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Does dairy really cause acne?

September 3, 2020 • read

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Does dairy really cause acne?

People have wondered for a long time if diet contributes to acne. A lot of research goes into finding an answer. Not long ago, the popular opinion was that acne was caused by eating junk foods like french fries and chocolate bars. Now we know that the link between eating those foods and acne doesn’t hold up scientifically. We do know that some foods are good for your skin. There are healthy fats like the ones found in fish that contribute to skin health. As for which foods lead to breakouts? Doctors and scientists are still narrowing down which foods make acne worse, and how exactly it happens.

That’s why when it comes to dairy, there are no straightforward answers to whether or not it’s bad for your skin. Dairy is an official food group, so it can’t really be bad for your skin’s health, right? Studies show that the answer is different depending on your body’s chemistry, and the sources you get your dairy from. Here are a few theories around dairy’s influence on acne.

How does acne start?

Acne has several root causes. If your parents had acne, you’re at higher risk for having it too. Hormones also play a big role in skin health. Hormonal fluctuations can trigger outbreaks, which is why pimples are common in your teenage years. That said, plenty of adults get acne too. Nearly 20 million people across Canada have acne, and 20-30% are in their 20s or 30s. 

Dairy and hormones

Your skin naturally produces oil. It’s called sebum, and it’s what upholds your skin’s moisture barrier. When it comes to sebum, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. Overactive sebaceous glands, where sebum is produced, create oily skin. When that oil mixes with bacteria and dead skin cells, pores clog and pimples form.

Androgens are a hormone group that affect your skin’s sebum production. Testosterone is an androgen, and it’s found in milk. This is one of the connections between dairy and acne. If you eat dairy frequently, the testosterone you’re ingesting could be sending your sebum production into overdrive. This creates conditions for acne to easily spread. 

Another hormone in milk is the recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBST). Like other mammals, cows produce milk to feed their young. The rBST growth hormone in a female cow’s milk helps her offspring grow quickly in their early years. Depending on farming practices, mother cows are given more growth hormones that stimulate their milk production. So when you drink milk, you’re drinking the growth hormone too.

When growth hormone levels are off balance in your body, the resulting uptick in oil production is bad news for your pores. Drinking organic, small batch, or non-dairy dairy milk is one way to avoid consuming milk from high production dairy cows that may have been given hormones.

Not all dairy is created equal

One study on subjects between age seven and 30 years old showed that regardless of how much dairy participants consumed, their likelihood of having acne always increased. This was especially true in subjects that drank one glass of milk or more per day. If you’re prone to acne and looking for ways to minimize outbreaks, eating less dairy is worth a try. 

The study also found that some dairy products are more likely to contribute to acne breakouts. The difference has to do with how the dairy ranks on the glycemic index. The glycemic index ranges from 1 to 100. It measures how quickly glucose levels in your bloodstream increase after you consume a particular food. Foods that are high in glucose cause a spike in blood glucose levels. To bring its blood glucose level back down to normal, your body produces insulin. Insulin is another androgen hormone. Just like testosterone, a sudden surge in insulin increases your skin’s oil production. That’s how foods with high glucose levels contribute to acne. 

Nonfat milk ranks higher than full fat milk on the glycemic index at 41/100. For perspective, chocolate’s score on the glycemic index is 43. Yogurt scores the same. So if you’re drinking milk every day, especially in combination with carbohydrates like cereal, you’re sending your blood glucose levels for a ride. Sticking to foods lower on the glycemic index helps to keep your body’s oil production under control. 

This doesn’t mean you have to avoid all dairy. Cheese is a tasty dairy product that has a low glycemic index. If you’re unsure, take a look at the nutrition label on your favourite dairy products. The higher the number of carbohydrate grams, the higher the chance that the food will trigger an insulin spike.

The final verdict

While more research needs to be done before we can say conclusively that dairy causes acne, we do have some clues. Because androgens in milk products increase your skin’s oil production, there’s evidence linking dairy to breakouts. Of course, there are plenty of people who consume no dairy at all but still have breakouts. Until more studies are available, enjoying dairy in moderation is a safe bet.

If you’re dealing with acne, our dermatologists can help you understand the way your diet is affecting your skin’s health. There’s a lot of information out there, but speaking to a specialist can take the guesswork out of planning a healthy skin routine. 

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