Some studies suggest a link between consuming dairy and developing acne. However, more research is necessary to determine why this is and whether or not making dietary changes can help treat acne.

A number of studies suggest that certain dietary factors may worsen acne, though there needs to be more research in this area before researchers can make any firm conclusions.

This article examines the link between dairy and acne. It also looks at the possible reasons for the connection and whether or not eliminating dairy can improve acne.

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More research is necessary to determine whether there is a link between dairy consumption and acne.

There has been limited research into the link between dairy and acne.

Although there is currently no evidence to suggest that dairy directly causes acne, it may influence or aggravate it.

One 2018 analysis examined dairy intake and acne among 78,529 children, adolescents, and young adults.

Specifically, the researchers explored the link between acne and dietary intake of:

  • different types of dairy, including milk, yogurt, and cheese
  • dairy subgroups, such as full fat, low fat, skim, and whole milk
  • dairy at various amounts and frequencies

They found that consuming any type of dairy was associated with a higher likelihood of acne in people aged 7–30 years.

Acne was more likely to occur in people who consumed low fat and skim milk. The researchers say that this finding might be because people often consume a higher amount of low fat and skim milk than full fat and whole milk.

They also found that acne was more likely in people who drank one glass of milk or more each day than in people who drank two to six glasses per week or under.

The researchers note that the studies they examined were of varying quality, so people should interpret the results with caution.

The studies were unable to determine whether or not dairy directly causes acne or prove that eliminating dairy from the diet prevents acne.

A 2019 study that examined research from several observational studies found that although there is a relationship between milk consumption and acne, there was no significant relationship between yogurt or cheese and acne.

Researchers have come up with a few theories about how consuming dairy might affect acne.

The following sections will outline these in more detail.

Growth hormones

Insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) is a hormone in the blood. Milk also naturally contains IGF-1, as well as other hormones, including prolactin, prostaglandins, and steroids.

One study found that adults who drank 3 servings of milk daily for 12 weeks had levels of IGF-1 that were around 10% higher than those of people who drank no milk.

Also, several studies indicate that milk consumption increases levels of IGF-1 in the blood by 9–20% in children aged 10–12 years.

IGF-1 may increase sebum production. Sebum is an oil in the skin that may block pores and cause acne.

Another study found that IGF-1 levels were higher in people with acne than in those without. The association between the IGF-1 level and the number of acne lesions was particularly strong among adult females.

Artificial hormones

In the United States, farmers often treat cows with a synthetic hormone called recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) to increase milk production. RBGH stimulates a cow’s milk production by increasing the levels of IGF-1.

RBGH-treated cows may produce milk that has higher levels of IGF-1 than milk from untreated cows. Humans may absorb small amounts of additional IGF-1 when drinking the milk from rBGH-treated cows, which may aggravate any acne they have.

However, the most recent review from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) states that there is little evidence to suggest that milk from rBGH-treated cows has higher levels of IGF-1 than milk from untreated cows.

Some health organizations have questioned whether or not humans absorb rBGH, which may independently raise IGF-1 levels. However, according to the FDA, bovine growth hormone is not active in humans, so even if a person were to absorb rBGH with milk, it would be unlikely to cause any health concerns.

Milk proteins

The link between acne and dairy is stronger for skim milk than low fat and whole milk. This may suggest that the relationship is because of other things in milk, such as milk proteins, rather than the milk fat content.

The main proteins in milk are whey and casein. Whey increases blood insulin levels, while casein increases IGF-1. These proteins may trigger an acne breakout.

Although there is some anecdotal evidence to suggest that eliminating dairy may reduce acne breakouts, no scientific experiments have proved this.

Researchers are aware that there might be a link between dairy and acne, but they do not yet know why the connection exists or if avoiding dairy can improve acne.

What research has shown is that:

  • Acne is more likely to affect people who consume dairy than those who do not.
  • People who drink one or more glass of milk each day have a higher chance of developing acne than people who drink less milk.
  • Acne is more common in Western countries and affects around 80% of people in the U.S. at some point in their lives.
  • There may be a link between acne and the Western diet, which typically includes dairy proteins and foods high on the glycemic index.

The American Academy of Dermatology do not recommend specific dietary changes for people with acne. There is also insufficient evidence to support milk restriction or avoidance as a treatment for acne.

However, if a person thinks that diet might be contributing to their acne, they could complete a daily food diary.

For example, a person could ask themselves whether or not there are any particular foods or beverages that seem to worsen existing acne or trigger a breakout, and whether or not the symptoms improve if the person avoids those particular items for a day, week, or month.

If a person has acne that is not responding to self-care or over-the-counter treatments, they can make an appointment with their doctor.

Receiving effective treatment for acne helps reduce the risk of scarring and the chance of developing self-esteem issues.

A doctor may refer the person to a skin condition specialist, such as a dermatologist.

Research suggests that there may be a link between dairy consumption and acne. Currently, however, research is limited, and more studies are required to explore this potential connection.

Most theories regarding the link between dairy and acne suggest the involvement of IGF-1. High levels of this could trigger acne symptoms.

Although anecdotal evidence suggests that reducing or eliminating dairy may improve acne, no studies have yet proved this.