Last Updated on August 7th, 2019
If you live in the United States or Canada, you get bombarded with two kinds of information about milk and dairy products. The milk and dairy companies constantly remind us that dairy products are the main source of calcium and phosphorus in our diets and we simply have to have them in our diets (they say) for healthy bones and teeth. And then there are the detractors of the food industry who insist that milk and dairy cause a plethora of health problems.
We can’t discuss all the legitimate, questionable, and totally out-there claims both for and against consuming dairy products. But we can shed some light on the issue of whether drinking milk may cause acne.
Article Table of Contents
In the 1990’s, a team of researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Harvard School of Public Health as well as other prestigious institutions around the world conducted the Growing Up Today Study1, which tracked diet and health of 7,843 boys and 9,016 girls through their teen years until they reached adulthood.
Participants in the study were asked how often they consumed a standardized portion size of specific foods. They were asked about milk, chocolate milk, ice cream, instant breakfast drinks, cottage cheese, yogurt, cream cheese, hard cheese, milkshakes, and butter. They were asked about soy milk, whole milk, 2% milk, 1% milk, skim milk, and whether they consumed milk at all. Acne researchers also considered the teens’ answers to questions about chocolate, French fries, and pizza, since these foods have also been linked to acne.
In 1999, the researchers asked about height, weight, and (in girls) contraceptive use, as well as a question about acne: “Compared to other people you know, how would you describe your acne.” Multiple choice responses included:
Then the researchers looked at all the data together. For teenaged girls, two surprising facts emerged2:
The Harvard researchers did not track down whether milk from cows treated with recombination (artificial) bovine growth hormone had any relationship with acne. They believed that the real problem was that all milk contains testosterone-like hormones and these hormones can cause acne to breakout, especially on girls. A more detailed study found that the girls who drank the most milk had about 20% more pimples than girls who did not drink milk at all.
Ten years later, the Nestlé company provided a more nuanced view of the issue.
You might think the world’s largest producer of milk and powdered milk products might come to the defense of milk for kids and teens. But in 2011, the Nestlé company itself offered an explanation4 of why teens who drink milk tend to get more acne.
Milk products elevate insulin levels after meals. Milk does not contain insulin, and even if it did, the insulin would break down during digestion. However, the whey in milk stimulates the release of insulin and and substance called insulin-like growth factor-1. The growth factor reaches the skin and locks on the to part of DNA that encodes a regulator gene so that it cannot release the compounds that limit the skin’s production of sebum. The skin produces more sebum, and pores that are already clogged form whiteheads and blackheads. If these pores are infected, they may also form pimples.
The same kind of result can occur after using large amounts of whey powder to make smoothies or eating protein bars after working out. The insulin-stimulating effects of whey are helpful after a workout, because the insulin that is released after eating the bar helps the muscles absorb the nutrients they need to remodel, enlarge, and strengthen themselves after they are stretched to their maximum capacity. But the effects on the skin are mostly detrimental.
All dairy products don’t have the same effects on the skin. The whey fraction of milk stimulates about 50% more insulin production than cheese, and cheese stimulates about 12% more insulin production than milk. Whole milk, 2% milk, 1% milk, and skim milk, however, all have the same effect on insulin production and the skin. The fat in a dairy product has no bearing on how much it aggravates acne. Butter, Dutch researchers have discovered, has no effect on acne at all—although margarine makes acne worse.
This means that teens who have acne need to avoid products that contain whey5, such as:
If there’s still a problem, then cut back on other kinds of cheese and finally on milk, ice cream, and yogurt.
There is, however, to have your whey and eat it, too. Work for it. The very best time to consume any kind of product containing whey is right after you workout doing resistance exercise, lifting weights or or doing any other activity that causes a “burn” in your muscles. For about two hours after this kind of workout, the muscles are about 50 times more sensitive than usual to insulin. They need insulin to help them absorb the glucose, amino acids, and water they need to repair damaged fibers and to grow larger. Consuming whey products right after a workout helps your muscles and doesn’t hurt your skin, but they need to be consumed during the first hour after your workout, not during or before. It’s still OK to take other foods and beverages that don’t contain dairy.
To be your most trusted ally in your pursuit of clear, healthy skin.