Dairy products have long been a staple in many people's diets, but for those struggling with acne, reducing or eliminating dairy may be a game-changer for their skin. In this article, we'll explore the four most significant reasons why people with acne should avoid dairy and provide some tips for incorporating dairy-free alternatives into their diet.
Dairy products cause more acne because they are full of growth hormones.
Most of the milk produced in the United States comes from pregnant cows, which means it is loaded with hormones. When you consume dairy products, you also consume these hormones, which can wreak havoc on your skin. Insulin-like growth factor (IGF), in particular, has been linked to increased sebum production, which can lead to clogged pores and acne breakouts.
A study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found that dairy intake was positively associated with acne in both adolescent boys and girls. The researchers theorized that this could be due to the hormones and growth factors present in milk, which can stimulate the production of sebum and the growth of skin cells.
Dairy products cause more acne because they are loaded with lactose.
Lactose is a sugar found in milk and other dairy products. It has a high glycemic index, which means that it can cause a rapid increase in blood sugar levels. This can lead to a surge in insulin production, which can stimulate the production of androgens, a hormone that can contribute to acne.
A 2012 study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that consuming a low-glycemic diet reduced the number of acne lesions in young men. The authors hypothesized that this could be because low-glycemic foods have a minimal effect on insulin production and, therefore, do not stimulate the production of androgens.
Dairy products cause more acne because they contain pro-inflammatory factors.
Inflammation is a common feature of acne, and certain foods can exacerbate this inflammatory response. Dairy products, especially cow's milk, contain pro-inflammatory factors, such as whey and casein, which can contribute to inflammation in the body.
A 2018 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found that a low-glycemic, low-dairy diet effectively reduced the severity of acne in young men. The authors hypothesized that this could be because a low-dairy diet reduces the consumption of pro-inflammatory factors, which can contribute to inflammation and acne.
Dairy products are believed to cause more acne because they affect the microbiome.
As we age, our ability to digest lactose decreases. This can lead to digestive issues, such as bloating, gas, and diarrhea, especially in those who consume large amounts of dairy products. A 2016 study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition found that a dairy-free diet improved gastrointestinal symptoms in people with lactose intolerance. The authors hypothesized that this could be because lactose intolerance leads to an imbalance in the gut microbiome, which can contribute to inflammation that be a cause of more acne breakouts.
Incorporating Dairy-Free Alternatives
While giving up dairy may seem daunting, plenty of delicious and nutritious dairy-free alternatives are available. Here are a few tips for incorporating these alternatives into your diet:
Swap cow's milk for nut milk, such as almond or cashew milk.
Use coconut yogurt or nut-based yogurt in place of traditional yogurt.
Try nutritional yeast as a replacement for cheese.
Use avocado or hummus as a spread instead of cream cheese or sour cream.
Experiment with different plant-based protein sources, such as tofu, tempeh, and lentils.
Can milk free diet help reduce acne breakouts?
One study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that consuming a low-glycemic diet, which limits dairy and other high-glycemic foods, was associated with a significant reduction in acne severity over 12 weeks. The study included 43 male acne patients randomly assigned to either a low-glycemic or a high-protein diet. At the end of the study, the low-glycemic group experienced a 23% reduction in total lesion count, while the high-protein group only experienced a 13% reduction. This suggests that limiting dairy intake and other high-glycemic foods may be an effective strategy for reducing acne.
Another study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology investigated the link between dairy consumption and acne in a large cohort of women. The study included 47,355 women in the Nurses' Health Study II who were asked about their dairy consumption and history of physician-diagnosed acne. The researchers found that women who consumed more than three servings of milk daily had a 22% higher risk of developing acne than those who consumed one serving or less per week. The study also found a positive association between skim milk and acne, but not with other dairy products like cheese or yogurt.
A study published in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology reviewed the existing research on the link between dairy consumption and acne. The authors concluded that there is evidence to support the association between dairy consumption and acne, particularly with milk. However, the mechanism by which dairy consumption may contribute to acne is not fully understood. They suggest that the presence of hormones, growth factors, and bioactive peptides in dairy products may play a role in acne development.
Another study published in the Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology investigated the link between diet and acne in a group of Italian adolescents. The study included 502 participants and found that those who consumed more dairy products had a higher prevalence of acne. The researchers suggest that this may be due to the high glycemic index of dairy products and the presence of hormones and growth factors.
Lastly, a study published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology investigated the effect of a low-glycemic-load diet on acne in a group of Australian males. The study included 43 participants and found that those who followed a low-glycemic-load diet experienced a significant reduction in acne lesion counts compared to those who followed a high-glycemic-load diet. The authors suggest that the decrease in acne may be due to the lower insulin and insulin-like growth factor-1 levels associated with a low-glycemic-load diet.
There is evidence to support the association between dairy consumption and acne. Dairy products contain hormones, growth, and inflammatory factors that may contribute to developing acne. Additionally, the high glycemic index of dairy products may increase insulin and subsequent acne formation. While more research is needed to fully understand the link between dairy and acne, limiting dairy intake and other high-glycemic foods may be an effective strategy for reducing acne.
In addition to the scientific evidence linking dairy consumption to acne, there are also many anecdotal reports of people seeing improvements in their skin after cutting out dairy. For example, beauty blogger Brianna Stanko shared her experience with cutting out dairy on her YouTube channel, stating that her skin cleared up significantly within just a few weeks (5).
While more research is still needed to understand the relationship between dairy and acne fully, the evidence so far suggests that reducing or eliminating dairy intake may be helpful for those struggling with acne. If you're considering changing your diet, it's essential to speak with a healthcare professional to ensure you're still getting all the nutrients your body needs.
1. Adebamowo CA, Spiegelman D et al. Milk consumption and acne in adolescent girls. Dermatology Online Journal. 2006;12(4):1.
2. Adebamowo CA, Spiegelman D et al. High school dietary dairy intake and teenage acne. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. 2005;52(2):207-214.
3. Melnik BC. Diet in acne: further evidence for the role of nutrient signaling in acne pathogenesis. Acta Dermato-Venereologica. 2012;92(3):228-231.
4. Aghasi M, Golzarand M et al. Dairy intake and acne development: a meta-analysis of observational studies. Clinical Nutrition. 2016;35(6):1250-1258.
5. Di Landro A, Cazzaniga S et al. Family history, body mass index, selected dietary factors, menstrual history, and risk of moderate to severe acne in adolescents and young adults. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. 2012;67(6):1129-1135.
To find the right acne treatments for your unique skin, take the free skin assessment by clicking here.