Can milk cause acne?

My post last Friday concerned my ‘love-hate’ relationship with dairy products – I generally like the way they taste, but am also acutely aware that they can quite-often trigger health issues in myself and others. I first leaned this when the elimination of cow’s milk products 20-odd years ago eliminated my eczema too. Other symptoms and conditions that are often linked to dairy-sensitivity include asthma, gut symptoms and ENT issues including sinus/nasal congestion and catarrh.

One other condition that has been linked with dairy consumption is acne. I remember a few years ago a campaigning group in the U.S. would hand out information urging teenagers to eschew milk (and perhaps other dairy products) on the basis that they could cause acne. If I remember rightly, the literature was adorned by cartoon-type images of children with acne-afflicted skin drinking milk.

I was reminded on the supposed link between milk and acne by a comment that came after my post last Friday. The commenter asked me to comment. I thought I’d at least have a look to see if there was any literature at all on this. It turns out that indeed there is.

The evidence in this area comes from what are known as ‘epidemiological’ studies which look at associations between things, but cannot generally be used to prove that one thing is causing another. However, to prove a causal link would require studies in which individuals are fed dairy products or ‘placebo’ dairy products (foodstuffs that look and taste like dairy products but are not actually made from animal milk) to see what effect, if any, these have on individuals’ propensity to acne. The chances of such studies being done are, well, virtually zero. So, it makes sense to at least look at what the epidemiological evidence shows.

I can find three studies in the area, and all of them show some association between milk consumption and heightened risk of acne [1-3]. The first of these studies [1] found that those drinking the most milk were more likely to have acne, and that this association was highest for skimmed milk. This first study was a so-called ‘case control’ study, which essentially takes a snapshot of a factor (e.g. milk consumption) and a disease (e.g. acne) in time.

While these studies are of some value, they are generally considered inferior to so-called ‘cohort’ studies (sometimes referred to as ‘prospective’ studies) which assess, say, dietary habits and disease risk over time. The two remaining studies in the area are cohort studies. One [2] looked at girls, and the other [3], boys. In girls, consuming two or more servings of milk each day compared to less than one serving a week was associated with about a 20 per cent increased risk of acne. For boys, the apparent risk increase was of a similar magnitude (about 16 per cent).

If milk does cause acne, how does it do it? Milk, it turns out, has the ability to induce the secretion of the hormone insulin [4]. Insulin secretion can drive the secretion of a related substance known as insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1). One effect of this is to raise testosterone levels (heightened levels of male hormones – androgens – can cause acne). It is, of course, possible that other characteristics of dairy products (e.g. hormones) might also affect acne risk.

Other foods that, in theory, might enhance acne risk through their effects on insulin/IGF-1 are those that release sugar relatively quickly into the bloodstream (high glycaemic index and high glycaemic load foods). Some evidence supports this association. For more on this, see here.

References:

1. Adebamowo CA, et al. High school dietary intake and teenage acne. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2005;52(2):207-14.

2. Adebamowo CA, et al. Milk consumption and acne in adolescent girls. Dermatol Online J. 2006 May 30;12(4):1

3. Adebamowo CA, et al. Milk consumption and acne in teenaged boys. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2008;58(5):787-93.

4. Hoyt G, et al. Dissociation of the glycaemic and insulinaemic responses to whole and skimmed milk. Br J Nutr 2005;93(2):175-177

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18 Responses to Can milk cause acne?

  1. Mallory 12 April 2010 at 6:56 pm #

    been wondering WHY dairy causes me acne… now i understand… i also got the temples beating on the side of my head after eating dairy so i definitely know it secretes way to much insulin especially considering it is “low carb”…. is there a reason for it shooting up my insulin and driving acne? what i mean, why some peopel respond badly to dairy and others dont?

  2. Marg 12 April 2010 at 7:24 pm #

    As a skinny 20-something in the early 1970s, I developed bad cystic acne during my first pregnancy. After the pregnancy, a dermatologist had me go off all milk, cream, cheese, and animal fat — pizza was a prime suspect. I did and the condition cleared almost immediately. I didn’t eat pizza for about 10 years.

    I am now a post-menopausal very low carb eater and wouldn’t eat pizza for that reason, but I do eat copious amounts of cream, cheese, and animal fat, with no dermatological consequences.

    No doubt some complex hormonal connections explain this.

  3. Karl 13 April 2010 at 1:05 am #

    I started to drink raw milk about 4 months ago. About 1 month ago there wasn’t enough raw milk available at the shop so I bought 1 bottle of pasteurised milk. Within 1 day of drinking the pasteurised milk my acne started again, very big pimples as well. I threw the pasteurised milk away and my acne hasn’t come back since. I will never drink pasteurised milk again and is tastes so stale compared to raw milk.

  4. SassaFrass88 13 April 2010 at 2:00 am #

    Could be in correlation to ‘Leaky Gut’, in that ‘non-raw’ dairy is a dead sugar/ carb, which feeds ‘bad’ gut bacteria. Personally, I’m trying to heal my “Leaky Gut Syndrome”, which definitely attributes to my eczema issues when non-raw milk/ dairy products enter the small intestine (along with grains, etc). It becomes a breeding ground for bad bacteria and viruses to directly enter the blood. I personally know that my acne & eczema are in direct correlation to this ‘leaky gut’ syndrome, since my eliminations are not optimal, my nutrition absorption is low and the infiltration of bad ‘bugs’ is increased.

  5. simona 13 April 2010 at 1:58 pm #

    SassaFrass,

    are you the sassafrass from the ABC Lost forums?
    Are you aware of the possible connection between ‘leaky gut’ and gluten/grains?

  6. simona 13 April 2010 at 2:00 pm #

    Thank you Dr. Briffa, for taking the time to write a post on the subject.

  7. Dr John Briffa 13 April 2010 at 2:29 pm #

    Simona

    Thanks for putting the idea in my head – and thanks for your thanks!

  8. rachel 16 April 2010 at 5:17 pm #

    How interesting! i’ve been trying to get to the cause of my acne (mostly on my face and legs) for years. It has got much worse recently – now think I can put this down to a diet I’ve been following on which you can consume lots of fat free yogurts, quark and fromage frais. Gosh!

  9. frances 17 April 2010 at 1:25 am #

    I can never get my head around fat free dairy anything…….

  10. rachel 19 April 2010 at 6:03 pm #

    I’ll get my head around anything if it helps me lose weight and allows me to eat alot.

  11. vikas 16 September 2010 at 8:36 pm #

    its at least true for me. i am now acne free in a month or so after avoiding milk and milk products. i also checked it by having a glass of milk 1 day. interesting 2 acne bounced back on my face. i would suggest that there is no harm in leaving it and checking whether someone has milk problem with it. :)

  12. Anela Tello 21 February 2011 at 2:09 am #

    Dear Dr Briffa,

    I have a dear friend that has a 3 year old daugther, she suffers from severe eczema. He has tried anything and everything to help his little girl, and the only thing that seems to be working is a cortisone cream. He can’t stand using it, cause he knows its not healing the problem, it just “covers” it up for the meantime. But he feels forced to use it when she wakes up every single night crying and scratching herself to the point that she starts bleeding. He only sees his daugther every other weekend, the parents are not together. Would cutting out dairy be a solution? any other advise you could give me?
    Hope to hear from you soon,
    Thank you,
    Anela.

  13. Belle 21 April 2011 at 3:03 pm #

    That’s an interesting topic. I love drinking milk but never thought it’s the cause of my occasional acne. Well, that’s a good thing to know. What I use in treating my acne is oreganol. Oreganol is a natural product and a very potent antiseptic. Because of this, oreganol can kill bacterias causing acne. Such a good product to use!

  14. Donna 31 May 2011 at 9:39 pm #

    I’d been drinking kefir milk along w/ eating 2-3 cups of cereal w/ milk everyday and noticed that my jaw line and chin started to break out w/ big, painful pimples. Come to find out that once I stop drinking the kefir or milk altogether, the pimples just went away. Wow, I didn’t know that milk can do this to your skin.

  15. Marcus 26 October 2011 at 5:08 pm #

    Hi. Thanks for the posts. I have reviewed milk and acne and discover that the milk is not so much the problem but the hormones in the milk.

    Oat milk is a good alternative and will probably help.

    Milk and Acne – Is There A Link?

  16. Zheni 25 December 2011 at 1:17 am #

    Very interesting topic indeed!
    I moved to the UK at the age of 17 with perfectly clear skin. about 5-6 months later I had very bad outbreak. Antibiotics temporarily solved it but 6 years on, I still wonder what to try next to get rid of it.
    I personally have never liked the milk sold in supermarkets, as it is pasteurised and processed. Obviously the process is to sterilise and so on but to me it seems kind of impure.
    I will stop consuming dairy and I shall see if there is any change. Hope there is!

  17. Jonathan Eloff 18 July 2012 at 3:46 am #

    Interesting! Have you read anything about the connection to iodine containing foods (such as dairy) and acne? This seems to be a link as well, however, I’ve read it is only a temporary side effect of iodine, since it takes the place of bromide in the body, pushing the bromide out and causing “bromide acne.” I’ve also read that the hormones in milk products are fat soluble, so if those hormones were causing acne, wouldn’t we see the reverse of the correlation specified in the first study you mentioned, where skim milk was most strongly correlated with acne? I feel like the insulin connection makes sense, but I’m forced to ask, in those cohort studies, for those who had lower dairy consumption, isn’t it reasonable to assume they were probably making up those calories with even more insulin-provoking foods? E.g. White flour, sugar? The only reliable connection I’ve been able to find between milk products and acne is the iodine connection, but I haven’t found any reliable literature that describes the mechanism of this action. The bromide acne theory comes from an informal source, so I’m loathe to trust it.

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