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The Link Between Dairy and Acne

by Emily Linehan on March 05, 2021

Dairy is one of the most triggering foods for those who are acne prone and 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. It can sound devastating to give up dairy, here are the 3 huge reason why dairy is so triggering to acne prone skin:


The majority of dairy products in the U.S. come from pregnant cows and some cows are given growth hormones. There is an abundance of a growth hormone called IGF-1 and anabolic hormones that naturally occurs in dairy products, which is really great for baby cows to grow up big and strong. But for those of us who are acne prone, it causes major acne breakouts. The reason is that the hormone levels in dairy products, combined with your own cocktail of hormones, causes excessive sebum 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; pasteurized, grass-fed, homogenized, raw, organic, lactose-free, etc - there’s basically no escaping the acne-causing hormones in milk!


In addition, dairy causes an insulin spike which triggers your pancreas to produce IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor) to help restore balance to your bloodstream. So adding your own production of IGF-1 to the mix is basically like adding “insult to injury”. This insulin spike is 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.


Lastly, dairy is also naturally high in iodine which is an essential trace mineral which is needed for the production of the thyroid hormone . But when there is more iodine that the body can use, the excess is excreted through the sweat glands which is very problematic for acne suffers since iodine is a follicle/pore irritant and sets the stage for inflammatory responses on the skin such as inflamed acne, but also rosacea. Some dairy is higher in iodine because farmers provide salt licks to dairy cows to supplement their diet and keep them healthy. The iodine is absorbed and makes its way into milk products.


So now that I have given you all the bad news, here is the good news: there ARE amazing alternatives to dairy, and some that are even more delicious than the dairy versions! Here are some of my favorite acne safe alternatives:


For milk alternatives, there are many (make sure they do not contain soy):


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!


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)


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!


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


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!


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