Nutrition Secrets for Healthy Skin: Is Dairy Causing your Breakouts?

Acne is not just a superficial skin condition. This incredibly common skin disease affects more than 17 million Americans and the vast majority of the adolescent population. Research has found that acne can have a profound effect on your overall quality of life, including your social, psychological, and emotional health. In my opinion, far too many people suffer from the physical and mental hardships of a skin condition that may be safely managed through diet and lifestyle changes. So, I decided to create the Nutrition Secrets for Healthy Skin Series to bring greater awareness to the relationship between nutrition and healthy skin. As scientists learn more about the pathogenesis of acne, it's becoming increasingly clear that diet may in fact influence the development of acne. 

Acne Basics

Acne is a skin disease characterized by inflammation of the oil producing glands and hair follicles of the skin. Pimples develop as a result of an overproduction of oil secretions and the accumulation of dead skin cells, which eventually build up and cause a blocked pore. This creates a perfect environment for bacteria and yeast to overgrow in your pores, and ultimately triggers the body's inflammatory response. The end result are those swollen, red, pussy bumps that we all love so much. Research suggests that certain components of your diet influence the hormones (insulin, insulin-like growth factor-1, androgens) and inflammatory mediators involved in this process.  

Recommended Reading: Is Sugar Causing your Breakouts? 

Risk Factors of Acne

  • Hormonal activity, such as menstrual cycles, puberty, menopause, pregnancy, and starting or stopping birth control.
  • Stress.
  • Overproduction of sebum (oil).
  • Accumulation of dead skin cells.
  • Buildup of bacteria in the pores.
  • Skin irritation or scratching of any sort will activate inflammation. Friction or pressure on the skin caused by items such as telephones or cell phones, helmets, tight collars and backpacks.
  • Certain medications including anabolic steroids, some anti-seizure medications, the anti-tuberculosis drugs isoniazid and rifampin, lithium and iodine-containing medications.
  • Exposure to high levels of chlorine compounds, particularly chlorinated dioxins, may cause severe, long-lasting acne, known as chloracne.

Acne & Dairy

Although still controversial, the current research suggests that there is a connection between dairy consumption and acne. Unfortunately, all of the research on this topic comes from observational studies, which is limited in its ability to test cause and effect. However, there do seem to be consistent results regarding dairy consumption and acne among large observational studies. These studies found that higher intakes of milk (skim, low-fat, and whole milk) is associated with increased acne prevalence. The observational study design also limits the ability to determine the specific amount of milk intake that may exacerbate acne. Researchers hypothesize that the association between acne and dairy may be due to the effect of milk on insulin and IGF-1 concentrations in the body, the growth hormones in milk, and/or the body's response to milk protein. Specifically, the carbohydrates found in milk are thought to stimulate the release of hormones (androgens, insulin, IGF-1) that increase the production of oil and skin cells that block your pores. Milk also contains several of its own growth-stimulating hormones that may trigger the same hormonal response in the body. In addition, whey and casein (the main proteins found in milk) also have various growth-promoting effects, all of which stimulate a hormonal response in the body that exacerbates acne development. 

Take Away Message

Suffering with persistent breakouts can really take its toll on your confidence and overall quality of life. Although research on this topic is sparse and limited by study design, there does seem to be a connection between milk intake and acne. We need more high quality studies to further understand the relationship between dairy intake and acne, but reducing dairy intake may be a promising future treatment for mild to severe acne. Dairy is an excellent source of several important nutrients, so be sure to talk to your dietitian if you are considering cutting it out.

Recommended Reading: Acne: The Role of Medical Nutrition Therapy

Stay tuned for more on the Nutrition Secrets for Healthy Skin Series!

Want to know more? Ask questions or share your experiences with dairy and acne in the comment section. 

XO Tamar


Author: Tamar Samuels MS, RDN, CDN

Tamar Samuels is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and the founder of All Great Nutrition, an unconventional nutrition and health coaching service for anyone who wants to transform their lives to become their happiest and healthiest self. Tamar's nutrition and health coaching program helps you develop sustainable self-care behaviors that nourish your body and mind for a lifetime. Through her personalized and holistic approach, you will finally achieve your greatest wellness goals...on your terms! When she's not working with awesome people like you, she loves lounging in her Brooklyn, New York apartment with her lazy dog Shiloh. 


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