"The link between dairy and acne is well-known, but not completely understood," says board-certified dermatologist Rachel Nazarian, MD, FAAD. The dairy-acne question has what researchers call a correlation versus causation issue. Meaning, docs know that there's some relationship between dairy and acne, but they don't know exactly how that relationship functions, or if it should even be of concern to those who would like to say goodbye to their acne.
Take, for example, one study conducted one 2005 study published The Journal of the Academy of Dermatology, which found that women who drank two or more glasses of skim milk each day were 44 percent more likely to experience acne than the other study participants who drank other types of milk.
"The link between dairy and acne is well known, but not completely understood." —Rachel Nazarian, MD, FAAD
This result could be due to the fact that the natural growth hormones found in milk can affect your hormones and, by extension, your skin. "The connection is not clear cut," says Dr. Nazarian. "We see more of a relationship with skim milk, rather than whole milk, suggesting that the processing of the milk may alter some of the growth hormones as well." It's also worth noting that this study relied on folks recalling their milk consumption and acne during high school—and memory can, as many of us know, be flawed (especially when it comes to any 10th grade cafeteria experience, just saying).
Researchers have other theories about how dairy affects the skin. "There is some evidence that some compounds in milk and milk products can affect blood sugar levels and can turn up sebum production, both of which aren’t great for those who are acne prone," says registered dietitian Mary Kate Keyes, RDN, director of nutrition and wellness for MindFirst Health and Fitness. This, too, isn't carved into the scientific ledger just yet.
You may be thinking, "Wow, this article has talked about milk a lot. What about other dairy products?" Totally fair! We've been a little quiet about that so far because, per the American Academy of Dermatology Association, research hasn't yet discovered a correlation between other dairy products (like cheese and butter) and breakouts.
Again, not to sound like a broken record, but a lot of research still needs to be done on the dairy-acne connection. And thus, there's no need to your friend/in-law/accountant at their word when they tell you to "cut dairy."
What experts say about cutting dairy out of your diet to combat acne
Look, it's totally understandable if you want to pull out all the stops in the search of an acne-free complexion, but it's really best to talk to a derm and/or dietitian before deciding that's the right course for you. Everyone's skin is different, and a trained expert will help you map the best course towards clear skin (if that's what you desire).
In general, Dr. Nazarian says she doesn't recommend nixing an entire category of food unless the results will be significant and noticeable. And hey, that just isn't the case with dairy yet. "Some dietary connections are more direct, such as foods with high glycemic index, because we know that they quickly increase blood sugar levels and can rev-up oil production from the oil glands and trigger acne," says Dr. Nazarian.
Keyes is open to her patients opting out of milk and other forms of dairy if they wish, but with an important caveat: When you're going to replace your go-to cow's milk, be careful of what kind of alt-milk you're pouring in your coffee. "Some milk substitutes can be a great way to get calcium and protein but some, like sweetened almond milk, are really just sweetened, calcium-fortified water," she says. Instead, opt for something like soy or pea milk that's lower in sugar and higher in plant-based protein.
TL; DR: Much of what we know about how your diet affects your body's largest organ (your skin) is still operating in that frustrating gray area. So while I wish banishing acne was as simple as pointing at a glass of cow's milk and yelling, "You, sir, are found guilty of skin treason!," the science just isn't there yet.
So, as always, do what's right for you and consult a doc if that's an option for you.
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