Whey and Acne: Does Whey Protein Cause Acne?

Whey and Acne: Does Whey Protein Cause Acne?

Whey and acne

Could whey protein be making your acne worse?

So you’re taking whey protein for muscle building. Hey, I get it! I’ve been there.

You’re probably breaking out with some acne, too.

And you’re wondering, “Could whey protein be causing my acne?”

And the answer would be, yes! At least, it’s definitely contributing to your acne, and here’s why.

What is whey protein, anyway?

I’ll keep this short. Whey protein is one of the two main proteins in cow’s milk (the other being casein). Whey protein powder is made from whey, a by-product of cheese making. It’s an almost neon-yellowish liquid that’s strained off in the initial draining of most cheeses.

In other words, whey is dairy, and essentially, that’s why it causes acne and must be avoided.

One secret ingredient in whey that causes breakouts

Whey causes acne for several reasons, and one reason (we think) is because whey contains a hormone called IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor 1). This hormone is meant for baby cows to make them grow big and strong while they’re drinking their mothers’ milk.

Humans also make IGF-1 – you got it in your mother’s milk if you were breastfed, and you get some every time you drink a glass of milk (or a whey protein shake). IGF-1 makes baby cows grow fast, and it also makes us humans build muscle faster, which is one reason why whey is so widely used for muscle building (other than the fact that it makes it easy to down 50 grams of protein at once).

IGF-1 is normally regulated by your body, which has insanely complex systems of checks and balances to make sure your hormones don’t get out of whack (and cause problems like acne). But if you’re straight drinking the stuff, you’re throwing alien IGF-1 into the mix, which screws up your hormones. (And acne is primarily a hormonal disease, despite popular belief to the contrary.)

So there’s a serious problem with getting extra IGF-1 from whey protein.

It tends to cause acne! (Several observational studies on bodybuilders who get acne from whey protein have confirmed this.[1] [2] )

How does IGF-1 from whey cause acne?

Here’s the basics of how IGF-1 from whey triggers your skin to create acne:

  • IGF-1 makes your skin produce excess oil
  • IGF-1 tells your skin cells to multiply too fast (so your pores get clogged more often with dead skin cells)
  • IGF-1 glues dead skin cells together inside your pores before they can escape normally (through a complex signaling mechanism), meaning more clogged pores

In addition to these problems, most whey protein powder has actually been pasteurized twice, which denatures the proteins and forms complex protein + sugar cross links that are very difficult for your body to digest. If you’re also eating gluten (which damages your gut lining and allows food particles to pass through), chances are these large alien molecules are crossing into your bloodstream and wreaking small amounts of inflammatory havoc on your skin (i.e., redness and swelling and acne).

Whey spikes your insulin, worsening acne

It’s no secret that dairy products spike your insulin three to six times as much as they should, judging by their low glycemic index.

The problem with spiking your insulin like this is that it tends to worsen acne, in a similar fashion to IGF-1. The two hormones are closely related and interact with each other in ways that we don’t fully understand – but the most important thing to remember is that whey protein (as protein powder, or in milk / dairy products) triggers this insulin-spiking response in your body, which may be an additional mechanism for how whey contributes to acne.[3]

As you can see, while whey protein is very effective at building muscle, it causes acne for a number of reasons, and is better to avoid if you’re going for clear skin.

Whey protein isolate vs. whey protein concentrate

Whey protein concentrate is worse than whey protein isolate, because it contains more of the intact milk hormones that cause acne.

Whey protein isolate is more intensely processed to get rid of as much of the “non-protein” stuff as possible, but don’t take that as a recommendation to go buy whey protein! It still causes acne.

Other acne-causing ingredients in whey protein powders

In addition to the IGF-1 in all whey protein, most off-the-shelf whey protein powders contain loads of artificial flavorings, sugar, artificial colors, artificial sweeteners, and just basically artificial everything. These ingredients can also cause acne, and create an extra toxin load for your body to deal with.

Yes, it’s true: 100% pure whey protein isolate is not as bad for acne as fancy commercial blends containing the above crappy ingredients, but even 100% whey protein isolate still causes acne, in my personal experience.

What about high-quality whey protein?

I’ve tried grass-fed whey from New Zealand, low-temperature processed whey protein isolate and concentrate, and several other 100% whey protein powders and have always noticed a few pimples. And that’s pretty conclusive evidence to me, considering that the rest of my diet is a completely clear-skin diet (which I show you how to do in my book).

Cut out the whey if you want clear skin!

I’m pretty opinionated on this. If you haven’t read my milk and acne article, read it now. Milk is the #1 worst thing for acne, along with all other forms of dairy – skim milk, yogurt, cream cheese, sour cream, yogurt, you name it (aside from grass-fed butter, which I don’t believe contains enough IGF-1 to cause problems, and which contains beneficial and hard-to-find compounds like CLA, omega-3s, and Vitamin K2). Whey protein is derived from cow’s milk, so if you’re eating whey protein and you’ve got acne, try removing it and see if your skin improves. Mine certainly did!

What about soy protein?

Avoid like the plague!

Seriously, soy has strong estrogenic activity in the body, and that’s not something you want to muck around with if you’re dealing with acne. Soy phytoestrogens fit neatly into your body’s own estrogen receptors, but don’t activate them fully, disrupting the complex ebb and flow and feedback loops of your body’s hormonal system.

I strongly advise you to avoid soy protein.

Alternatives to whey for building muscle (that don’t cause acne)

There are all kinds of other vegan protein powders out there, like hemp protein and pea protein and brown rice protein, but I’m just not a fan. First, they don’t taste very good (chalky, gritty, etc.), and second, I just think getting protein from meat is more complete, more effective, and stimulates your muscle-building hormones in a natural way that doesn’t tend to cause acne.

Eating red meat boosts your testosterone and helps build muscle. It contains heme iron which improves oxygen transport in your body, potentially increasing your maximum force output (and strength). Red meat also contains naturally-occurring creatine, for which aspiring bodybuilders have been paying loads of money for the last several decades. And yes, red meat even contains branched chain amino acids!

Non-red meat like chicken, pork, and fish also supports muscle growth through high-quality, complete proteins, BCAAs, and high mineral content. I’m a huge fan of the Paleo diet, as it’s the only diet I’ve found with two very important characteristics:

  • It cures acne
  • It’s sustainable and nutritionally complete (i.e. long-term healthy, unlike raw food diets, for example)

That’s why I recommend meat as your main source of protein. It’s better for your skin than whey protein, and will support muscle growth as long as you’re eating enough.

Eat this kind of meat whenever possible

Eat grass-fed meat as much as possible.

Avoid factory-farmed meat like the plague. It contains synthetic hormones, heavy metals, PCBs, agricultural pollutants, hormone disruptors (very bad for acne), and low-quality inflammatory fats (omega-6s) which lead to increased inflammation / redness / swelling of acne.

Grass-fed meat contains cancer-protective CLA, anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats, and many other awesomely healthy nutrients that factory farmed meat doesn’t.

Which meat is best for muscle building?

Red meat. Grass-fed. No question about it. It has the most creatine, the most heme iron, the most nitric-oxide boosting abilities, and boosts your testosterone the most (and that’s good for the ladies, too, as women also need testosterone to build muscle, and no, it will not make you look like the Hulk! It will just make you lean, strong, and sexy).

This means grass-fed beef, bison, venison, elk, and all other grass-fed (or wild) animals that produce red meat.

Next best is probably wild-caught fish.

The fattier the better, because the omega-3 fats will help shorten your recovery time after working out.

The next best meat is grass-fed pork.

I mean truly 100% grass-fed pork (not “pastured” pork, which usually means pigs raised on pasture, but fed corn and grains!). Check out pastured pork here: http://www.texasgrassfedbeef.com/id78.htm I have yet to try Slanker’s grass-fed pork, but they say their pigs actually produce red meat, not white meat. Whoa! I have eaten pork from heritage pigs in France that were raised in the woods, and while they were fed some grain, their meat was still incredibly dark and red-meat-like, so I can’t wait to try Slanker’s truly, 100% grass-fed, red-meat pork. It’s pretty affordable, too, compared to grass-fed meat in general, so it’d be a great thing to stock your freezer with.

And last are chicken and turkey.

I’m not saying never eat chicken or turkey, as they’re still much healthier than grains, beans, soy, tofu, gluten, milk, whey, and all other Frankenproteins. But they contain the highest amounts of omega-6 fats, and not enough omega-3s to balance them out. It’s just how the birds grow. If you’ve ever seen chicken schmaltz (chicken fat), you can see it’s much jello-like than, say, bacon fat or beef tallow, because it contains lots more omega-6 fat and not as much saturated fat (which, at the risk of throwing one too many curveballs, is actually healthy for you, as the science is now showing).

But what about my post-workout protein shake?

Don’t sweat it. You don’t need it to gain muscle. Just make sure you eat a meal with protein within 1-2 hours after your workout. A pound of grass-fed ground beef is my favorite post-workout meal. If you’re really going for muscle building, eat a few sweet potatoes along with the beef, pork, chicken, or other meat.

Your gains might be a tad slower without your post-workout shake, and your recovery time a tad longer, but the most important thing to remember is that post-workout shakes give you acne, and so if you want clear skin, I’ve found through years of experimentation that it’s best to be okay with a little bit slower gains. If you try to hack your body with whey protein, you risk getting acne. Play it safe!

Take the long view! Would you rather gain 2 pounds of muscle a week and get loads of acne, or gain 1 pound a week and have clear skin?

If you’re skinny and gaining muscle, you could drink a gallon of milk a day (GOMAD) and cram down 4,000 calories, but you will feel like crap the whole time and your skin will break out badly. (I’ve only managed to do HGOMAD, i.e. half a gallon of milk a day, but I still felt crappy, and it was raw milk to boot!)

Here’s a better solution for gaining muscle without the acne

Here’s a better solution: stick to real, whole Paleo foods, including lots of grass-fed meat, and you will still be able to make rock-solid gains (without gaining fat), and your all-around health and energy and mental clarity/focus will improve, too.

Most importantly, your skin will clear up.

Other calorie-bomb foods for mass gain (that won’t make you break out)

If you’re following a clear-skin-promoting diet (something similar to Paleo, probably), it can be hard to pack in enough calories with just whole foods if you’re not used to it. Staple mass gain foods like bread, oats, peanut butter, and milk (GOMAD) are out the window.

So what’s a guy/gal to do?

Here’s a bunch of ideas.

If you’re into coffee, butter coffee (i.e. Bulletproof coffee) is a great morning calorie bomb. I don’t recommend drinking caffeinated coffee (read my article about that here), but decaf is a pretty safe option. Find some high-quality decaf – from local roasters that roast lightly, or online from Intelligentsia, Blue Bottle, etc. – and add 2-4 TBSP grass-fed unsalted butter, and maybe 1 TBSP of coconut oil if you like the taste, or MCT oil as tolerated (NOW Foods sells a good ‘n cheap one). Blend with a hand blender or regular blender, add cinnamon/cardamom/nutmeg if you dig the spiced/chai flavor, and drink up. 4 TBSP is half a stick of butter, and while that seems ridiculous, that’s a good 400 calories right there! (BTW, be a little careful with the butter if you’re sensitive to dairy. It might be problematic due to potential hormone content, so if you’re on the fence, skip the butter coffee.)

Good calorie bomb staples, to replace oats/butter/etc., are these:

  • white rice
  • potatoes
  • sweet potatoes

White rice and white/red/purple potatoes can be pretty high-glycemic, but if you’re lifting a ton, you’ll probably have pretty good insulin sensitivity and it won’t be as much of an issue. You can blunt the insulin response of these foods with a few tricks. For white rice, add some rice vinegar (plain, not flavored). For potatoes, steam them instead of baking them – that will lower the glycemic index significantly.

Coconut oil should be all over your daily menu. If you ever make smoothies, it’s an easy way to pack an additional 117 calories per TBSP. What I’ve been doing lately (since I’m also on a mass gain program) is making a bunch of white rice, mixing 1-2 TBSP of coconut oil in, adding a sploosh of rice vinegar to blunt the insulin spike, and then topping with a 7.5 ounce can of wild-caught salmon (here’s a good bulk Amazon source I like, or here’s an alternate). That’s ~800 calories right there, and ~45g of protein.

Steaming sweet potatoes is a great option – if you can steam a bunch at once, you can mash it, then mix in several TBSP of coconut oil and a bunch of cinnamon (to blunt the insulin spike), then refrigerate it. It’s a great breakfast addition (or for any meal). And it’s a great carotene-rich calorie bomb.

If you make salads, seriously douse them in olive oil and add tons of avocado on top.

Instead of peanut butter, go for almond butter. It is definitely more expensive, but generally a lot easier on your skin. The best almond butter I’ve ever had, and surprisingly one of the cheapest, is Zinke Orchards creamy almond butter. It’s seriously amazing. I’ve eaten half a jar in one sitting (not recommend unless you love gut pain). That’s another great way to get some extra calories, and a lot easier to eat more of than eating handfuls of almonds.

Organic, nixtamalized corn tortillas are also a decent way to pack in some extra calories. While we generally don’t recommend corn on the CSF diet in our book, it’s a decent option if you need novel ways to pack in calories. “Nixtamalized” means treated with lime (calcium oxide), which removes most of the enzyme inhibitors and phytic acid and makes them easier on your gut. They’re about 50 calories per tortilla, so adding ~4 to a meal will give a nice 200-calorie boost.

Also, you could try working some ground lamb into your diet. It’s generally fattier than most ground beef, hovering around 70% lean. Or just look for fattier grass-fed ground beef, like 70-80%. There’s a HUGE caloric difference between them. To illustrate, this is per 100 grams (a bit less than 1/4 pound):

  • 90% lean ground beef => 176 calories (20g protein)
  • 70% lean ground beef => 332 calories (14g protein)

So making a 1/2 pound patty of 70% ground beef (or lamb), and putting it on a salad topped with 1 TBSP olive oil and 1/2 avocado, would net you 750 + 120 + 160 = 1030 calories. That’s a pretty good mass gain meal right there!

When in doubt, just eat more of everything you are eating. Eat more red meat. Eat more canned fish (but not tuna). Eat more fat (coconut oil, olive oil, etc.). Eat more sweet potatoes, white rice, and white/red/yellow/purple potatoes. It’s tempting to try to find powdered substitutes and other “magic bullet” calorie bomb foods, but your body (and skin) will thank you for sticking to real foods as much as possible, and just eating more of them.

Alternative protein powders

If you really need some powdered protein (and I don’t recommend it, as per the above section!), your best option will probably be egg white protein (provided you don’t have an egg allergy). Egg allergy notwithstanding, I can’t think of any way that egg white protein could cause acne. It doesn’t contain IGF-1, it doesn’t contain human-analog hormones, and AFAIK it doesn’t boost your fasting insulin like whey does.

Yes, egg white protein is considerably more expensive than whey. For example, last time I checked, NOW Foods Pure Egg White Protein was around $15/pound on Amazon, and you can usually get Optimum Whey for around $10/pound, or grass-fed whey from a place like Pure Nutrition. That said, if you’re dealing with acne, the extra cost should not stop you from switching to egg white protein!

Note that egg white protein is naturally pretty salty, so you’ll ideally want to blend it into a smoothie with some other flavorful ingredients – something based on banana, almond butter/cashews, spinach, etc. comes to mind.

Also, if you go for egg white protein, avoid the ones with soy lecithin (e.g. MRM). Go instead for something like NOW Foods Pure Egg White Protein or Paleo Protein Pure.

You could also try sprouted brown rice protein, or an equivalent vegan alternative (e.g. Vega). The protein digestibility scores for these proteins are much lower than egg protein, and you’re getting a bunch of fiber in there, too, so overall it’s way more expensive. You’d be better off just buying and eating real food for protein – pass the meat, please! Canned fish, like salmon or sardines or mackerel (sustainably-harvested, BPA-free can) is a great way to get powerful, packaged doses of protein that will support clear skin rather than work against you (or neutral, in the case of egg white protein).

P.S.: Are you lifting heavy enough to build muscle?

Another important thing to keep in mind is that, to build muscle, you’ve got to lift heavy. Most machines do not allow you to do this properly and safely (contrary to popular belief), and most personal trainers don’t know how to do the most beneficial lifts for muscle growth properly.

The #1 exercise you can do for overall strength and mass development is the squat. The barbell squat, that is. That does not mean 1/2 squats, where you only go down until your thighs are at 45 degrees. That means going at LEAST to parallel with the ground! Make sure your stance is wide, though, because if it isn’t, you risk hurting your knees. Check out Starting Strength – that book is the absolute bible of weightlifting for complete beginners to advanced weightlifters.

There are really only five exercises you need to do to get a complete, whole-body workout that most gym-goers dream of:

  • Squats
  • Bench press
  • Deadlifts
  • Press
  • Power cleans

If you’re not gaining muscle, and you want to, do these five exercises only. Cut out the machines, cut out the Body Pump, cut out the cardio. These five free-weight lifts are the most powerful combination for overall basic strength development and muscle gain – they use many muscle groups at the same time, which produces a more effective growth stimulus as well as making you more functionally strong, because in all real-life weightlifting scenarios (e.g. moving to a new house, hauling stuff, lifting boxes), you’re using many muscle groups at the same time (which curls, for example, do not train you how to do!).

Again, if you’re interested in doing these lifts, I’ll refer you to Starting Strength, the best book there is on weightlifting for muscle + strength gain. (And yes, it’s great for women, too – in fact, many of the explanatory photos in Starting Strength use women as models!).

P.P.S.: One more reason to avoid whey

Whey comes from milk. Milk comes from dairy farms. Dairy farms tend to separate baby calves from their mothers, and feed them with grass or grains instead. That does not make for happy baby cows! This is a generalization – some hip dairy farms allow the calves to suckle from their mothers and just take the leftovers, but for the most part, raising cows for milk does not make for happy cow families. It feels much better to eat grass-fed beef than to eat whey protein or dairy, because most grass-fed beef farmers keep mothers and calves together the whole time, and let the mothers raise their babies on their own milk. I don’t know about you, but I just feel better about that.

Key Takeaways

  • Whey protein contains IGF-1 and other substances that cause acne.
  • Avoid whey protein if you want clear skin (both whey protein concentrate and whey protein isolate).
  • Drop the idea of gaining 2lbs per week – focus on slow, steady gains, which will a) reduce acne potential, and b) give your connective tissue more time to build up so you don’t get a bad injury.
  • For gaining muscle, eat whole Paleo foods instead, including lots of grass-fed meat.
  • Eat a meat-based Paleo meal 1-2 hours after your workout to maximize gains (including 1-2 sweet potatoes if you’re a hardgainer).
  • Lift heavy weights (squat, bench press, deadlift, press, power clean) to make sure you’re actually shocking your body into growing muscle (read Starting Strength for how to lift for better gains).
  • Avoiding whey protein is only one part of a holistic diet- and lifestyle-based treatment for acne.
  • You need to fix your diet and lifestyle to really cure the root causes of acne (that’s what our book is all about!).
Sources (click to expand)

  1. Acne and whey protein supplementation among bodybuilders. Dermatology. 2012;225(3):256-8. doi: 10.1159/000345102. Epub 2012 Dec 13. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23257731 ^
  2. Whey protein precipitating moderate to severe acne flares in 5 teenaged athletes. Cutis. 2012 Aug;90(2):70-2. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22988649 ^
  3. Evidence for acne-promoting effects of milk and other insulinotropic dairy products. Nestle Nutr Workshop Ser Pediatr Program. 2011;67:131-45. doi: 10.1159/000325580. Epub 2011 Feb 16. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21335995 ^

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Comments

  1. Sean says

    Hey Devin,

    I wanted to see if you had any recommendation on healthy food that are highly caloric but won’t contribute to acne problems. I’m a very tall guy, 6’4 and 190 pounds. Trying to put on size and muscle, ideally getting over 200 pounds, but it’s is very difficult to do with the food plan in your book. I have eliminated whey protein and dairy yesterday in hopes it will clear up my skin, and plan to get my protein from more natural sources. I eat peanut butter every day because it is highly caloric, I know this is on the list of foods that cause acne. However, I feel that I need it just to get a decent number of calories in. I workout heavy with the workouts you listed in the article, three times a week, for the past month, before I even saw them in your book. I have seen impressive gains in strength, size, and energy, but I know if I don’t up the amount of food I eat soon, I will hit a wall in these gains soon. Especially since I’m eliminating a lot of the diet I had been using to gain weight. Long story long, can you please provide any recommendations for healthy caloric foods that will help me gain muscle and bulk while continuing to help my skin to clear?

    To give you an idea of foods I eat to pack on size now: I currently, eat a half of a large avocado almost daily. I eat a handful or two of almonds daily. Tablespoon of kerrygold grassed butter in my one cup of coffee a day as well as cooking with butter. As well as at least one peanut butter and jelly a day. With natural jelly, low in sugar and no preservatives…with wheat bread (I know I have to eliminate this one too) Not quite willing to give up coffee just yet. I literally just started your routine yesterday, so any advice on how to continue gaining in size while getting rid of my acne so I can get a jump start would be greatly appreciated! I’m excited to see the results down the road,

    Thanks,

    Sean

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Sean! You may eventually hit a strength/size wall, true, but that’s going to happen to anybody regardless of diet. There are lots of ways to get over plateaus like that, using periodization, complexes, switching up rep schemes, switching up lifts, etc. Anything like that will shock your system out of a rut and back into growth. That’s actually why I started doing CrossFit a few months ago – it constantly switches up workouts to avoid the kind of rut behavior that you can run into if you just do squats, deadlifts, bench, etc. week after week.

      BTW what’s your typical weekly lifting program look like? Days/weights/sets/reps/etc.?

      If caffeine doesn’t bother you, don’t worry about it too much. You might want to switch to decaf, though – you can get high-quality decaf from local roasters that roast lightly, or online from Intelligentsia, Blue Bottle, etc. Bulletproof coffee is a great calorie blast. You might even want to up the fat to 2-3 TBSP butter if you can stand it (easier if you’re using a hand blender), and maybe 1 TBSP of coconut oil if you like the taste, or MCT oil as tolerated (NOW Foods sells a good ‘n cheap one). BTW not sure if you’re using unsalted or salted Kerrygold but it’s much better unsalted – allows adding way more butter without tasting gross. I was doing 1/2 stick in my coffee every morning for a while, which is ~4 TBSP.

      Yep, I’d think about dumping the wheat bread. You could go for gluten-free bread, or even better, just start eating things like:

      – white rice
      – potatoes
      – sweet potatoes

      White rice and potatoes can be pretty high-glycemic, but if you’re lifting a ton, you’ll probably have pretty good insulin sensitivity and it won’t be as much of an issue.

      Also, coconut oil is a great calorie bomb food. If you ever make smoothies, it’s an easy way to pack an additional 117 calories per TBSP. What I’ve been doing lately (since I’m also on a mass gain program) is making a bunch of white rice, mixing 1-2 TBSP of coconut oil in, and then topping with a 7.5 ounce can of wild-caught salmon. That’s ~800 calories right there.

      Steaming sweet potatoes is a great option – if you can steam a bunch at once, you can mash it, then mix in several TBSP of coconut oil and a bunch of cinnamon (to blunt the insulin spike), then refrigerate it. That’s a great carotene-rich calorie bomb.

      If you make salads, seriously douse them in olive oil and add tons of avocado on top.

      You might also want to switch from peanut butter to almond butter. It is definitely more expensive, but generally a lot easier on your skin. Search “Zinke Orchards almond butter” on Amazon for the best-priced (and best-tasting!) almond butter around. It’s seriously amazing. That’s another great way to get some extra calories, and a lot easier to eat more of than handfuls of almonds.

      Organic, nixtamalized corn tortillas are also a decent way to pack in some extra calories. “Nixtamalized” means treated with lime (calcium oxide), which removes most of the enzyme inhibitors and phytic acid and makes them easier on your gut. They’re about 50 calories per tortilla, so adding ~4 to a meal will give a nice 200-calorie boost.

      Also, you could try working some ground lamb into your diet. It’s generally fattier than ground beef, more like 70% lean. Or just look for fattier grass-fed ground beef, like 70-80%. There’s a HUGE caloric difference between them. This is per 100 grams (bit less than 1/4 pound):

      70% lean ground beef => 332 calories (14g protein)
      90% lean ground beef => 176 calories (20g protein)

      So making a 1/2 pound patty of 70% ground beef (or lamb), and putting it on a salad topped with 1 TBSP olive oil and 1/2 avocado, would net you 750 + 120 + 160 = 1030 calories. That’s a pretty good mass gain meal right there!

      Does this give you some more ideas? Let me know on your sets/reps/lifting program too, interested to hear specifics on that.

      • Sean says

        Wow! Thank you for all of the advice. For the past two months I’ve been doing the 5×5 program, I’m not sure if you’re familiar. It definitely has been effective. It’s 5 sets of your 5 rep max for each exercise, increasing weight by 5 pounds every workout. If you can’t get the 5 reps for each of the five sets, you don’t increase the weight, you do the same one for the next workout. Squat three times a week with at least one rest day in between, Monday, Wednesday, Friday, for example. Then there’s a rotation of deadlifts and standing shoulder press, with bench press and barbell row, rotating these two workout groups each workout. For example, Monday: squats, deadlifts, shoulder press. Wednesday: squats, bench, and row. Friday: squats, deadlifts, and press. Starting the next Monday you do: squats, bench, and row. Etc.
        Also, if you can’t complete the full five sets of five for a specific exercise for three consecutive workouts, the next workout you must deload by 20%. So if you can’t squat 200, 5×5, for three workouts in a row, the next workout you must drop to 180 and work your way back up.
        It has been effective but it is a little tedious/ boring. Especially when you plateau, like where I’m at now. But, I have been wanting to switch it up and try cross fit for years now, I’m definitely going to now.
        I’ve been using unsalted Kerry gold with my coffee, just one tablespoon though. Might need to up that , I think it’s okay since that’s the only dairy I will be consuming. I’ve eliminated bread, and just bought a big bag of organic basmati white rice from trader joes. I plan on trying it with the coconut oil and canned wild caught salmon, that sounds great. I ditched the peanut butter, and switched to almond butter. Really enjoying it! I haven’t much luck with the tortillas, at least trader joes and publix didn’t have them. Any advice on where to get them?
        Thanks for all of the help! Any more creative food tips would be great if you can think of some!

        • Devin Mooers says

          Sounds like StrongLifts! That’s a great program. I was doing Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength program for a while, but apparently like you, I got bored of it after a while, especially after that initial linear-increase phase is over and you have to deload / switch things up. I like CrossFit as an alternative because the programming is so dynamic. I do M/W/F, and one day we’ll do 5×5 deadlifts up to a 5 rep max, and another day we’ll do 3-3-3-3-3 front squats, and another day we’ll do singles of back squats. Or hang power cleans, or split jerks, or any of a dozen other lifts. And that’s only the strength/skill part at the beginning of each workout – then the WOD comes in and kicks your butt with some combo of movements you’ve never done before. Definitely keeps things exciting! Highly recommended.

          For tortillas, I’d be surprised if Trader Joe’s didn’t have them. They won’t say “nixtamalized” on them, but they’ll say “trace of lime” or “treated with lime” in the ingredients. Pretty much all corn tortillas are nixtamalized. For other food ideas, it might be worth googling “Paleo mass gain recipes” or the like. Lots of good ideas out there, that’s how I’ve found most of mine! Also can’t remember if I mentioned, but my go-to lunch meal (or breakfast/dinner occasionally) is basically 1/2 lb of ground beef or lamb in a patty, pan-fried, on top of a big green salad doused with olive oil + balsamic. I put a bunch of avocado on top for more cals, and add some rice or sweet potatoes on the side if needing starch, and I just switch it up with different spice/seasoning combos. I’ve been eating that meal more or less every day for ~2 years now and still not sick of it.

          • Sean says

            Yes! It was StrongLifts! I did it past this summer for two months, took a break, and picked it back up at the start of this year. It’s definitely a great program, but it does get a little monotonous doing the same workout so frequently. I actually did my first crossfit workout this evening, and I loved it. It was just a free skills class, with some teaching tips on Olympic lifts and a basic WOD to end it, that a local gym close to me offers. I think it’s exactly what I need though.
            I know starting out five days a week, M-F for example, would be way too much. But, do you plan to up the amount of times you go each week in the future? I know overtraining can be very detrimental to skin, or so I’ve heard. Especially on body acne, which is my main problem. Do you workout at all in your off days, or just rest?
            I’ll give the tortillas another look at Trader Joe’s! I’m definitely going to try that lunch out for size. I work 9-5, so it makes it a little tougher to get the calories you need to gain mass when you’re away from a kitchen for eight hours, I’ve noticed. I also started both the fermented cod liver oil and probiotics you recommended today, so hopefully I’ll notice a difference in my skin in the next few weeks.

          • Devin Mooers says

            Right on! Sounds like you found a good spot to do CrossFit! I definitely think M-F is too much. Hormonally, your body needs time to recover from the post-workout catabolic state. You get a growth hormone surge after working out, and you really need rest to give your body a chance to rebuild the muscle + connective tissue you’ve broken down while working out / lifting heavy. If you work out M-F, your body gets into a more catabolic, cortisol-dominated state. To maximize growth hormone, and in so doing minimize the effects of aging and cellular damage (and also protect against acne), it’s really important to take rest days between workouts. If you’re interested in getting more into the science behind that, check out Rob Faigin’s “Natural Hormonal Enhancement.” It really threw me for a loop when I read it, tons of hormonal stuff in there that were totally new to me.

            I don’t plan on going any more than M/W/F because of what I’ve read in NHE and other places. It doesn’t seem hormonally optimal. I usually just rest, or I’ll bike to a coffee shop, or go for a walk, something like that. Light exercise / walking / cycling / movement is great to do every day (or off days), but personally I wouldn’t do heavy workouts on consecutive days. Especially with something as intense as CrossFit.

            Definitely a challenge to find calorie-dense food to take for lunch. I think leftovers from the previous night’s dinner might be a good bet. Like if you make a stir-fry, or a crockpot meal, or rice+salmon, or whatever else, you could just make a double batch and bring a big portion to work the next day.

            I hope the FCLO and probiotics go well for ya! Those are pretty powerful supplements. Keep me posted on how things go!

  2. Lucas says

    Hello, I am starting to workout and I would like to gain muscle but I read the article above and you mention that it is not good to take whey protein or casein. So I was wondering if it is ok to use egg white protein. I also do not have gallbladder so I am not sure if this will be a good fit.

    You also mentioned that meat would be great, but like mentioned before I do not have gallbladder and I try to avoid meat as much as I can.

    thanks

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Lucas, give egg white protein a shot. Your gallbladder spits out bile for digesting fats, not proteins, so you should be fine. Definitely not an expert on that, though. Have you thought about taking digestive enzymes along with meals? That might allow you to digest meat better. I like Enzymedica Digest.

      • Lucas says

        Hello,
        thanks for your reply!
        I will give then the egg white protein a shot! I asked you about this because of my gallbladder removal and because of my acne prone skin.
        I did not know about digestive enzymes. I have been having a lot of diarrhea so this might be really helpful!

        Thank you so much!

  3. Matt says

    Great article! it does explain a lot actually! any suggestions to get extra proteins to build muscle if you dont eat meat at all? the truckloads of veggies dont quite cut it to be honest!

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Matt, nope, truckloads of veggies definitely don’t cut it! Do you eat eggs or are you vegan? If you can eat eggs, check out egg white protein. Aside from that, you could try something like Vega or one of the other vegan protein powders, though protein digestibility is a bit lower with those than with egg white / whey types of proteins.

      • Matt says

        I just dont eat meat, so i guess i could try egg white proteins! i also found that vega sport protein, wich seems like decent try aswell. ill try them both and let you know how it went, thanks for the reply!

        • Devin Mooers says

          Sounds good, definitely let me know! The egg white protein will be more digestible, most likely, but definitely worth trying both.

          • Matt says

            Just a quick question inbetween; what about Creatine powders? read your post a few times but couldnt see anything about it. maybe i read past it though.

          • Sonia Carlson says

            Hi Matt, we’ve been asked that a lot, though you’re right that I don’t think we’ve written about it publicly yet! Devin’s experience has led him to believe that creatine triggers acne. The few studies we’ve found suggest that creatine increases dihydrotestosterone in the body, which can be a strong acne trigger. We haven’t been able to find any studies specifically linking creatine to acne, so I can’t say for sure one way or the other. But Devin does think they break HIM out, based on experimenting with them on and off. Our best suggestion for mass-gaining, in addition to eating plenty and lifting heavy, is to eat red meat (grass-fed, organic ideally), since it contains naturally-occurring creatine that the body is better able to process.

  4. Mike C says

    Great article man. Question. What are other options besides the plant proteins for post workout shakes? Are there any liquids proteins that I can take that don’t cause acne?

    How do you feel about deer antler spray and vitamins (multi vitamins ect.)??? Thank you.

    Mike

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Mike! No experience with deer antler supplements – anything that has growth hormones in it, though, I would steer well clear of. Your body is plenty capable of pumping out growth hormone, provided with the right diet and sufficiently intense muscular resistance exercise. I don’t recommend multi-vitamins since they generally contain certain synthetic vitamins that have been linked to increased incidences of cancer. Magnesium, fermented cod liver oil, vitamin D3, and potentially vitamin K2 are the things I generally recommend supplementing with.

  5. Khalid says

    Hello,
    thanx for your article

    what about the energy powders (pre-workout) such as: N.O.-Xplode, C4..etc.
    and also what about : glutamine, amino acids

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Khalid, I don’t recommend taking N.O. Xplode, C4, or any other workout boosters. They tend to be based on caffeine, creatine, and other compounds which can potentially trigger acne. I wouldn’t recommend BCAAs either since they can boost DHT levels (dihydrotestosterone), which might artificially increase muscle gains in the short term, but also can increase acne growth! L-glutamine is totally fine AFAIK, and is great for speeding recovery and healing your gut / improving nutrient absorption. In general, eating a lot of meat for protein is a safer way to go than taking supplemental protein powders, boosters, creatine, BCAAs, etc.

  6. Tabouni says

    Hello dear

    I really like your article as a bodybuilder and an acne sufferer
    I know the article based mainly on your personal experience, however it would be better if you supported the info with some scientific research and articles
    anyway still i trust u, i stopped taking whey, my skin became better within 2-5 weeks, i wanted to test the why again to become sure if its the cause of my previous acne, and i saw some annoying acne and redness on my cheeks the following day
    i will stop that forever, i know some guys they take whey powder and still not suffering from any acne, maybe because we have sensitive skin!

    my question is: are these suplements safe for acne sufferers: glutamine, amino acides, fibers, fish oil?

    and what about smoking?, lol I Know its bad, but is it causing acne?

    hope to answer me
    best regards

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Tabouni, we actually do cite lots of scientific studies in every article – there’s a “Sources” link at the bottom of each post with relevant scientific studies.

      Sounds like you found some good benefits from stopping whey!

      Glutamine should be fine – it’s great for healing the gut. If by amino acids you mean BCAAs, I would avoid those (they can upregulate DHT, which can worsen acne). Fiber depends – I wouldn’t take Metamucil, for instance, and generally would steer clear of fiber supplements, and just eating fruits/vegetables/root veggies. For fish oil, read more here.

  7. Steph says

    Hey Devin!

    Quick question… What about quinoa? Is quinoa protein a good alternative to whey protein?

    I would also like to know your opinion about treating acne with brewer’s yeast.

    Thanks!

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Steph! I don’t consider grains or pseudo-grains to be a great protein source for people dealing with acne. You can reduce the levels of anti-nutrients in these foods by, for example, properly soaking them in an acidic medium, but I generally think it’s much safer to go with meat/animal sources of protein.

      Do you mean quinoa protein powder? Is there even such a thing?

      Also, no idea about using brewer’s yeast to treat acne, sorry!

  8. Jillian says

    Hi there, I really appreciate your advice on this matter. I was wondering what your thoughts were on pea protein powder as it is naturally very high in BCAA’s? I have been using it for years now and struggle on and off with breakouts(mostly when hormones fluctuate). I know it takes a long time for a pimple to develop underneath the surface(I work in skincare) and now I am thinking that even though I will be clear for two weeks at a time, sometimes if I am lucky a month, that the pea protein could be the lurking issue even though to me it always seemed like the cleanest powder. I get the least processed, totally unflavored one(growing naturals), it is way better then Vega….which tastes rancid to me. The main reason I use a protein powder, besides convenience, is that there are so few protein options that are healthy for my little 5- 10 minute work breaks so that I don’t have to spend the whole time chewing or end up eating carbs. I cannot eat red meat, it does not digest for me at all and sits in my stomach forever. I have never been able to tolerate it well, nor my twin sister, our stomachs are just to picky. And yes it was grass-fed organic as I eat all organic. Any thoughts on pure pea protein?

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Jillian! It’s remotely possible that pea protein might be triggering breakouts, but I’d point the finger at something else in your diet – what are you eating these days?

      Also, RE red meat digestion, it sounds like you might have low stomach acid. Taking some betaine HCL and/or digestive enzymes (like Enzymedica Digest Basic or NOW Super Enzymes) with meat would be an interesting experiment – I bet then you’d be able to digest it just fine, and get all the commensurate benefits.

      Finally, have you tried egg white protein? It’s a good skin-friendly alternative, and has a very high protein digestibility (much higher than most vegan proteins, like pea protein).

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Danny, you could give it a shot… there are a few sub-optimal ingredients in it like sucralose and artifical flavorings, but as it’s based on hydrolyzed beef protein, it’s probably worth a shot. Just FYI, I seem to react personally to BCAAs and creatine, which makes sense with the science since they can both increase levels of DHT. Carnivor seems like pretty potent stuff, so it might have a negative impact on your free androgen / DHT levels, potentially worsening acne (since it’s so much more concentrated/intense than, say, steak/beef), so keep a close watch on your skin while trying it.

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Shane! I just added a small section to the article about soy protein and why I recommend avoiding it. Hope that helps.

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey! Just browsed the Dr. Oat ingredients – it’s got sunflower oil (vegetable oil), soy protein, and a range of grains/beans, none of which we recommend if you’re struggling with acne. Same with whole grain bread – gluten is one of the top four worst foods for acne we’ve identified. I wish I could give the whole overview here, but it’s pretty complex – we go into a bunch of detail in our book if you’d like to have a look at that!

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Laura, whoa, slow down a minute! I wouldn’t expect that either of these things would trigger acne. What else are you eating on an average day?

  9. Allen says

    I’ve read this post about 4 months ago and decided to stop taking dairy altogether due to acne. It was the best decision I’ve ever made! For those cutting dairy out, the results to clear skin will take time and patience. For those concern about missing out on protein shakes, vegetable base shakes are an alternative, however costly compare to standard whey protein. But it’s worth the extra coin to clear skin. Good luck!

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Allen – thanks for stopping by again and commenting! Great to hear about your awesome experience with cutting out dairy. You mentioned vegetable base shakes – are you referring to something like hemp protein? Or the “Vega” brand dairy-free protein powders, or similar? (BTW egg white protein is also a viable alternative that doesn’t seem to trigger acne for most folks – definitely more expensive than whey but may well be worth it, like you said!)

  10. Emilie says

    Hi!
    So the thing is, I work out quite a lot – 6 times a week, I do weightlifting and crossfit, and therefore I’ve been drinking a Whey protein shake whenever I’ve done a workout, but I’m sort of getting the feeling, that this is what’s causing my acne. Anyway, I’m thinking about switching out my whey protein with Egg protein powder, and I’m wondering if this will cause acne too? I’ve also been considering taking BCAA supplements, I’ve googled it, and I can’t really find anything about its relation to acne, so I’m assuming it’ll be safe to take?
    I know you are recommending meat as the primary source to protein, but I do need some sort of other way to get my protein, since I’m a very busy student, who doesn’t have the time to cook that much nor the money to buy all that meat. :) So it’ll be great if you have any suggestions of what to switch out my whey protein with?.

    Sincerely
    Emilie

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Emilie! How’s it going? 6 days a week of weightlifting/CF sounds intense! Egg white protein is a great alternative – we’ve had some folks who’ve reported trying it and not geting any acne from it. Definitely worth a shot. Personally, I haven’t had success with BCAAs, i.e. they seemed to make me break out – that may be due to the concentrated leucine dose interacting with sex hormones and driving up DHT levels. It’s worth a shot, though, everyone reacts differently to these sorts of things.

  11. David says

    While I agree that efforts should be made to consume all of your protein intake from ‘real’ food such as meats, dairy, nuts etc. Sometimes it just isn’t possible.

    I disagree with the author in saying that IGF-1 causes acne. Why? Because the body cannot absorb (and thus can’t USE) IGF-1 properly when taken in oral form (whey protein).

    As for the artificial sweeteners, colorings etc. The best way to avoid these is, of course, to acquire 100% Whey protein isolate (as mentioned in the article). Gold Standard Natural is a good alternative, however it contains some other ingredients that may cause acne. An excellent choice is 100% Whey protein isolate by the brand NOW FOODS.

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey David! You’re right – sometimes you just need that protein shake. We advise egg white protein for those struggling with acne from whey protein. As to your comment about IGF-1, I haven’t heard that before – can you link me to any studies/resources about how oral IGF-1 might not be absorbed? I’m very curious to know more! That’s also not the only reason that whey triggers acne, since the pure insulinemic effects of whey spike your insulin and prompt greater release of endogenous IGF-1 (regardless of any IGF-1 present in the whey). I’ve experimented with low-temp-processed, 100% grass-fed whey protein but still have gotten acne from it – but again everyone reacts differently, so it’s always worth experimenting.

  12. Anthony Jackson says

    I’m 17, about 4 months ago I started lifting and taking whey protein, I eat a lot as well, but I started breaking out a lot, I’ve cut lots of things out of my diet including milk,as much sugar as I can, any junk food, and I wasn’t sure if coffee with sweetner was good or bad or not, but I use tropico gels and still have acne, I will definetely cut out the protein shakes and see the results, thank you.

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Anthony, definitely see how it goes by cutting out protein shakes. Coffee with sweetener is not the best either from a muscle gain or acne perspective – black coffee is better, but can still screw with your stress hormones a bit if you’re sensitive.

  13. Grace says

    I have been taking a mass gainer protein powder “Up Your Mass” for about 4 months now; In order to help gain weight, I have been drinking 2 shakes a day along with my meals. It has been breaking my face out tremdeously, as if I’m back to my teenage years. I been feeling embarrassed about my skin since Im trying to use less makeup ESP with all my sweating doesn’t help. Reading this article has helped make my decision to give up the mass gainer. Thanks! Hopefully, my acne gets better!!

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Grace! Whoa, sounds like a crazy experience with Up Your Mass. That gainer has barley (gluten), soy protein, whey/casein (dairy), vegetable oil, and a big carbohydrate hit at once, and overall sounds like a strong recipe for acne. Good idea to discontinue use of that! Keep me posted on how your skin improves!

  14. Aissa says

    So basically get your protein from food instead of powders? My entire face has been breaking out Im guessing from using Whey Protein as I read in this article and comments. Ive been getting facials and been to dermatologists and nothing clears it up. Not even hard core topical medications. How long after cutting out the Whey protein will it clear up? Does anyone know?

    • Devin Mooers says

      Exactly! No need for powdered protein, especially whey, since it tends to trigger acne for a lot of people. There’s no easy answer to the “when will it clear up?” question, though I wish there were! Whey protein is typically not the only food that causes acne – gluten, dairy, sugar, and vegetable oil are the top 4 “acne demons” we’ve identified in our research. Are you eating any of these? Have you had acne for a while, or are you just breaking out recently (maybe from the whey)?

  15. Jun says

    I just started working out a month ago and was taking whey protein shake religiously… until it triggered acne on my face and recently my neck! Have always had acne (but not too serious) which started to subside until I foolishly consumed whey protein.

    Thanks for your advice, I’ve since stopped drinking protein shakes and I scrolled through the comments, looks like I’ll try to find some egg white protein.

    • Sonia Carlson says

      Hey Jun, I’m glad you found out early on that whey is a problem for you – it’s definitely a common issue among weightlifters and other athletes. I hope you see big improvements by switching to the egg white protein!

    • Devin Mooers says

      Just wanted to chime in on this one too. Ha, I don’t think it was foolish! You’re just trying to get strong, I’m guessing. You also don’t have to pound down a shake right after your workout – you can wait 30-60 minutes, and let growth hormone surge for a while which helps build lean mass and repair your body, and then eat a meal after that. As soon as insulin kicks in, though (like after pounding down a whey protein shake, or worse, a mass gainer), growth hormone goes out the window since insulin blocks growth hormone, essentially. Insulin also builds muscle, but it ALSO builds fat. So waiting 30-60 minutes after a workout, THEN eating a solid meal of food with lots of protein, is also a great approach – then you don’t have to deal with expensive alternative protein powders, and you get more nutrition to boot.

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Pablo, based on my own experimentation, I wouldn’t recommend taking BCAAs. They seemed to give me some acne. That said, those sorts of self-tests are hard to do, and they’re not very scientific, so you could definitely give it a shot and see if your skin reacted badly or not. The main reason why I wouldn’t recommend it is because BCAAs are known to increase levels of some hormones, including insulin and testosterone. Generally speaking, I think it’s a better idea to get amino acids from whole foods like beef. Muscle-growth-enhancement supplements of all kinds tend to influence hormones that can be problematic for acne sufferers (whose hormones are out of whack to begin with). For muscle gain without acne, I generally advise lifting heavy (Starting Strength style) and eating lots of meat and some starch (sweet potatoes and white rice), and skipping out on whey protein, BCAAs, etc.

      • pablo g says

        thanks for your reply. i will stop taking bcaa’s as well as other supplements i am taking ( pre-workout and creatine). i stopped taking whey and dairy, but i still get a few pimples as well as some cystic acne on my neck. i seem to be getting a lot of ingrown hairs that turn to acne. i hope this will solve the problem.

        • Devin Mooers says

          Hey Pablo, I hope stopping these things helps clear up the remaining acne you’ve got. I wish workout supplements didn’t cause acne, but I just haven’t had good luck with them in general. Keep me posted on how it goes for you!

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