Is dairy giving you acne?
As soon as I bring up the fact that dairy could be contributing to my patient’s health issues, including acne, I can see them cringe at the thought of giving up their daily greek yogurt or the cheese on their nachos. I am not often a promoter of very restrictive diets as I believe it can create a negative relationship with food, but I think it is important to know the role that certain foods can be playing on our health. Knowledge is power, and when we start to understand what is going on in our own bodies we can take steps to support it in the best way we can.
Now, I will be the first to admit that there are many different factors at play when it comes to health, and two people who are experiencing the same diagnosis can have very different stories of what is going on inside.
Our hormones, gut health, inflammation, nutrition, and our environment are a few of underlying areas that can impact our skin health, but for this article I am going to focus on the role of dairy.
How does dairy contribute to acne?
A lot of people believe lactose is the “problem” ingredient in dairy, when in fact a protein called casein can be the culprit. Casein has been shown to influence the development of acne by increasing IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor), insulin, androgens (hormones such as testosterone & DHT), and inflammation. These factors all act directly on the sebaceous glands in our skin. They stimulate sebum (oil) production, which in combination with keratin (a protein in our hair), can lead to clogged pores and the development of white heads and black heads. A cascade of further inflammation and susceptibility to bacteria (particularly P. acnes), and we then have the development of acne (Figure 1).
Dairy can also have a huge impact on our gastrointestinal health, which can impact our skin. More research is coming out about our gut-skin-axis, and how our microbiome and the integrity of our digestive tract can trigger inflammation and influence skin conditions.
In my practice I have found the most skin-friendly approach to nutrition is a paleo-style diet rich in vegetables and omega-3s with limited dairy and refined carbs. Maybe dairy isn’t the issue for you, or maybe it isn’t the only underlying factor contributing to your skin health. But, if you are suffering with persistent acne, trying different treatments and skin-care products to address it, why not try cutting it out for a month to see if it makes a difference?
The two biggest questions I get about going dairy-free are “what should I use instead?” and “how will I get my calcium?”
- There are plenty of dairy-replacements out there. I don’t usually recommend going out and buying tons of packaged dairy replacements, but consider using coconut milk, almond milk, or cashew milk. Maybe skip the yogurt for other protein-rich snacks or you can try making your own coconut yogurt. I have yet to find a yummy cheese replacement for those nachos, so please let me know if there’s one you like!
- Don’t fret, there are many non-dairy sources of calcium. A few examples are broccoli, dark leafy greens, nuts and seeds, tofu, and blackstrap molasses. If you need additional support going dairy free, chat with your naturopathic doctor!
It is important to rule out any other underlying conditions that can be contributing to your symptoms and have a thorough assessment done by your healthcare provider. This article should not replace the advice of your naturopathic doctor or family physician.
Cappel et al. Correlation Between Serum Levels of Insulin-like Growth Factor 1, Dehydroepiandrosterone Sulfate, and Dihydrotestosterone and Acne Lesion Counts in Adult Women. Arch Dermatol. 2005;141(3):333-338.
Clatici et al. Milk and Insulin Growth Factor 1 (IGF1) – Implication in Acne and General Health.
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He et al. Effects of cow's milk beta-casein variants on symptoms of milk intolerance in Chinese adults: a multicentre, randomised controlled study. Nutr J. 2017 Oct 25;16(1):72.
Melnik, Bodo. Linking diet to acne metabolomics, inflammation, and comedogenesis: an update. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2015; 8: 371–388.