Dairy: Your Acne’s Best Friend?

dairy and acne


Acne is a nightmare for many teenagers and increasing numbers of adults. But many people don’t understand the dietary links to acne. One of the most commonly ignored links is between acne and dairy products such as milk.

Here, I break down for you exactly what effect dairy has on your skin health, and why you might want to reconsider it.


What is acne?

Acne vulgaris, or simply acne, is a chronic skin disease where the hair follicles on the skin become blocked by dead skin cells and oil, or sebum, and often become infected. Severe acne can often lead to facial scarring.

Because of the impact on physical appearance, it can lead to self-esteem issues, anxiety, depression and even suicidal thoughts, particularly in teenagers. However, adults with acne also have a serious impact on general health and well-being, with acne often being a symptom of underlying issues. Read more about this here.

Why does acne occur?

On a cellular level, acne occurs due to a combination of factors all happening together. Firstly, the skin produces too much oil, or sebum, that pools in the follicle. Then the dead skin cells that usually fall off naturally remain trapped in the follicle, causing a blockage.

An opportunistic bacteria such as P. acnes takes advantage of the plugged up area and infects the skin. Finally, the infection causes local inflammation around the infected area, causing redness and heat.

So why do these processes happen? Generally, it’s to do with hormonal balance.

When there are too many androgens – hormones including testosterone and its varied forms – in the body, excess sebum is produced. Androgen balance, like many hormones, depends on how well your liver is functioning, so is easily affected by diet. Androgens can also be affected by blood sugar levels, with fluctuations causing increased production of testosterone.

There is also a hormone called insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) that is a primary cause in acne. This hormone can also lead to excess sebum production, as well as further throwing out the balance of androgens. IGF-1 is known to be influenced by a number of factors, including nutrition.

In people who are not sensitive to androgens or who have very low levels of IGF-1, acne basically does not occur. So it’s safe to say that these two hormones working together are the reason behind acne.

Although it’s suggested that genetics make up a lot of the reason behind acne and that there aren’t really any links to diet, the truth may be a bit more complex than that. It may be that acne sufferers simply inherit tendencies to deal with diet-related triggers such as these hormones and blood sugar fluctuations less efficiently.

How does dairy affect acne?

Put simply, dairy foods tend to stimulate a much greater fluctuation in blood sugar levels than they should based solely off their carbohydrate content.

This means that instead of a small spike, your blood sugar jumps on a massive rollercoaster every time you consume dairy. This can increase your testosterone levels significantly and contribute to the acne cycle.

Dairy is also thought to directly increase the levels of IGF-1 produced by the liver, which would increase the likelihood of acne significantly.

It’s still debated whether hormones in dairy foods directly impact the hormone levels in our bodies, but even if they don’t add to the overall level, they do lead to higher production.

So essentially, dairy creates the perfect storm of increasing levels of testosterone and IGF-1, priming your skin for acne.

Research is starting to support these links between dairy and acne, with multiple observational studies suggesting a strong association between the two.

A 2008 study looked at the diets of over 4000 boys and found that those who drank the most skim milk had the highest occurrence of acne in the group. Interestingly, the link was not as strong for full-fat milk, which suggests that, in boys, the major issue with dairy consumption is blood sugar related.

A similar 2005 study studied over 6000 girls and found a link between acne occurring and all types of milk. This difference could be due to teenage girls being more sensitive to hormone fluctuations, so even small spikes in blood sugars or small amounts of hormone ingestion could cause skin issues.


How should I eat to control acne?

A nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory diet that supports gut health is your best bet. However, everyone’s ideal diet is a bit different, and it’s important that your diet makes up for any nutrients you were getting from dairy foods.

If you’re serious about reducing the effects of acne, you can make an appointment for a personalized health plan.