Skin is the body’s largest organ and has a string of important functions but what we usually care about is how it looks. The last thing it needs is acne and there is a mass of scientific research pointing the finger at one particular culprit – dairy products.
Acne is one of the most common diseases of the skin which can affect our social and emotional life more than we’d like to admit. Eighty to 90 per cent of all adolescents in the Western world experience it to some degree and many become scarred.
It is caused by obstruction and inflammation of hair follicles and the oil (sebum) glands in the skin. If the hair follicles also become infected with bacteria (usually Propionibacterium acnes) the situation gets much worse.
Population studies show that acne is much less common in non-Western societies and increases with junk food diets.
One of the largest-ever studies (1) (over 47,000 subjects) discovered that the more dairy products women consumed as teenagers, the more they suffered from severe, GP-diagnosed, acne. The most likely cause, say the authors, is the many hormones and other bioactive molecules that dairy products naturally contain.
One of the main culprits is a growth hormone called IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor-1), which is what calves need to grow fast. Dairy products contain it but they also increase production of our body’s own IGF-1. On top of that, when you consume dairy products, your body also produces insulin, which helps to digest the sugar in milk (lactose) but it produces too much and you are left with more insulin in your blood than you need.
Increased insulin and IGF-1 make skin cells more sensitive to androgens – steroid hormones in dairy products which directly affect your skin cells. They encourage more and faster production of oil (sebum) and skin cells and the result is oily skin and clogged pores where bacteria can breed.
It’s interesting that body builders who use steroid hormones are more prone to acne as are athletes who use whey-based supplements in shakes and the like. Dairy affects hormone levels and therefore the skin. Case studies show that young athletes lost their acne when taken off whey supplements but it returned when they went back to using them (2).
Two large studies looked at nine to 15 year-old children, including over 6,000 girls (3) and more than 4,000 boys (4). For girls, there was a strong link between acne severity and all types of dairy products – severe acne was 20 per cent more likely if they consumed two or more servings of milk per day compared to girls who consumed less than one serving per week.
For boys, the association was significant for all their milk intake but also for skimmed milk alone – two or more servings of milk per day made them 16 per cent more likely to have severe acne compared to boys who consumed less than one serving per week.
And another study (5) confirmed the dairy-acne link. Severe acne increased with rising milk consumption (more than three servings a week).
The research is very clear – dairy is the main offender where acne’s concerned, closely followed by sugary and processed food. A diet high in fruit and vegetables, wholegrains and pulses, on the other hand, seems to be the best for your skin. Oh, and research shows that chocolate (nondairy) is not linked to acne!
Tips for better skin
Cut out all dairy productsMake sure you drink enough water - either on its own or as herbal or green tea (green tea has shown beneficial effects on the skin)Eat fresh fruit and vegetables (for their antioxidants, vitamins and minerals) and add leafy green veg (broccoli, kale, cabbage, spinach, watercress, etc.) to one of your daily mealsSnack on unsweetened dried fruit and nuts - nuts are a good source of B and E vitamins, essential fats and a range of minerals such as zinc, manganese and iron (and your skin needs all of them!)Cut back on sugary and processed food - these are a bad influence on the skin!Alcohol dehydrates the body and is a source of sugar so it can contribute to skin problems - it's best to not have more than two alcoholic drinks in a day. Red wine is the best choice for its antioxidant content and other beneficial effects.Treat yourself to some nice dark chocolate - non-dairy chocolate with a higher cocoa content is actually good for you! (although, sadly, not in unlimited amounts) It's full of antioxidants and makes you feel happier.Use natural skin care products as many preservatives and synthetic ingredients can irritate your skin or clog the poresGetting enough sleep can noticeably improve your skin - get at least seven hours at night!Protect your skin - we all need vitamin D, which the skin can cleverly manufacture when exposed to sunlight, but we only need about 15-20 minutes of unprotected skin exposure a day so if you know you'll be spending a lot of time outside, use a product with SPF15Increasing blood flow can work wonders for your skin - get active! Go for a brisk walk, dance, exercise, cycle, run up the stairs, have fun!Exfoliate - use a face scrub twice a week to remove dead skin and improve blood circulationGive your skin a break - go make-up free for at least two days a week so your skin can relax and get enough oxygen
1 Adebamowo, C.A., Spiegelman, D., Danby, F.W., et al., 2005. High school dietary dairy intake and teenage acne. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. 52 (2): 207-214
2 Silverberg, N.B., 2012. Whey protein precipitating moderate to severe acne flares in 5 teenaged athletes. Cutis. 90 (2): 70-72
3 Adebamowo, C.A., Spiegelman, D., Berkey, C.S., et al., 2006. Milk consumption and acne in adolescent girls. Dermatology Online Journal. 12 (4): 1
4 Adebamowo, C.A., Spiegelman, D., Berkey, C.S., et al., 2008. Milk consumption and acne in teenaged boys. Journal of American Academy of Dermatology. 58(5):787-793
5 Di Landro, A., Cazzaniga, S., Parazzini, F., et al., 2012. Family history, body mass index, selected dietary factors, menstrual history, and risk of moderate to severe acne in adolescents and young adults. Journal of American Academy of Dermatology. 67 (6): 1129-1135