies, they followed each group for 3 years. Each year they asked the participant to answer a food frequency questionnaire with questions such as how often they ate certain foods.
Both studies found very similar results. Those who drank more than 2 servings of milk per day were 20% more likely to suffer from acne than those who drank less than 1 serving per week. Not exactly earth-shattering results, but this shows it’s possible that milk and dairy products aggravate acne.
It is fair to suspect that these adolescent studies may understate the risk in adults.An Italian study performed in older subjects supports this. This study examined adolescents and young adults where it was found that there was a 78% higher risk of acne in those drinking more than 3 servings of milk per week.
It should be noted that all of the above studies found skim milk to be worse than full-fat or low-fat milk.
So does milk cause acne? Based on available evidence, it can be safely concluded that milk may carry a higher risk of acne for some individuals. This could be due to hormonal factors as well as intolerance effects of milk in those who are more sensitive to milk.
Goat’s milk may be promoted as a safer alternative to cow’s milk due to its lesser insulin effects. While soy allergies are fairly common, soy milk shouldn’t be a problem in allergy-free people. Similarly, almond, rice and various other alternative milk products should be acne safe.
Yogurt has both beneficial and harmful effects on the skin. It’s a good source of probiotic bacteria and can help with gut problems. The fermentation process mitigates some hormonal problems. However, it’s still a dairy product that can spike insulin levels. You may have to experiment yourself to find which alternative is best for you if you suspect that milk is causing your acne.
I hope you found this post informative. Please share your experience with milk in the comments below.