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Two women examining a carton of milk, wondering if milk or dairy causes acne.

December 7, 2022 • 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. And while these foods aren’t great for your skin, we do know that some foods are beneficial.

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 and acne, it’s a bit complicated. You may have grown up being encouraged to eat dairy, so it can’t really be bad for your skin health, right?

If you’ve been having trouble with your skin, Maple can help. Maple is a virtual care platform with Canadian-licensed doctors and specialists. Instead of waiting months to see a dermatologist, you can see one within hours from the comfort of your home who can provide acne medication and treatment for many different skin conditions. You can also see a skincare specialist to help improve your skin’s overall health.

Here are a few theories about dairy’s influence on acne, and if changing your diet to help reduce acne is worth it.

How does acne start?

All skin types naturally produce oil. The oil is called sebum, which comes from the sebaceous gland. This is a small, oil-producing gland that upholds your skin’s moisture barrier. When it comes to sebum-producing hormones, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. Overactive sebaceous glands create oily skin. When that oil mixes with bacteria and dead skin cells, pores clog and pimples form.

On top of that, 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.

Androgens are a hormone group that affects your skin’s sebum production. Testosterone is an androgen, and it’s found in all types of cow’s milk. This is one of the hypothesized connections between dairy and acne breakouts and why dairy can contribute to hormonal acne.

This theory suggests that if you eat dairy frequently, the testosterone you’re ingesting could send your sebum production into overdrive, creating excess oil which is the perfect condition for acne to spread easily.

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.

In Canada, however, artificial growth hormones aren’t approved for use in Canadian dairy farms. But depending on farming practices outside of Canada, mother cows are given more growth hormones that stimulate their milk production. So if you’re drinking milk from cows that are given these growth hormones, no matter the amount of milk you consume, 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.

Not all dairy is created equal

One study on subjects between the ages of seven and 30 showed that regardless of how much dairy participants consumed, their likelihood of acne always increased. This was especially true in subjects that drank one glass of milk or more per day. If you have acne-prone skin and are 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 dairy ranks on the glycemic index. The glycemic index ranges from one 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. Your body produces insulin to bring its blood glucose level back to normal. Insulin is another androgen hormone.
Just like testosterone, a sudden surge in insulin increases your skin’s oil production. That’s why it’s thought that a high glycemic diet can contribute to acne.

Nonfat milk and skim milk rank above full-fat milk on the glycemic index. So if you’re eating and drinking high glycemic foods and beverages daily like milk, 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 to prevent acne. 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.

Best milk alternatives for acne-prone skin

You don’t necessarily need to cut out dairy to prevent acne-prone skin entirely. If you love cow’s milk and can’t bear the thought of parting with it, opting for organic or small-batch is one way to avoid consuming milk from high-production dairy cows that may have been given hormones. It may be trial and error and differ from person to person.

However, there are many great alternatives for milk that don’t come from cows, like oat milk or almond, cashew, or any other nut-based milk. Check the label first though, since many of these can have added sugars which tend to be much higher than regular cow’s milk. Coconut milk is another option — it’s also low in sugar so it won’t make your blood sugar spike and cause acne.

Can you get rid of acne with the right diet?

While there’s no concrete evidence that changing your diet will get rid of your acne, there are studies that show certain changes — like limiting your intake of dairy — can lower your risk of developing acne for some people.

A low-glycemic diet is another option since it can reduce inflammation in the body and help regulate hormones. Most commonly followed by diabetics, this diet uses the glycemic index to measure which foods are less likely to impact your blood sugar levels, zeroing in on high-protein, low-sugar foods such as:

  • Meat
  • Poultry
  • Fish
  • Whole grain breads
  • Steel-cut oats
  • Quinoa
  • Sweet potato
  • Carrots
  • Tomatoes
  • Cucumbers
  • Apples
  • Bananas
  • Berries
  • Oranges
  • Greek yogurt (stick to flavours without added sugar)
  • Cheese
  • Lentils
  • Kidney beans

In addition to any diet you follow, you should drink lots of water each day — aim for six to eight glasses. This won’t magically clear up your skin, but it can help flush out toxins and skin bacteria and contributes to diluting the glucose in your bloodstream.

What can you do if you’re breaking out?

As frustrating as breakouts can be, there are many things you can do if your acne is getting worse. Here are some of your best options.

1. Track your food intake and monitor how your skin reacts. If you break out after eating certain dairy products, sugary, or processed foods, try eliminating them to see if it makes a difference. Keep in mind that you won’t see a change within a day or two — it may even take up to twelve weeks.

2. Manage your stress levels. Studies show stress can make acne worse, so finding coping mechanisms to help keep stress at bay are beneficial. Knowing your limits, paying attention to your body, and taking satisfying timeouts are all good methods.

3. Wash your face daily, but don’t overwash it. Twice a day is more than enough to remove dirt, oil, and bacteria, and make sure you’re using the right type of facewash with ingredients like salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide. Avoid using scrubbers, exfoliators, or alcohol-containing toners that can irritate your skin further.

4. Protect your skin barrier with an oil-free moisturizer. Washing your face and using medications to attack a breakout can dry out your skin, especially in the summer when you’re exposed to the sun.

5. Choose cosmetics that are non-comedogenic or oil-free to help prevent clogging pores. You can also go makeup free for a day to let your skin breathe.

6. Avoid picking or squeezing any spots on your face. When you do pick or squeeze, it introduces more bacteria from your fingers and increases your risk of scarring.

7. Make note of pressure spots, like hats and helmets, cell phones, bra straps, tight clothing, and more. These items can put high pressure on areas of your skin, which can lead to acne for those who are susceptible.

8. See a dermatologist. If nothing you’re doing is working, it’s time to call in the professionals. Dermatologists can assess your situation and treat stubborn acne with prescription medication.

How Maple can help with acne

If you’re dealing with moderate to severe acne, our skincare specialists can help you understand how your diet affects your skin’s health, and how to care for your skin properly. There’s a lot of information out there, but speaking to one can take the guesswork out of planning a healthy skin routine, and they can provide the appropriate skincare recommendations.

You might also find that your over-the-counter acne treatment isn’t cutting it. Maple’s Canadian-licensed dermatologists can treat breakouts from all types of acne by prescribing acne medication online such as isotretinoin (Accutane), azithromycin (Zithromax), or doxycycline (Vibramycin). You’ll be connected with a dermatologist within 24 hours for a personalized treatment plan.

While more research needs to be done before we can say conclusively that you get acne from dairy products, 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, plenty of people consume no dairy at all but still have breakouts. Until more studies are available, enjoying dairy in moderation unless directed otherwise is a safe bet.

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