The link between dairy and acne

With cases of adult acne on the rise, nutritionist Kim Pearson explores the link between dairy products and flare-ups and offers advice for clients. 

Acne is the most common skin disease of Western civilisation, affecting more than 85% of adolescents as well as a significant percentage of adults. The impact of acne on an individual’s quality of life cannot be underestimated. As therapists, many of us are regularly presented with the opportunity to treat and support individuals with acne. In these situations, it’s important to not only address skin concerns from the outside, but also consider how diet may be adversely affecting skin health.

We are becoming increasingly aware of an association between diet and acne. Once dismissed by many medical professionals, the link between consuming dairy products and acne flare-ups is now supported by studies as well as abundant anecdotal evidence from individuals.

In 2009, a systematic literature review was carried out to investigate the association between acne and diet, with 21 observational studies and six clinical trials evaluated. The studies showed that cow’s milk intake increased the prevalence and severity of acne, and the researchers (Ferdowsian and Levin) concluded, “There exists convincing data supporting the role of dairy products in influencing hormonal and inflammatory factors, which can increase acne prevalence and severity”.

Hormone links
Hormone links Many people believe it’s the fat content of dairy products that exacerbates acne, but this is unlikely to be the case. A 2005 US study called “High school dietary dairy intake and teenage acne” found a link between acne and intake of skimmed milk as well as fullfat milk.

The researchers suggested that milk may have triggered acne not due to its fat content, but because of the hormones and bioactive molecules naturally present within it. Acne is impacted by diets that increase insulin and insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) signalling. As shown in a 2009 study by researchers Melnik and Schmitz, IGF-1 stimulates sebum production, a well-known cause of acne breakouts.

Milk consumption significantly increases levels of hormones insulin and IGF-1, comparable with the effects of high glycaemic food. Low glyceamic diets that are also low in milk protein reduce IGF-1 signalling.

Make a change
Trialling an elimination diet is the simplest and most effective way to identify whether dairy is triggering acne breakouts. Recommend to clients that they completely avoid dairy for a minimum of four weeks to establish this.

Dairy ingredients are hidden in many food products you wouldn’t necessarily expect, so advise clients to read labels carefully. As it is a common allergen, the Food Standards Agency states that dairy must be emphasised on the ingredients list, so it is often highlighted in bold font.

Unless a known trigger has already been identified, it is always worth advising acne patients to minimise consumption of high glyceamic foods and to trial a dairy elimination diet. Dietary changes can be a long-term solution to reducing and even eliminating acne breakouts in some individuals.

Alternative to popular dairy products:

Kim Pearson qualified as a nutritionist in 2008. Her specialities include weight management, healthy ageing and skin health. She writes articles, speaks at conferences and trains health care professionals in nutrition and diet. She is a member of the CNHC, BANT and the Guild of Health Writers.