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Acne

Fact or Fiction: Does Dairy Cause Acne?

It’s an age-old question people have been asking since their middle-school years. Does dairy cause acne? For some people, it might.

Summary

  • There is some clinical evidence that milk may worsen acne.
  • Acne development due to drinking milk may be associated with increased IGF-1 levels.
  • Artificial hormones given to dairy cows to stimulate milk production may have something to do with the correlation between acne and milk.

All dairy products contain cow's milk. From butter and cheese to yogurt, the one ingredient shared by all of these foods is milk.

Although milk also comes from goats, coconuts, buffalo and of course the now-ubiquitous soy and almonds, it’s dairy that people fear is the source of their acne woes. 

In truth, dairy may contribute to acne formation for some. Here’s the story on dairy causing acne.

What The Science Says About Dairy and Acne

Does dairy cause acne? Here's what researchers have found over the years.

One meta-analysis of studies investigating the correlation between dairy and acne found the following results:

  • Consumption of whole milk, low-fat milk, and skim milk were "significantly associated" with acne outbreaks.
  • Consumption of cheese and yogurt yielded "no significant association" with acne development

Since yogurt and cheese contain reduced amounts of milk proteins, hormones, and other nutrients, researchers speculate that consumption of milk-derived products may not cause enough skin irritation to worsen acne or encourage outbreaks.

One mark against dairy.

Another analysis examined possible associations between acne and dairy intake involving over 78,000 children, teens, and young adults. Researchers included three variables in their investigation: different dairy foods, milk subgroups (skim, low, and whole-fat), and how much dairy was consumed each day.

Results of the analysis found that:

  • Consuming any dairy product (yogurt, cheese, milk, etc) was associated with an increased likelihood of acne development in subjects between 7 and 30 years old.
  • Interestingly, participants in the study who drank skim or low-fat milk experienced more acne outbreaks than those who drank whole milk. Researchers suggest that this result may be due to people drinking higher amounts of skim or low-fat milk than those who drink whole milk.
  • Acne outbreaks happened more frequently in study subjects who drank at least one glass of milk every day compared to subjects who drank only two to six glasses of milk each week.

That's two marks against dairy.

What about teens, dairy, and acne? 

A study of 225 adolescents between 14 and 19 years of age who drank skim, low-fat, and whole milk found that teens who drank skim or low-fat milk were more prone to acne outbreaks than teens who drank only whole milk. 

In addition, researchers found no significant differences correlating with body mass index and total dairy intake.

A third mark against dairy!

Can adults get acne from diary?

An evaluation of adults between 20 and 60 years old regarding acne prevalence was collected using questionnaires passed out at several healthcare centers. The facial skin of all adults was examined by a dermatologist, who reported diagnosing nearly 62 percent of the adults with some severity of acne. However, only about 37 percent were "aware of their condition."

Results for those researchers assessing these questionnaires found that acne appears to be associated with tobacco smoking, higher calorie intake, seborrhea, and consuming whole and low-fat milk.

Another point for dairy causing acne in adults!

Another study involved patients seeking treatment for various skin problems at a dermatological outpatient clinic. Control subjects had no or mild acne and were visiting the clinic for a consultation. Case subjects had received new diagnoses of moderate to severe acne.

The risk of acne outbreaks was higher among patients who consumed more than three glasses of milk per week. According to researchers, the association between drinking skim milk and acne development was significantly stronger than the association between drinking whole milk and acne development.

Ding - yet another point against skim milk, which research shows may make acne worse than whole milk!

What’s going on here, and why does milk seem to cause acne?

More About Milk Nutrients

Most recent peer-reviewed studies indicate that dairy products can irritate and worsen acne outbreaks. However, dermatologists haven't yet determined the precise reasons for the connection. 

Rich in protein, fats, and carbohydrates (lactose, galactose, and glucose), milk also contains vitamins, minerals, fatty acid esters, and salts. In addition, dairy cows are sometimes given artificial hormones to increase milk production. 

Researchers think these synthetic hormones could disrupt natural hormone levels in the body that are involved in sebum production, the oil that your skin naturally produces. 

What’s in Milk That Might Cause Acne?

Casein and Whey Proteins in Milk

Casein and whey both stimulate growth hormone production in calves to help them develop normally. These same proteins also promote the release of the human hormone IGF-1 when we drink milk. Comparable to insulin, IGF-1 is known to exacerbate acne breakouts by interfering with cell signaling in the endocrine system.

Acne and Lactose Intolerance

Milk, yogurt, ice cream, and other dairy products contain lactose, a natural sugar derived from combining galactose and glucose. An enzyme called lactase is needed for humans to break down lactose into galactose and glucose before it can be digested properly. People who do not have enough lactase enzymes in their digestive system may present symptoms of lactose intolerance. 

Since lactose intolerance may cause an imbalance of gut bacteria (dysbiosis), some researchers suggest the interaction of lactose intolerance, dysbiosis, and general inflammation could worsen acne.

High Glycemic Food and Acne

Rich in carbohydrates and sugars, dairy products may cause the body to substantially increase insulin production if a person consumes too much of them. 

High glycemic dairy products include sweetened/fruit yogurts, chocolate milk, buttermilk, and ice cream. Including a lot of high glycemic dairy foods in a diet heavy with snack foods and fast foods may trigger systemic inflammation, leading to acne outbreaks.

Even low glycemic dairy foods like low-fat milk, skim milk, and cheese may irritate the same pathways involved in excessive insulin release and high glycemic dairy foods. 

Pediatric dermatologist Dr. Zaenglein of the Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center believes that acne is "essentially a complex inflammatory disorder" that makes it difficult to determine if removing or including one factor would "make a huge difference."

Insulin-like Growth Factor (IGF-1) and Acne

A hormone that moderates the activity of growth hormone (GH) in the body, IGF-1 assists GH in supporting the normal development of tissues and bones. 

Abnormal IGF-1 levels are implicated in certain rare disorders, such as gigantism, acromegaly, and Laron's Syndrome.

A study investigating associations between acne and IGF-1 found more evidence that diet plays a key role in acne development. 

Consuming too many high glycemic foods increases IGF-1 and serum insulin, which has been shown to correlate with acne severity and frequency of outbreaks. Moreover, clinical research suggests that IGF-1 seems to activate cytokine genes involved in upregulating inflammation that increases sebum production and acne lesions.

Artificial Hormones and Acne

For years, farmers have been giving dairy cows a synthetic growth hormone called recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) to increase milk yields. 

While safe for consumption by humans, rBGH increases cow milk production by raising levels of IGF-1 in the cow's body. Consequently, rBGH-treated dairy cows may produce milk with more IGF-1 than untreated dairy cows.

A few studies indicate that people who drink milk regularly may have 10 percent more IGF-1 in their blood than people who drink no milk. However, other studies have found that people who drink soy milk regularly have higher levels of IGF-1 in their blood than people who do not drink soy milk. 

Also, recent studies have found no indication that higher than normal IGF-1 puts someone at risk for cancer.

Is Milk Really Causing Acne?

Since the late 1970s, milk consumption in the U.S. has declined by almost 50 percent. Over 2500 dairy farms closed down in 2018, 2019, and 2020 due to consumers no longer purchasing what was once the obligatory two or three gallons of milk per week.

However, the consumption of dairy products like yogurt and cheese hasn't declined as much as fluid milk.

Instead of cow's milk, people are drinking milk alternatives--coconut, almond, soy, etc--and reducing their intake of boxed cereals. Instead of sitting down with a bowl of milk and cereal, children and adults are opting for on-the-go foods like protein, granola, and energy bars.

With the rise of diagnoses involving protein allergies, lactose intolerance, and milk enzymes that may be responsible for numerous inflammatory conditions, people just aren't drinking milk as much anymore. But that doesn't mean milk isn't good for you!

Dairy products contain rich amounts of vitamin B12, a nutrient vital to your overall well-being and health. Research shows that consuming enough dairy products to maintain adequate levels of B12 in the body:

  • May prevent dementia in older individuals by reducing levels of homocysteine, an amino acid implicated in the development of cognitive decline.
  • Improves nervous system functioning by enhancing the growth of red blood cells to help prevent certain types of anemia.
  • Increases energy, helps regulate mood, and may help reduce or prevent constipation

What About Lactose Intolerance?

Only people born with lactose intolerance genes experience lactose intolerance, sometimes beginning in infancy. 

However, the ability to digest lactose decreases as we age. 

Symptoms of lactose intolerance are often temporary and easily eliminated by treating whatever is causing a lack of lactase production in the intestines. In fact, the majority of people who self-diagnose themselves with lactose intolerance are actually suffering another gastrointestinal disorder that has nothing to do with dairy or variations of dairy products!

Other Foods Known to Worsen Acne

A 2020 study examined the dietary habits of over 24,000 adults who currently had acne, suffered from acne in the past, or never had acne.  The results indicated a clear correlation between having acne and regular consumption of the following:

  • Foods high in fat (whole milk, beef, coconut oil)
  • Sugary and processed foods (bakery items, hot dogs/bologna, frozen foods containing large amounts of sodium)

Participants in the study who had acne indicated they had a much higher intake of these acne-causing foods than participants who never had acne. In addition, participants experiencing acne outbreaks during the study reported drinking up to five glasses of milk the day prior to taking the survey.

While sorting out the cause of your acne can be daunting, and it can be tempting to pin the blame on one source, acne is often multifactorial. For most people, a quality skincare routine and the right formulations can clear up acne and fight blemishes before they even begin. 

At Nava MD, our dermatologists help men and women get custom prescription formulations for acne treatment, including tried-and-true ingredients like tretinoin, niacinamide, and clinamycin, among others. 

Get started with your own custom plan today, with ongoing access to your clinician any time and your treatment shipped right to your door. Click here to learn more.

 

References

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4106357/

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29778512/

https://www.karger.com/Article/Abstract/325580

https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/02/well/eat/dairy-acne.html

https://medlineplus.gov/lab-tests/igf-1-insulin-like-growth-factor-1-test/

https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/recombinant-bovine-growth-hormone.html

https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2017/05/16/528460207/why-are-americans-drinking-less-cows-milk-its-appeal-has-curdled

https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/does-diet-really-matter-when-it-comes-to-adult-acne-2020081920726

https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminB12-HealthProfessional/