Have you heard about this yet?
If you eat milk, cheese, ice cream, or any other kind of dairy, and you have acne, this blog post could be the most important thing you read all week.
In fact – and I’m not exaggerating here – removing milk and dairy products from your diet is probably the absolute, honest-to-goodness most effective thing you can do to clear up your skin.
“Hold on a minute!” you might ask.
Aren’t milk and other dairy products good for the body, providing essential vitamins and minerals and calcium?
Even the government recommends that we consume low-fat dairy products on a daily basis, right?
Well, without getting into the politics of the powerful dairy lobby and the origin of government nutritional recommendations, the truth is that processed milk and dairy products do more harm than good to your body in general.
And this is especially true for your skin.
Watch this video to see why:
Why is Milk Bad for Your Acne?
Milk causes acne because…
- There is abundance of a hormone called IGF-1 in milk, which is really good for baby cows, but not for you. IGF-1 is a growth hormone. It makes baby cows grow up big and strong, but in humans, it tends to make your acne grow big instead. IGF-1 is one of several factors that cause inflammation in humans, and which eventually lead to acne (and the ugly redness and swelling that makes acne so annoying).
- Milk and dairy products cause an insulin spike in humans that cause the liver to produce even more IGF-1, leading to even more acne.
- Dairy causes your skin to produce excess sebum (oil), leading to – you guessed it! – more clogged pores, more acne, and a breeding ground for P. acnes bacteria, which feed on your sebum and spew out inflammatory by-products.
- Dairy glues together dead skin cells inside your pores, so they can’t exit naturally, leading to clogged pores (and thus more acne).
The milk and acne effect is well documented in the literature. In the last decade or so, a number of studies have found a strong link between the consumption of milk and increased occurrence of acne. For example, one such study found that teenage boys who drank milk broke out more often, and more severely, than those who didn’t drink milk. At least five other studies have confirmed that, in general, the more milk you drink, the worse acne you’ll get.    
So What Should You Do To Get Clearer Skin?
The answer is simple: cut dairy out of your diet. This includes milk, cheese, kefir, yogurt, ice cream, and so on. If it has milk in it, it’s likely to give you acne.
Okay, I know that isn’t easy, especially if you love dairy products and food that includes dairy products (like pizza, or my childhood favorite, toasted sesame bagels with cream cheese).
It’s hard, I know!
I haven’t eaten much dairy for the last 8 years or so, because it makes me break out like there’s no tomorrow. I miss it, but I like how I look with clear skin way better.
The thing is, if you want clear skin, cutting out dairy is one of the most powerful things you can do.
Now, cutting out dairy sure ain’t easy – and you might not have to commit to being dairy-free forever if you want to enjoy clear skin. To help you test whether dairy is a problem for your skin, I’ve got two options for plans to follow.
The Total Elimination Plan
The Total Elimination Plan is the most likely to get you the fastest, best results, so go for this plan if you can swing it. On Total Elimination, you cut out all sources of dairy from your diet for 30 days. You can go cold turkey if you’re feeling like a rock star, or you can gradually reduce your dairy consumption for a week or two before you start counting your 30 days.
After the 30 days is up, you’ll hopefully see some noticeable improvement in your skin! If so, if you want, you can start experimenting at this point with adding back in certain types of high-quality dairy. You might try drinking raw, grass-fed whole milk, or eating some organic kefir, yogurt, butter, or cheese. Now, don’t eat these all at once – you’ll get the best feedback from your skin if you try one thing at a time, and wait a few days in between.
If your skin doesn’t improve, that doesn’t necessarily mean that dairy is safe for your skin. What it definitely means is that there’s something else triggering your acne – maybe something else you’re eating, some nutrients you’re missing, gut dysbiosis, or some lifestyle issue like stress or environmental toxins. For you, we highly recommend checking out our ebook, Clear Skin Forever, if you haven’t already.
The Reduce and Boost Plan
Now, if you’re reeeeally not ready to cut out all sources of dairy, don’t worry. Our second plan, the Reduce and Boost Plan, is easier. If you are doing this plan, you aren’t eliminating all dairy; instead you’re just reducing your dairy intake and boosting the overall quality of the dairy you consume.
So what that looks like is 1) doing your best to avoid dairy when you’re eating out and in processed foods, since these tend to be low-quality dairy, and 2) switching to full-fat, raw, grass-fed dairy products at home if they’re available for sale or via herdshare where you live. If you can’t get the raw stuff, then try whole organic, grass-fed milk, which is available at natural food stores and even a lot of regular grocery stores these days. (More on raw milk in the FAQs below.)
If after a month or so your skin has improved, high-five! You can continue with the changes you made, or if you want to try the Total Elimination Plan to see if you can get even clearer, go for it!
If your skin hasn’t improved after a month, you could try reducing dairy further, or try the Total Elimination Plan. If you can’t reduce further or don’t want to, don’t lose hope! Acne is a complex problem with lots of potential triggers, which can make it hard to pin down, but that also means that there are a lot of other diet and lifestyle changes you can try that may improve your skin drastically! You can get some more ideas from the other articles on our website, or get the master plan for clearing up acne with diet and lifestyle changes in our ebook, Clear Skin Forever.
Are You Physically Addicted To Milk?
Surprising fact: milk contains casomorphin, which is a physiologically addictive substance that essentially does to your brain what morphine and opium do (to a lesser degree).
Casomorphin binds to opioid receptors in your brain and makes you happy, and then your brain gets used to the jolt when you drink milk over and over, and you get unhappy if you try to stop drinking it. (Or eating cheese, or yogurt, or pretty much any other kind of dairy.)
Milk is yummy stuff, but it’s also literally addictive!
That tends to make it seem more tasty than it really is, in my experience.
And the acne trade-off doesn’t seem worth it. The best defense you have against relapsing into dairy-drinking is to just stop for at least two weeks, then drink some milk and see what happens to your skin. After a few times of doing that, I can almost guarantee you’ll be able to get over the addiction!
Watch Out For Hidden Milk Ingredients
Dairy is in everything.
Okay, not everything, but tons of packaged foods and restaurant dishes have hidden dairy.
Read ingredients labels before you buy anything! Case in point, a reader recently discovered that the tomato soup he was eating – which sounds healthy enough – had powdered milk in it (which is actually one of the worst forms of dairy, since it’s so heavily processed).
Other examples: mashed potatoes often have milk in them. Omelets and scrambled eggs, in restaurants, often are “fluffed up” with milk. (And scrambled eggs are bad news anyway because of the oxidized cholesterol – see below.)
The list of hidden milk ingredients is pretty long – anything with a cream sauce, anything that’s creamy (including lots of Indian food), probably has dairy. Just keep a careful eye out, and you’ll learn over time what’s better to avoid.
Frequently Asked Questions
There’s actually no such thing as “hormone-free milk.” What producers really mean by that is that no synthetic hormones were given to the dairy cows. However, cows still pump tons of growth hormones into their milk to make their calves grow big and strong, and these natural hormones (IGF-1, growth hormone) are some of the main reasons that dairy causes acne.
So, while organic milk and hormone-free milk are almost certainly better for your skin than the conventional stuff – and some people do report that just switching to organic milk was enough to cure their mild acne – even organic dairy still causes acne for a lot of people.
What about Raw Milk?
Raw milk, raw yogurt, raw kefir, etc. are much more easily digestible than pasteurized and homogenized dairy, and some people who suffer from acne happily consume raw dairy with no problems.
(I’ve had moderate success with raw milk myself while doing a muscle-building program – I got some acne, but not too bad, and I managed to build quite a lot of muscle.)
For the majority of people, though, raw milk is still likely to cause problems, because it still contains the natural cow hormones that cause acne, and it still spikes your insulin like regular milk does (which leads to inflammation and redness/swelling of acne).
If you want to try raw dairy, I recommend that you try adding it into your diet little by little to see if your body can handle it without causing breakouts (do this after the 30 days of going dairy-free, and once your acne situation is well-controlled).
Now, it’s not always easy to buy raw milk products, as selling raw milk is illegal in most places. For more information on where to find raw milk near you, check out Real Milk’s website.
What About Lactaid or Lactose-Free Milk?
It’s a common belief that lactose-free milk is better for acne in some way, but I’m going to prove to you otherwise.
Lactaid and other “lactose-free” milk is just regular milk with an enzyme called lactase added to pre-digest the lactose for people with lactose intolerance. Otherwise, lactose-free milk is still the same as regular milk.
That makes it a no-go if you’ve got acne.
Because the lactose is typically not what causes acne. (It may cause diarrhea, but not acne!) It’s typically other ingredients found in milk, suach as whey, casein, IGF-1, and growth hormone (GH), that cause acne, not the lactose.
(Geek note: Lactase is an enzyme that breaks down lactose, the primary sugar in milk. Your gut produces lactase when you’re a baby so you can digest your mother’s milk, but a lot of people lose the ability to produce lactase after childhood or once they’re weaned. A lot of people with Northern European ancestry have inherited a gene mutation that allows them to keep producing lactase into adulthood. However, even for these folks, drinking milk is still likely to cause acne, because it’s not the lactose that matters, it’s the other stuff.)
What About Goat Milk and Sheep Milk?
Goat and sheep milk is generally easier to digest, but it can still cause acne.
Goats and sheep, like cows, pump hormones into their milk to help their babies grow. While it’s true that the A2 proteins in goat milk and sheep milk (and yogurt, cheese, etc. derived from goat/sheep milk) are easier to digest than the A1 protein produced by Holstein cows (which produce the majority of U.S. dairy), goat and sheep milk still contains IGF-1 and growth hormone, and still spikes your insulin.
Some people do find that they can tolerate raw goat (or sheep) milk without getting acne. That’s something you could try as part of the Reduce and Boost Plan, or you can also experiment with it when you skin is clear after 30 days on the Total Elimination Plan.
What About Yogurt? Aren't The Probiotics Good For Me?
If you’re looking to rebuild your digestive flora, a better idea is to take a probiotic supplement. One of the highest-quality probiotic supplements currently available is called Prescript Assist*. It’s not cheap, but it’s different from other probiotics in that it’s comprised of soil-based organisms, organisms which are highly represented in a healthy adult’s gut. Other helpful probiotics include strains of L. acidophilus and Bifidobacteria. (Learn more about the link between probiotics and acne here.)
*Note: This is an affiliate link, which means we receive compensation if you make a purchase using this link. Visit our disclaimer page for more information.
Especially if you’ve used antibiotics recently, I’d suggest taking a high-strength probiotic like Prescript Assist for at least 60 days. (Even if you haven’t, it’s probably worth taking some kind of probiotic from time to time unless you’re eating a lot of (non-dairy!) live, fermented foods.)
If you’re doing the Reduce and Boost Plan, you can include some whole (not low-fat or fat-free!), unsweetened, organic yogurt from grass-fed animals in your diet. If you can get or make raw milk yogurt, that’s even better.
What About Buttermilk, Or (Insert Type of Dairy Here)?
The same criteria apply to all forms of dairy. If you’re doing the Total Elimination Plan, if it is derived from the milk of an animal, don’t eat or drink it. If you’re doing the Reduce and Boost Plan, if it’s full-fat, grass-fed, and organic, it’s probably okay to consume in moderation. (Raw is even better.) That includes butter, ghee, buttermilk, cheese, cream cheese, yogurt, and kefir. Always avoid:
- Conventional dairy products
- Skim milk
- 1% milk
- 2% milk
- Powdered milk
- Condensed milk
- Dairy in processed/packaged foods
If you’re really not sure about a certain type of dairy, leave us a comment below.
What About Whey Protein?
Whey protein is definitely a strong acne trigger! See our article here for more info:
What About Eggs? Are They Dairy?
Nope, eggs are not dairy, even though they are essentially baby food (for the growing, unborn chick).
Eggs do not have growth hormones like IGF-1 that are bioactive in humans. Eggs are really a fabulous food, especially farmers’ market, pasture-raised eggs. They’re loaded with choline, lutein, zeaxanthin, B vitamins, cholesterol (which is a good thing – it’s the building block for all hormones in the body, after all), and healthy fats. I eat three eggs, typically, for breakfast.
One caveat – a small percentage of people are sensitive to eggs and find that for them, they do cause acne – so pay attention to your own body’s signals.
Alternatives to Milk for Clear Skin
There are a few great alternatives to milk if you’re still hooked on liquid white stuff. Here we go:
- Unsweetened, organic almond milk
- Unsweetened, organic coconut milk (“So Delicious” or similar brand)
- AROY-D 100% Coconut Cream
- Organic full-fat coconut milk
You have to be a little careful with milk substitutes as they tend to have a bunch of added sugar and sometimes vegetable oil (both of which negatively affect your hormones and can worsen acne).
That’s why I recommend unsweetened almond or coconut milk.
(Note: by “vegetable oil” I mean canola oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, soybean oil, corn oil, and cottonseed oil. These oils are highly processed and/or contain high amounts of inflammatory omega-6 fats.)
You can also make your own nut milks, of course! Almond milk, Brazil nut milk, hazelnut milk – you name it. Google around a bit if you’re curious about this – you’ll find tons of great recipes and how-to’s out there. That way, you know you’re getting just pure, healthy nuts and no funny stuff added.
My personal favorite these days is AROY-D 100% Coconut Cream*. It’s prized by Thai master chefs (so I’ve read) as the best-tasting coconut milk / coconut cream around. It’s incredibly rich and loaded with healthy medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) and stable saturated fats. It mixes great into green smoothies and curries.
*Note: This is an affiliate link, which means we receive compensation if you make a purchase using this link. Visit our disclaimer page for more information.
Do Not Drink Soy Milk!
Soy milk is made from processed soybeans, which can have estrogen-mimicking effects on the body. Any food that could potentially disturb your hormones in this way is something you’ll want to avoid as you’re going toward clear skin.
Furthermore, soy contains large amounts of omega-6 fats, which cause inflammation and redness/swelling of acne unless balanced out by a healthy amount of omega-3 fats (rare in most modern diets).
Soy is also linked to increased rate of birth defects, increased chance of developing Alzheimer’s later in life, and is very often genetically modified (unless organic or otherwise stated). The health effects of genetically modified foods are a hotly debated issue, but why play guinea pig on yourself when genetically modified foods are so new to our bodies?
Finally, the minerals found in soymilk are basically useless to humans, because they’re bound up by phytic acid (which is used by plants to defend against getting eaten before they flower and reproduce).
- Dairy is one of the worst acne triggers in the Western diet. It contains the growth hormone IGF-1 and it spikes your insulin dramatically, leading to inflammation, redness, swelling, clogged pores, and acne.
- Try either the Total Elimination Plan (avoiding all dairy) or the Reduce and Boost Plan (reducing dairy consumption and boosting the quality of consumed dairy) for 30 days. These are among the most powerful things you can do to start clearing up your skin.
- Dairy is chemically addictive (like opium and morphine, but to a lesser degree), so quitting dairy can be tough.
- Watch out for hidden dairy ingredients. Read ingredients labels before you buy packaged food, and ask at restaurants for dairy-free options.
- Quitting dairy is only one part of a holistic diet- and lifestyle-based treatment for acne.
- Most people also need to fix the other diet- and lifestyle-based root causes of acne before they’re totally clear (and that’s what our book is all about!).
While dairy is one of the worst acne triggers out there, there’s even more you can do to kickstart your journey to clear skin.
If you’d like to be walked through the whole process of tweaking your diet for clear skin, I’ve written an ebook that does just that. It’s called “Clear Skin Forever” (surprise, surprise!).
For this complete guide to taking an all-natural, diet-based approach to getting rid of acne and having clear skin for life (no kidding!), go here.
- Milk consumption and acne in teenaged boys. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. 2008 May;58(5):787-93. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18194824 ^
- Family history, body mass index, selected dietary factors, menstrual history, and risk of moderate to severe acne in adolescents and young adults. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. 2012 Dec;67(6):1129-35. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?term=22386050 ^
- High glycemic load diet, milk and ice cream consumption are related to acne vulgaris in Malaysian young adults: a case control study. BMC Dermatology. 2012 Aug 16;12:13. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22898209 ^
- Role of insulin, insulin-like growth factor-1, hyperglycaemic food and milk consumption in the pathogenesis of acne vulgaris. Experimental Dermatology, 18: 833–841. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19709092 ^
- Milk consumption: aggravating factor of acne and promoter of chronic diseases of Western societies. J Dtsch Dermatol Ges. 2009 Apr;7(4):364-70. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19243483 ^
- High school dietary dairy intake and teenage acne. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. 2005 Feb;52(2):207-14. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15692464 ^
- Opioid peptides encrypted in intact milk protein sequences. British Journal of Nutrition / Volume 84 / Supplement S1 / November 2000, pp 27-31. http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=886780 ^
- Real Milk Finder. http://www.realmilk.com/real-milk-finder/ ^
- Are All Yogurts Created Equal? ^
- The Effects of Dairy Processes and Storage on Insulin-Like Growth Factor-I (IGF-I) Content in Milk and in Model IGF-I–Fortified Dairy Products. ^
- http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2004/04/21/soy-health.aspx ^