Here I’m going to be talking all about the connection between dairy and skin.
I’m going to be answering your questions about is dairy bad for your skin, does dairy causes acne and wrinkles, does it age our skin.
Table of Contents
We all know that there’s a lot of talk about diet and acne, specifically dairy gets the limelight.
There is quite a bit of data to suggest there is a connection between dairy milk consumption and acne and I’m going to get into that in a moment, but people always want to hone in on what is the best diet for skin and for acne.
Simply put the perfect diet doesn’t exist and while we have data that shows that certain components of a diet may play a role in aggravating skin conditions like acne, eczema, psoriasis, as well as aggravate some of the visible signs of photo aging, it’s not as though we can say this is the best diet.
Perfect diet simply does not exist.
Our nutritional needs vary a lot from day to day, based on your sleep pattern, if you’re under a lot of stress, activity you’re doing, if you’re really active doing sports, etc.
It’s pretty easy if you’re not paying attention to miss certain key nutrients in your diet.
Dairy and Acne
Let’s talk about acne first and foremost. I think that’s what really comes to people’s mind when we’re talking about this connection between dairy and the skin.
It’s not like we have one particular diet that we can recommend to patients with acne and truthfully some things that have been shown to aggravate acne, they don’t aggravate acne in everyone. It’s hard to predict who is going to be affected.
If you’ve been trying topicals and you have done other lifestyle modifications, it makes sense to really critically evaluate your diet.
Here in comes a connection with dairy.
There is a connection between dairy milk consumption and more stubborn acne. And it seems as though it’s unique to skim milk and I’ll get into why that might be.
We’ve appreciated this connection between diet and acne for a long time. As a matter of fact, there’s a study that looked at two communities that are isolated. One was the Kitavan islanders, the Papua New Guinea, and the other is a group the Aché hunter-gatherers of Paraguay.
These two isolated communities have zero acne.
What’s unique about them is their diet has virtually no refined carbohydrates and no dairy.
That’s kind of what sparked this intrigue into dairy.
There are also other studies looking at teenage males and their dairy consumption. And there’s always this connection between milk consumption and more stubborn acne.
We think the reason this might be has to do with the hormone profile of cow’s milk.
We know that hormones are a major factor in the pathogenesis of acne.
The skin in general is very responsive to hormones and we know that hormones actually play a major role in sebum production.
Dairy milk is a very complicated mixture of different minerals, vitamins, proteins and a variety of hormones, such as prolactin, growth hormone promoting proteins and proteins that can elevate something called insulin-like growth factor, which we know has a major role in elevating oil production.
It’s thought that the insulin-like growth factor in dairy milk can increase sebum production in the skin by up to 60 percent, major factor in acne.
We think the most likely hormonal candidate present in dairy milk that drives acne is insulin-like growth factor one.
IGF-1 is present in ordinary milk but it’s also present at high levels in dairy milk from cows that have been treated with recombinant bovine hormone to increase their milk supply. It’s even higher than what would naturally be present.
This high level of insulin-like growth factor not only does it increase sebum production contributing to acne, but it is very inflammatory.
Elevated levels of insulin-like growth factor also are responsible for that skin thickening condition, Acanthosis nigricans, where you get dark, velvety plaques on the back of the neck.
You can also get these plaques on the face and the extremities, like on your elbows, even on the backs of your hands, on the knuckles.
We primarily see this in people who are obese or have type 2 diabetes. But given what I told you about the levels of IGF-1 and milk, it’s something to think about.
There’s also some evidence that IGF-1 from dairy contributes to prostate cancer and maybe even breast cancer, although the epidemiologic studies for that are limited, not super conclusive, but there is some evidence to suggest that perhaps the IGF-1 and our milk supply is contributing to the pathogenesis of certain cancers.
It’s clear that there is a link between dairy milk and acne.
It seems to be specific to skim milk and why that is?
We really don’t know.
It may have something to do with the fact that the skim milk allows for a greater bioavailability of these hormones, making it even more of a threat.
Or it may be due to the fact that full fat or partial fat milk has more estrogen in it, balancing out some of these pro-acne effects of the other hormones in the milk.
That is a possible reason, but we don’t really know.
I have always questioned this association in a sense that is skim milk guilty by association, meaning do people who drink skim milk are somebody who have an inflammatory diet that is rich in sugary foods, that we also know play a major role in acne.
It is not uncommon in the USA for kids to not not only be drinking skim milk, but to be eating breakfast cereal with skim milk. Go down the breakfast cereal aisle in this country, and 99.9% of all breakfast cereals are packed with added sugar.
Diets rich in sugary processed foods generate a lot of inflammation in the body, raise IGF-1 levels and contribute to acne.
Another possible reason is that skim milk, because it doesn’t have the fat component, is less satiating so maybe they’re eating more sugary cereal, because they don’t have that fat piece to help lessen the overall glycemic load of the food and it’s not as satiating so they’re eating more of it.
That is something that is not factored into the dairy-acne studies.
Here’s what I can tell you.
If you have acne and you’ve tried using standard acne treatments, you’ve done other lifestyle modifications, such as exercise, sleeping, not consuming alcohol in excess, not smoking, all those things that drive a lot of inflammation of the body, it is worthwhile examining your diet and seeing if perhaps that dairy milk consumption is associated with your acne.
It may be worthwhile to eliminate it for a few weeks and see if things get better and then reintroduce it. If the acne flares again, it might be worthwhile to avoid consuming dairy milk.
As it stands we don’t really have any data to suggest that other types of dairy are associated. Yogurt, cheese, ice cream, seemed to not be a problem.
Remember that acne can be caused by other things such as genetics, environment or maybe it has something to do with the type of acne-causing bacteria you’re colonized with.
This is why we don’t make blanket statements that people with acne need to go dairy free or go vegan or go on any of these particular diets, because there is no right diet for everyone.
Dairy and Skin Health
What about the rest of your skin. Is there any benefit to avoiding cow’s milk consumption for overall skin health?
Logic follows that inflammation is going to drive more oxidative stress in the skin that contributes to wrinkles.
You could make the argument that it might be worthwhile considering not consuming as much cow’s milk.
However it’s not like we have an epidemiologic study saying this group consumed milk, this group didn’t, look at the wrinkle difference.
There’s so many factors that go into play when it comes to skin aging that’s really hard to say if dairy is bad. You got to pull out things like smoking, where you reside, if you live somewhere where there’s a lot of pollution that we know contributes to the signs of aging.
If you have other comorbid diseases like an autoimmune disease, you take a medication that makes you more vulnerable to the sun, any number of things.
This is why diet studies are so tricky if not impossible to conduct.
Not to mention that you have a major issue with recall bias in the majority of these.
People who have acne and are being questioned about their dairy consumption are probably more likely to falsely recall or over report their dairy consumption, as opposed to people who don’t.
There’s a reporting bias, recall bias, things like that, that really affect these and make diet studies always flawed.
I’m not here to tell anybody that they have to avoid cow’s milk, but if you do find that it aggravates things, try avoiding it and seeing if things improve. A very simple approach.
That’s what I can tell you about the role of dairy and acne and skin.
- Cordain L, Lindeberg S, Hurtado M, Hill K, Eaton SB, Brand-Miller J. Acne vulgaris; a disease of Western civilization. Arch Dermatol. 2002;138:1584-1590.
- Adebamowo CA, Spiegelman D, Danby FW, Frazier AL, et al. High school dietary dairy intake and teenage acne. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2005;52:207-214.
- Adebamowo CA, Spiegelman D, Berkey CS, Danby FW, et al. Milk consumption and acne in adolescent girls. Dermatol Online J. 2006;12:1.
- Adebamowo CA, Spiegelman D, Berkey CS, et al. Milk consumption and acne in teenaged boys. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2008;58:787-793.