Milk and Acne: Does Milk Cause Acne?
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.
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, 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. I’m not saying it’s a good idea to go cold turkey on all dairy. Try this: gradually cut out milk and dairy products over a few weeks, and maintain this dairy-free diet for at least 90 days to see if it makes difference for your skin. I’m confident it will, and that you will love the improvement so much that you’ll never want to consume dairy again! (In fact, chances are you’ll start seeing improvement in a week or less! Usually, if I eat some dairy and break out, my skin clears up again in about a week after I stop eating dairy.)
Start with breakfast. Cut out dairy products from your morning routine, and eat eggs and bacon instead, or whatever else you’d like that doesn’t include dairy. Do that for a week. The following week, cut out dairy from your lunch as well. The third week, do dinner. This is a good way to ease into things. Going cold turkey on dairy can be tough, as it’s so dang tasty! (Dairy is also physically addictive, as it contains opioid peptides that mimic the action of opium. )
There’s a slight bit of good news if you really can’t live without dairy: you can eat butter and ghee (clarified butter used in Indian cooking). Even though these two dairy products come from milk, they are mostly just the fat that is taken from milk. Most of the IGF-1, hormones, and other acne-promoting substances in milk discussed above have been filtered out of butter and ghee in the butter-making process. You can safely consume these without worrying about them aggravating your acne.
What About Organic Milk or Hormone-Free Milk?
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, sorry, organic milk and hormone-free milk are not much better for your skin!
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 90 days of going dairy-free, and once your acne situation is well-controlled). Now, it’s not 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. Why? 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 still tends to 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. You might find that you can tolerate raw goat milk, for example, without getting acne, but I strongly suggest you cut out dairy for at least two weeks, ideally 90 days (to allow time for all your clogged pores to un-clog themselves), before you start experimenting with things like raw goat milk, raw cow yogurt, etc.
What About Yogurt? Aren’t The Probiotics Good For Me?
Probiotics are indeed good for you, but yogurt is not the ideal way to get them! Yogurt has some of the IGF-1 removed through the fermentation process, but not entirely, and it still contains natural milk hormones and proteins that tend to cause acne. (Update: extremely acidic, sour yogurt can have significantly reduced amounts of IGF-1, but most store-bought yogurt has a pH of around 4.8, which isn’t low enough to denature the IGF-1 at all. )
If you’re looking to rebuild your digestive flora, a better idea is to take a probiotic supplement. One of the most effective ones I’ve found is called Dr. Ohhira’s, an extremely potent Japanese formulation. Your typical budget probiotic will not perform nearly as well in recolonizing your digestive tract with the proper bacteria. It’s worth going for the good stuff!
It’s probably not necessary to take a probiotic regularly. Once you get your digestive flora back in balance, it should sustain itself naturally provided you’re eating healthy food and not a lot of processed stuff. If you’ve used antibiotics recently, I’d suggest taking a high-strength probiotic like Dr. Ohhira’s for 30-60 days.
What About Buttermilk, Or [Insert Type of Dairy Here]?
No go, sorry! All dairy products (except ghee) contain suspect milk proteins and hormones that tend to cause acne for all the reasons listed above. Here’s a list I’m going to add to over time with dairy products that should generally be avoided (unless you’re deliberately testing on yourself):
- Cream cheese
- Skim milk
- Organic milk
- Pasture-raised milk
- Raw milk
- Goat milk
- Goat yogurt
- Goat cheese
- Sheep cheese
- Powdered milk
- Condensed milk
Just because X form of dairy isn’t on this list does not mean it’s okay for your skin! Leave me a comment below if you’re really not sure about a certain type of dairy.
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
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, and cottonseed oil. These oils contain high amounts of inflammatory omega-6 fats. Olive oil, on the other hand, is fantastic! Just don't cook with it, as it's unstable to heat and forms skin-damaging free radicals. Other good fats to use for clear skin are pasture butter, ghee, coconut oil, and animal 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 – my current morning green smoothie is about 6oz. of this coconut cream, 3-4 leaves of kale, a little water, and some raspberries or blueberries. It’s been an amazing addition to my typical breakfast of bacon and poached pasture-raised eggs.
But Cereal’s No Good Without Milk…
You’re absolutely right! The alternatives to milk, like almond milk and coconut milk, really aren’t as good, and eating cereal becomes a lot less enjoyable without real milk. I’m going to propose something drastic: if you’re quitting milk, you might as well quit cereal and kill two acne-causing birds with one stone (excuse the violent phrase).
The main thing is that cereal can destroy your gut, especially if you’re one of the 70% of people that are probably sensitive to gluten. That opens the floodgates for systemic inflammation (redness/swelling of acne), food allergies, and majorly worsened acne. Even gluten-free cereal tends to be loaded with sugar and/or baked in some kind of vegetable oil, which leads to lipid peroxidation. Peroxidized lipids are BAD. They can directly damage your skin’s cell membranes, and if your immune system is already compromised from eating gluten and processed foods, you can’t really neutralize the peroxidized lipids as well, so they wreak havoc. I’m going to write a post soon about cereal and/or gluten, and I’ll link it here.
The best thing you can do, cereal-wise, is to stop eating it altogether. I ate cereal + milk for breakfast every morning for close to 15 years, but now I know that it gives me acne, taxes my immune system, and drains my energy, so I’ve switched to pasture-raised eggs, bacon, and green smoothies for breakfast. Give it a try – your skin will thank you!
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 (used by plants for defense against getting eaten before they flower and reproduce). Tempeh is much better in this regard, as the phytic acid is broken down by the fermentation process. By some accounts having around half the phytic acid.
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.
What About Eggs? Are They Dairy?
Eggs are fantastic! 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.
Poaching or soft-boiling are you best bets for healthy eggs. Sunnyside up is a solid method. I strongly advise against scrambling your eggs, though (I used to do this all the time). When you scramble an egg, you oxidize the cholesterol in the yolk, turning an otherwise healthy nutrient (cholesterol) into a dangerous substance (oxidized cholesterol), which tends to take up residence in your arteries. Yikes.
The healthiest way to cook an egg is to keep the yolk intact and runny – poaching is definitely my method of choice. Give it a shot if you haven’t yet!
- 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 cutting out processed milk and dairy products from your diet for 90 days. It’s one of 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.
- The minimum I recommend, if you’re really addicted to dairy, is to cut out dairy 100% for two whole weeks, then re-introduce it and see what it does to your skin. If you break out, you’ll have more evidence and stronger desire to quit dairy long-term. (You may have to repeat this process a few times – it took me many cycles of this before I was able to quit dairy 100%!)
- You can still eat butter and ghee, as they don’t contain much, if any, of the IGF-1 and insulin-spiking factors that cause acne. (Unless you’re really sensitive to dairy, in which case I’d quit butter, too, since it contains a small amount of milk solids, and just use ghee.)
- Watch out for hidden dairy ingredients. Read ingredients labels before you buy packaged food, and ask at restaurants for dairy-free options.
Take the Next Step
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.
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- 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 ^
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- 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 ^
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soy_milk ^