Dairy and acne, where is the truth?
You might have heard that cutting out dairy consumption can help to fight acne, is that true?
Let’s start from the beginning and explain what the rationales and theories behind it are.
First theory is about the content of insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) in dairy products. As the name suggests, this is a hormone that stimulates growth and has the same molecular structure as insulin. It is produced mainly in the liver and can bind to insulin receptors (but is way weaker than insulin). In certain occasion is beneficial, like children need growth hormones to…well, grow! IGF-1, however, like insulin also seems to stimulate sebum production, responsible for the classic oily appearance in individuals with acne, and to promote keratinisation of the skin, effectively clogging the pores. IGF-1 also stimulate the production of androgens, aka male hormones. Both women and males need a certain quantity of these hormones, however when there are too many around then we also end up having enlarged sebaceous glands and increased sebum production. On top of this, farmers outside Europe could treat dairy cows with extra growth and sex hormones to produce more milk, thus potentially ending up having higher amounts of IGF-1. So, if you are having dairy products, make sure they come from Europe to be assured that are artificial hormones-free. A 2019 study (Aghasi et al.), as well as many recent studies, confirm a relationship between dairy and acne, but that does not mean that dairy causes acne.
Some research points the finger to the whey protein content in dairy products as the main culprit of acne breakouts. This type of protein is widely used in the sport industry as protein powder, thought to improve performance and muscle mass. Some studies have found a connection between whey protein consumption and acne, most probably due to its insulin-like effects.
This brings us to the second theory, the insulin effect of certain foods on our body. I’ll try to explain the process in simple terms. Dairy, as well as refined foods and processed sugars, can impact the way that insulin performs. In normal conditions, when we eat food, our body breaks it down into smaller molecules (sugar, lipids and amino acids) and produces insulin from the pancreas. The insulin helps to shuttle nutrients from the blood to our cells, via a receptor. When we consume a diet rich in refined foods and sugars our cells become de-sensitised and do not let nutrients inside when insulin appears at the receptor site and the sugars start to accumulate in the blood. Your body reacts by producing extra insulin (and sebum) and you enter the vicious cycle. High insulin (hyperinsulinemia) also promotes the production of androgens, with the results that we mentioned above.
If you are thinking to eliminate dairy foods (temporary or long term) remember to check what nutrients you are missing out. Dairy products are a good source of calcium, vitamin D and protein, so where else will you get these nutrients from? Never eliminate a food without thinking about its nutrients first. I tend to eat dairy products very sparingly and choose organic when possible. For the people that are intolerant/allergic to dairy, of course the elimination it is a no brainer, but thankfully that is not the case for most people.
Remember also that is important to find the root cause of your acne, or otherwise the problem will not be solved, and you risk future recurrences.
Aghasi M, Golzarand M, Shab-Bidar S, et al. (2019). Dairy intake and acne development: A meta-analysis of observational studies. Clinical Nutrition, 38(3):1067-1075. doi: 10.1016/j.clnu.2018.04.015. Epub 2018 May 8. PMID: 29778512.
Baldwin H, Tan J (2020). Effects of Diet on Acne and Its Response to Treatment. American Journal of Clinical Dermatology. doi: 10.1007/s40257-020-00542-y. Epub ahead of print. Erratum in: Am J Clin Dermatol. 2020 Dec 26; PMID: 32748305.
Kumari R, Thappa DM (2013). Role of insulin resistance and diet in acne. Indian Journal of Dermatology, Venereology and Leprology, 79(3):291-9. doi: 10.4103/0378-6323.110753. PMID: 23619434.
Silverberg NB (2012). Whey protein precipitating moderate to severe acne flares in 5 teenaged athletes. Cutis, 90(2):70-2. PMID: 22988649.
Simonart T (2012). Acne and whey protein supplementation among bodybuilders. Dermatology, 225(3):256-8. doi: 10.1159/000345102. Epub 2012 Dec 13. PMID: 23257731.