Is a Dairy-Heavy Diet Really Bad for Your Skin?

We’ve seen the “Got Milk?” ads for decades and many of us were forced to finish our glass at the dinner table as kids. But, could milk—and other forms of dairy—be aggravating your skin and possibly giving you full-fledged acne? We turned to New York dermatologist Dendy Engelman, MD, for expert insight. 

“The relationship between diet and acne has been controversial, especially when it comes to a complex skin issue like acne because there isn’t a single cause or trigger,” says Dr. Engelman. “With that said, if topical treatments and other lifestyle changes haven’t made a difference in your breakouts, it may be time to consider that it is because of your diet.”

So how are the two related? Dr. Engelman says that dairy products contain hormones, which causes spikes in certain pimple-producing hormones in your body. “These hormones bind to your sebaceous glands, and one study I read indicated that they turn up your oil production by as much as 60 percent. A majority of the milk we drink is produced by pregnant cows and contains high levels of hormones (there are more than 60 hormones in a glass of milk) that can send our oil glands into overdrive.”

When it comes to the types of dairy that are considered acne-aggravators, skim milk seems to be a main culprit. “Researchers aren’t sure why, but skim milk seems to be more inflammatory, and they have a couple of theories why. Whole and partial fat milk have higher levels of estrogen, which can reduce acne, and may offset the other hormones. Or, the way skim milk is processed could make the hormones more available so that they have a stronger effect. At this point, milk does seem to aggravate acne, but the reason is still unclear,” explains Dr. Engelman.

Although we’ve learned that there is still not enough evidence to prove that dairy directly causes or worsens acne, if you think it may be the reason you’re breaking out, try cutting it out of your diet in all forms (unfortunately that includes cheese, too) for one month. “Allow your skin to calm down and then reintroduce dairy slowly to see if acne develops,” says Dr. Engelman, who adds that if it you do notice the connection, you should try switching to a non-dairy milk option like almond, rice, coconut or hemp.

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