The Link Between Dairy and Acne

Is milk causing your breakouts?

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Some doctors believe that what we eat may indeed affect our skin and make acne worse, and evidence is mounting that points a finger at something you probably think of as good for you: milk. Studies suggest that milk drinkers develop more severe acne than non-milk drinkers.

Teenage girl drinking glass of milk
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Is There a Link?

Not all experts and studies agree that milk is involved in acne, and, of course, not everyone who drinks a lot of milk breaks out in pimples. Some evidence shows that milk causes acne while other studies suggest people who drink more milk tend to have worse acne. Those are associations, though, and not proof.

A meta-analysis of prior studies published in 2019 concluded that total dairy consumption and total milk consumption both were related to the occurrence of acne. That went for milk with any fat content. However, researchers said yogurt and cheese didn't appear connected to acne at all.

Then there's a meta-analysis published just a year earlier that concluded all dairy—including yogurt and cheese—was associated with an increased likelihood of acne.

According to data cited by the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD):

  • Among more than 47,000 women in the U.S., those who drank at least two glasses of skim milk a day as teenagers were 44% more likely to have had acne.
  • Among just over 6,000 girls between ages 9 and 15, those who drank the most cow's milk were more likely to have acne, with no variance based on the fat content of the milk.
  • Among more than 4,000 boys between ages 9 and 15, those who drank skim milk were more likely to have acne.

Why the Focus on Milk?

The role of the Western diet, and dairy in particular, has been in the spotlight for ance researchers for a long time because the U.S. has higher acne rates than is considered normal. However, only a few studies have been done on dairy and acne, including observational studies and just a few clinical trials.

In trying to prove the theory of milk's involvement in acne, the biggest problem for researchers is an inability to do a double-blind, randomized controlled trial (considered the gold standard in research) because so far no one has come up with an adequate placebo for milk.

So while the association seems clear, much remains to be learned about the link between dairy and acne.

Potential Causes

Beyond whether there's a link, something researchers have to grapple with is: could milk or other dairy products have an effect on the body that could lead to acne? A few different ideas about possible causes are in play.

Hormones

Some experts think the hormones in milk are what link it to pimples. Milk contains androgen hormones, which have long been associated with the formation of acne breakouts. One particular androgen is testosterone, which is strongly linked to acne development.

Through a complicated chain reaction in your body, testosterone creates dihydrotestosterone (DHT). DHT stimulates the sebaceous glands, creating an oilier skin that is more prone to pore blockages and, ultimately, pimples and acne.

Not Just a Male Hormone

Testosterone is most often thought of as a male hormone, but women produce testosterone too, just in lesser amounts.

The IGF-1 Growth Factor

Many dairy farmers give their cows hormones to make them produce more milk. One such hormone is the IGF-1 growth factor. In the human body, IGF-1 peaks during adolescence, when acne is usually at its worst. Experts believe IGF-1, along with testosterone and DHT, can trigger acne breakouts.

In several studies, high milk consumption was linked to high IGF-1 levels, with skim milk associated with higher IGF-1 levels than whole milk.

The processing of skim milk may explain why it is linked to acne severity more often than whole milk. Whey proteins are added to give skim milk a creamier consistency, and some evidence suggests that these proteins impact acne development.

Hormones and Inflammation

Some experts believe the hormones in milk may cause inflammation in your body, and systemic inflammation is known to contribute to acne breakouts.

When to Avoid Dairy

If you suspect your acne is triggered or worsened by dairy, you can try a few things to figure it out.

  • Try a food diary: Track how much dairy you consume along with how your breakouts go to see if you can spot a link.
  • Skip dairy during breakouts: See if eliminating dairy at the start of a breakout seems to improve your skin or clear it up faster than usual.
  • Eliminate dairy long-term: You may want to cut out dairy entirely for several months. Because acne tends to come and go, it can take that long to really get an idea whether it's helping.

Especially if conventional acne treatments aren't working for you, it may be worthwhile to start paying close attention to your dairy consumption.

Treatment

Even if banning milk from your diet seems to improve your acne, it most likely won't be enough to completely clear your skin. For that, you'll need an acne medication. Over-the-counter skin products might work if your acne is mild. However, most people get the best results from prescription acne medications.

For severe acne, ask your doctor or skin-care professional about procedures such as comedo extractions, chemical peels, and corticosteroid injections.

Frequently Asked Questions

What foods cause acne?

No one knows for sure if any foods actually cause acne. However, in addition to dairy, foods that are high on the glycemic index are suspected of contributing to acne or making acne more severe in some people. Some research shows that a low-glycemic-index diet lowers IGF-1 levels, which could explain why this diet is effective.

A Word From Verywell

If you're considering a major dietary change, to help with acne or for any reason, be sure to talk to your doctor about how to make the change without compromising your health. Remember that acne is a complicated condition that can be hard to treat, so you may need to do more than make a few dietary adjustments.

If you're having trouble managing your acne or you feel it has a major impact on your life, bring it up with your doctor. A referral to a specialist or change in treatment may help you clear up your skin and feel better about yourself.

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