Acne is complex – there is no specific cause and definitely no one-size-fits-all cure. If there were, we’d all have perfect blemish-free skin! Many factors play a role in acne, including genetics, hormones, environment, and even diet.1 That last point has been a controversial topic for years. There is scientific evidence that diet does play a role in skincare, but it’s hard to find amidst all of the pseudoscience and old wives’ tales.
I’m a firm believer in the scientific method, but I know that reading scholarly articles is not everyone’s cup of tea. So I’m here to lay out the major findings about the relationship between dairy products and acne.
What does the research say?
The bottom line is that there is a link between dairy consumption and aggravated acne. A study of over 47,000 women found a significant association between consumption of total milk and skim milk and acne.2 Later, skim milk was shown to have the highest effect on acne in teenage boys.3 A study done by a different group also found that those who consumed more than three dairy products a week were significantly more likely to have moderate-to-severe acne, with a more dramatic effect in those who consumed skim milk. 4 Finally, consumption of both milk and ice cream were shown to have an effect in young Malaysian adults. 5
While these studies show that dairy consumption may play a role in acne severity, it’s important to remember that correlation does not always equal causation. Dietary habits were assessed via questionnaires given to the participants, which (other than possibly being inaccurate) cannot determine causation alone. To do so, empirical studies would need to be performed – but problems arise in that making a group of people consume dairy with the hope that their acne gets worse is unethical.
How does this work?
Based on the research, we can accept that there is some interaction between dairy consumption and acne. The mechanism is currently unknown but there are a few ideas being investigated. First, it’s possible that since cow’s milk is designed to make baby cows grow into big strong cows, the naturally occurring growth hormones and steroids in milk are having a hormonal effect in our bodies. Milk contains precursors to androgens 6, male sex hormones that have been shown to affect sebum production and acne. Second, the high carbohydrate content of dairy products can stimulate release of insulin and insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF1) which can worsen inflammatory acne 5,7 Finally, most cows in the US are treated with Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (RBGH) to increase milk production. This man made hormone has been shown to slightly increase IGF1 levels in our blood, 8 possibly leading to the inflammatory response discussed above. Of course, these are all just hypotheses right now – the exact nature of the relationship between dairy and acne is still under investigation.
What does this mean for those with acne?
Eliminating dairy from your diet should never be the first line of treatment for acne. Doctors may recommend it to patients who don’t respond well to other acne treatments, or if the doctor believes it will be a suitable supplement to the patient’s treatment. Those who regularly consume dairy products and want to see if cutting those out will help their skin should ALWAYS talk to a doctor first! Nutrient deficiencies are a real thing and aren’t fun. Also remember that just like with other acne treatments, YMMV. Some people have noted their skin calming down after cutting out dairy, while others saw no effect at all. Likewise, if you don’t regularly consume dairy products, you shouldn’t assume that drinking milk or eating ice cream is automatically going to make you break out.
What’s the Bottom Line?
Dairy is not the devil, but it’s not completely irrelevant either. Pfft, as if worrying about products and clean pillowcases weren’t enough! Just remember that your skin is complex, but you will eventually find something that works for you. Carry on, Skincare Addicts!