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The Link Between Dairy and Acne

by Emily Linehan on January 31, 2022
Updated July 13, 2022

Dairy is one of the most triggering foods for those who are acne prone. In fact, one study found that women who consumed dairy were 44% more likely to have acne! [1] I can usually tell by seeing a client's skin if they have been consuming dairy. The dead giveaway is tender, inflamed acne lesions (many times cystic) found mostly on the cheeks, but also the jawline and chin. While I love dairy just as much as anyone, I do not love what it does to my skin. Although it can sound devastating to give up dairy, here are a few reasons why it is so triggering to acne prone skin:

Hormones

Since the majority of dairy products in the U.S. come from pregnant cows, they naturally contain a variety of hormones. Among these are a growth hormone called IGF-1 and anabolic hormones such as progesterone. While these hormones are great for helping developing calves grow up big and strong, they can cause major problems for those of us that are acne prone. The hormones in dairy products combined with our own cocktail of hormones causes excessive sebum (oil) production, leading to more clogged pores and the perfect breeding ground for acne bacteria to thrive. According to the American Journal of Dermatology, milk contains, on average, 60 different hormones including testosterone, progesterone, insulin, and the potent growth hormone called IGF-1 which are present in all types of dairy. Whether it’s pasteurized, grass-fed, homogenized, raw, organic, lactose-free, etc - there's basically no escaping the acne-causing hormones in milk!

Insulin Spike

Not only can dairy lead to a hormonal imbalance, it also causes an insulin spike due to high levels of the naturally occurring sugar called lactose. Sugar causes inflammation in our body and also on our skin which is why acne triggered by dairy tends to be inflamed, super sore and generally cystic on the cheeks, chin and jawline. To make matters worse, this sudden spike in insulin triggers your liver to produce IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor) to help restore balance to your bloodstream. As mentioned above, dairy already contains an abundance of this growth hormone, therefore the boost of IGF-1 from insulin is basically adding "insult to injury" when it comes to the skin. 

Dietary Iodine

Lastly, dairy is also naturally high in iodine, which is an essential trace mineral for the body that is necessary for healthy hormone production by the thyroid. Although Iodine plays an important role, an overabundance of it is problematic for those with acne prone skin. When there is more iodine than the body can use, the excess is excreted through the sweat glands. Since iodine is a follicle/pore irritant, this sets the stage for inflammatory responses on the skin such as inflamed acne, as well as rosacea and eczema. Aside from the naturally occurring iodine, some dairy contains even higher levels because farmers provide salt licks to dairy cows to supplement their diet and keep them healthy. The iodine is then absorbed and makes its way into milk products!

Acne Safe Dairy Alternatives

Because dairy exacerbates inflamed acne, it is important to avoid all dairy products. So now that I have given you the bad news, here is the good news: there are amazing alternatives to dairy, and some are even more delicious than the dairy versions! To help you get started, I've compiled a list of some of my favorite acne-safe, dairy-free alternatives. 

#EmmeTip: When selecting a dairy-free alternative, always double check that it is not soy based and does not contain carrageenan on the ingredient list.

Milk Alternatives

There are several milk alternatives (just make sure they do not contain soy):

Creamer Alternatives

For coffee creamers, most coffee houses have almond milk or coconut milk as an option. Also, there are amazing almond milk and coconut milk creamers at the grocery store!

Yogurt Alternatives

For yogurt/greek yogurt, there are almond milk and coconut version available at most health food stores (or the health food section in most grocery stores).

Ice Cream Alternatives

For acne safe ice cream, look for the versions made with coconut milk or almond milk…although my personal favorite is cashew milk ice cream! It is better than the real thing!

Cheese Alternatives

When looking for dairy free cheese alternatives, be sure to double check that they aren't soy either. Instead look for brands that are made from nuts, like Parmela Creamery, Kite HIll Cheese, Daiya and Heidi Ho Cheese.

Butter Alternatives

These are just a few of my favorites, but there are so many dairy-free options available at any grocery store which makes avoiding this acne trigger not only easy but also delicious!

xoxo, Emme

Citations

[1] Adebamowo CA, Spiegelman D, et al. “High school dietary dairy intake and teenage acne.” J Am Acad Dermatol. 2005;52(2):207-14.

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