Does Dairy Cause Acne?
Acne is one of the most common skin conditions worldwide, affecting around 85% of people at some point between the ages of 12 and 24. But acne doesn't only affect teenagers - it can continue into adulthood too.
- The Suspected Link Between Dairy and Acne
- Key Studies on Dairy and Acne
- Dairy's Effects on Hormones
- Dairy, Inflammation, Insulin, and Acne
- Tips for Modifying Dairy Intake for Clear Skin
- The Bottom Line: How Strong Is the Dairy-Acne Link?
- Does Dairy Cause Acne? A FAQ on the Evidence
Frequently Asked Questions
- Why do people think dairy causes acne?
- What does the research say about dairy and acne?
- How exactly does dairy promote acne?
- Is all dairy equally bad for acne?
- Should you cut out dairy completely if you have acne?
- What should you do if dairy seems to be worsening your acne?
- Can dairy ever improve acne?
- What should you eat instead if removing dairy?
With so many people affected by acne, it's no wonder tons of myths surround its causes. Dairy is one food that often gets blamed for acne breakouts. But is eliminating dairy really the cure for clear skin?
In this evidence-based guide, we'll dig into the science and research to answer:
Does dairy cause acne?
- The proposed link between dairy and acne
- Key studies on dairy and acne
- Dairy and hormonal effects
- Inflammation, insulin, and acne
- Tips for modifying dairy intake for clear skin
By the end of this guide, you'll understand the real impact of dairy on acne - if any - according to the research.
Let's start by understanding why dairy is believed to cause acne in the first place.
The Suspected Link Between Dairy and Acne
So how did dairy get accused of causing zits? There are a few hypothesized mechanisms:
Dairy affects hormones. Milk naturally contains hormones like insulin growth factor 1 (IGF-1), as well as androgens and progesterone. Some suspect the hormones in dairy products may promote acne.
Dairy spikes blood sugar. The carbohydrates and sugars in dairy raise blood glucose levels, which can worsen acne.
Dairy causes inflammation. The amino acid content of dairy may stimulate inflammation, which is linked to acne development.
Milk contains acne-causing antibiotics. Some believe traces of antibiotics given to dairy cows promote antibiotic resistance and gut imbalance, contributing to acne.
With so many plausible connections, it's easy to pin acne on dairy. But what does the research actually say?
Key Studies on Dairy and Acne
Numerous studies have investigated the relationship between dairy food intake and acne. Let's review some of the most important evidence.
Some of the first studies on dairy and acne were large observational studies. These analyzed acne prevalence and severity among people with different diets.
In one study of 47,355 women, those who consumed more low-fat and skim milk as teenagers had higher acne rates as adults. Whole milk intake wasn't linked to adult acne prevalence.
Another large study in Iranian adolescents and adults found those with acne drank more milk. Total dairy intake didn't differ between the acne and control groups.
While these observational studies suggest a possible link, they can't prove cause and effect. More rigorous clinical studies were needed.
Researchers have conducted clinical trials to directly test whether restricting dairy improves acne.
In one study, participants were randomized to eliminate dairy for one week or make no dietary changes. After just 7 days, the dairy-free group experienced significant acne improvement compared to no change in the control group.
Another study had subjects follow a low glycemic load diet restricting milk and high-glycemic foods or their regular diet. The low glycemic load group had a greater acne reduction after 12 weeks.
Overall, multiple studies demonstrate improved acne after reducing dairy intake:
- A meta-analysis of 14 studies found dairy restriction significantly improved acne, especially in severe cases.
- Multiple systematic reviews concluded limited dairy intake is associated with acne improvement.
- Another meta-analysis reported dairy restriction provided moderate acne improvement compared to control groups.
This solid body of evidence indicates dairy limitation helps reduce acne for many people. But how? Let's explore the hormonal and inflammatory impacts next.
Dairy's Effects on Hormones
As we discussed earlier, dairy contains hormones that may theoretically aggravate acne. But does the science back this up?
Most studies find no significant changes in hormone levels when restricting dairy. In the elimination diet study, there were no differences in testosterone, IGF-1, or insulin between the dairy-free and control groups.
However, one study did find lower levels of IGF-1 and insulin after 12 weeks of a low glycemic load diet limiting milk.
Dairy may contribute to hormonal acne for some, but the evidence is mixed overall. For most people, it likely plays a bigger role in triggering inflammation.
Dairy, Inflammation, Insulin, and Acne
Growing research implicates chronic inflammation in acne development. Key markers of inflammation are elevated in acne-prone skin.
So how does dairy promote inflammation?
As we touched on earlier, dairy increases blood sugar and insulin levels. Excess insulin can trigger inflammation through complex cellular pathways.
Dairy proteins also contain amino acids like leucine, glutamine, and arginine that activate mTORC1 - a protein complex regulating inflammation.
One study found just 2 weeks of a milk-free diet decreased inflammation markers like hsCRP. Dairy elimination also lowers oxidative stress, another instigator of acne.
By limiting dairy, you avoid inflammatory spikes in blood sugar, insulin, and mTORC1. This helps prevent inflammatory acne lesions.
Tips for Modifying Dairy Intake for Clear Skin
The research makes a compelling case that dairy restriction can improve acne, primarily by reducing inflammation.
But you may not need to eliminate dairy completely. Here are some tips for modifying your intake:
- Limit milk. Since skim and low-fat milk are most strongly linked to acne, minimize regular milk intake.
- Enjoy yogurt and cheese. Fermented dairy like yogurt and aged, hard cheeses are lower in sugars. Stick with plain, unsweetened varieties.
- Watch portion sizes. Even if choosing gentler dairy options, small to moderate amounts may be best for acne-prone skin.
- Consider probiotic supplements. If you heavily restrict/eliminate dairy, probiotic supplements can help maintain gut health.
- Reintroduce dairy wisely. After a dairy elimination trial, slowly reintroduce to find your tolerance threshold without flare-ups.
As with any dietary change, speak with your doctor or dermatologist first if considering dairy restriction for acne. Track your skin changes and any difficulties with dietary restrictions.
The Bottom Line: How Strong Is the Dairy-Acne Link?
So back to our original question:
Does dairy cause acne?
While research cannot definitively prove dairy causes acne, the balance of evidence suggests it contributes to breakouts for many people.
Multiple studies demonstrate low or no dairy intake improves acne, especially severe cases. Dairy most likely promotes acne by increasing blood sugar, insulin, and inflammation.
However, dairy doesn't seem to worsen acne for everyone. The relationship is likely dependent on individual factors like:
- How prone your skin is to inflammation
- Presence of food sensitivities/intolerances
- Your gut health and microbiome
- Your usual dairy intake amount and type
For those struggling with inflammatory and cystic acne that's unresponsive to standard care, a dairy elimination trial may offer significant improvements in skin clarity.
So while dairy isn't the cause of acne itself, limiting intake - especially of milk - may be an effective strategy if you find it triggers breakouts. But is dairy restriction worth it for your blemish-prone skin?
I hope this evidence-based guide provided a helpful starting point for deciding whether to reduce or remove dairy from your diet to improve acne.
As always, work closely with your healthcare providers to determine the best dietary and lifestyle changes for your skin goals. With some trial and error, you can pinpoint if and how adjusting your dairy intake affects your acne.
Does Dairy Cause Acne? A FAQ on the Evidence
Acne is a widespread skin condition that nearly everyone deals with at some point. With so many affected by acne, it's understandable people want to figure out what causes breakouts.
Dairy is one food that often gets blamed as an acne culprit. But what does the research actually say about dairy's effects on skin?
Below we've compiled a FAQ on the evidence surrounding the dairy-acne relationship. Read on to get science-backed answers to common questions.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why do people think dairy causes acne?
There are a few reasons dairy gets accused of triggering breakouts:
- Milk contains hormones like insulin growth factor 1 (IGF-1), androgens, estrogen, and progesterone that may promote acne.
- Dairy spikes blood sugar and insulin, which can worsen acne.
- The amino acid content may stimulate inflammatory pathways linked to acne.
- Antibiotics given to dairy cows may contribute to acne-causing bacterial imbalance.
So in theory, dairy can influence several factors—hormones, inflammation, and gut health—believed to impact acne. But is the theory backed by robust evidence?
What does the research say about dairy and acne?
Overall, a growing body of research suggests dairy intake is linked to acne prevalence and severity. However, the evidence is mixed.
Early observational studies found associations between milk consumption and acne. But due to limitations, they couldn't prove cause and effect.
More recently, numerous clinical trials have tested dairy elimination diets. These studies provide stronger evidence of a causal relationship between dairy and acne:
- Multiple studies found significant acne improvement after following dairy-free diets for one week to 12 weeks.
- Systematic reviews and meta-analyses consistently conclude dairy restriction helps improve acne, especially severe cases unresponsive to standard acne treatment.
However, a few clinical trials found no significant difference in acne between high and low dairy diets.
So in summary, most but not all studies indicate dairy limitation benefits acne-prone skin.
How exactly does dairy promote acne?
It's unlikely dairy causes acne singlehandedly. The most supported theory is dairy triggers inflammatory pathways that worsen breakouts.
Specifically, dairy raises blood sugar, insulin, and insulin growth factor 1 (IGF-1). Excess insulin boosts inflammatory activity and oversecretion of skin oils—both acne contributors.
Certain dairy proteins also activate inflammatory signaling through mTORC1 pathways. Multiple studies found dairy restriction decreases systemic and skin inflammation.
While dairy may affect hormones, most studies don't find significant hormonal changes from limiting dairy alone. For some individuals, dairy may play a minor hormonal role as well.
Is all dairy equally bad for acne?
No, some dairy products appear more acne-promoting than others. Most research implicates milk as the biggest offender:
- Higher intakes of low-fat and skim milk are associated with more adult acne.
- Whole milk isn't linked to increased acne prevalence.
- Few studies analyze yogurt or cheese specifically. As fermented products, they may be less inflammatory.
Since milk spikes blood sugar more dramatically than other dairy foods, it likely poses the biggest risk for inflammatory, hormonal acne.
Should you cut out dairy completely if you have acne?
You don't necessarily need to quit dairy 100% if you have acne-prone skin. Here are some tips on modifying intake appropriately:
- Focus on reducing milk intake, since it's most linked to acne.
- Stick to gentler fermented dairy like yogurt and aged cheeses.
- Watch portion sizes, even with less inflammatory dairy choices.
- Try probiotic supplements if heavily restricting dairy.
- Slowly reintroduce dairy to find your tolerance level.
Work with your dermatologist or dietitian to decide if dairy restriction may improve your acne. They can help monitor any dietary changes.
What should you do if dairy seems to be worsening your acne?
If you suspect dairy may be contributing to your breakouts, try eliminating it for 2-6 weeks under medical supervision.
Pay attention to changes in your skin and document with photos. Reintroduce dairy slowly while tracking flare-ups.
Discuss other diet and lifestyle modifications with your healthcare providers too. Dairy limitation works best alongside overall anti-inflammatory habits.
Can dairy ever improve acne?
While dairy reduction benefits many with acne, not everyone sees clearer skin after quitting dairy.
In some cases, dairy may still be tolerated fine or even helpful. For example, yogurt and cheese provide probiotics that support gut and skin health.
The impact likely depends on the individual. If dairy isn't a problem food for you, it could be safely kept in your diet or even provide benefits.
What should you eat instead if removing dairy?
To replace key nutrients like calcium, protein, and probiotics, emphasize these foods instead of dairy:
- Non-dairy milks (soy, almond, oat, etc.)
- Leafy greens like kale, spinach, and collard greens
- Beans, lentils, tofu, tempeh, edamame
- Nuts and seeds
- Fortified non-dairy yogurt
- Calcium-set tofu
- Canned fish with bones such as sardines
- Fermented, probiotic foods like kimchi, pickles, and natto
Eating more anti-inflammatory foods like fatty fish, fruits, and vegetables may further help improve acne.
Research suggests dairy intake - especially milk - contributes to acne flares in many people prone to breakouts. Try eliminating dairy for a few weeks under medical supervision to see if your skin improves.
However, dairy doesn't worsen acne for everyone. Work with your doctor or dermatologist to figure out if limiting dairy intake could benefit your blemish-prone skin specifically.