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.

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.

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.

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.

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. 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!

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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!

  7. 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.

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