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Skin School  >   Acne Basics

Milk: Does It Do a Body Good? A Look at the Dairy-Acne Connection

Whether through the “does a body good” commercials of the ‘80s or the more recent “Got Milk” campaign, most of us grew up hearing about the ways a milk-heavy diet helps children build strong bones and adults stave off osteoporosis.

However, the truth is that the majority of the world’s adult population is lactose intolerant (approximately 65% according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine). In other words, they don’t have the lactase enzyme, which is needed to digest the milk sugar lactose.

Why people aren’t guzzling milk anymore

New research suggests that drinking cow’s milk is both unnatural and unhealthy. Sure, calcium helps our bones to grow and get stronger, our blood to clot, our muscles to contract, and our heart to beat. Our bodies need calcium. But milk isn’t the only, or even the best, source of calcium.

Recent studies have found that countries like Singapore and Hong Kong, where people consume the least amount of milk, also have the lowest rates of osteoporosis. Others have connected a high intake of dairy and milk to an increased risk of prostate, breast and ovarian cancer.

Another reason why many people choose not to drink milk is the belief that dairy farming is cruel or unethical. Cows are often separated from their mothers too soon after birth, confined in harsh living conditions and fed the wrong types of food. We won’t get into all of the gory details and philosophical arguments surrounding factory farms in this post, but you can learn more here.

In general, the vast majority of adults have trouble digesting cow’s milk, which results in bloating, acid reflux, gas, stomach pain and general inflammation. The inflammation not only causes constipation and diarrhea, but can also result in acne.

hands holding a hot water bottle on stomach

So how exactly does milk cause acne?

To date, there is no conclusive evidence that drinking milk will directly cause a breakout … but numerous studies have established a correlation between milk consumption and acne severity.

In 1998, one study surveyed 47,355 women who had physician-diagnosed severe teenage acne. After they adjusted each participant’s age, BMI and energy intake, researchers found a positive association with acne from the participants who drank whole and/or skim milk. In a 2008 study, 4,273 teenage boys were asked about their diet and acne. The study concluded that the boys who drank more skim milk had more severe acne.

Glass of milk next to face with severe acne

So what is it about dairy products (including milk) that could be exacerbating acne?

Hormones. Milk contains androgen hormones, which are already present in our bodies and work to control sebum production. And you probably already know that an excess amount of sebum is one of the top three reasons your skin may break out. Testosterone, an androgen hormone, creates dihydrotestosterone (DHT), which directly stimulates the production of sebaceous glands and sebum. Scientists believe that milk has a high concentration of DHT, causing those who drink a lot of milk to have more acne and oily skin.

Along with DHT, many dairy farmers also give cows an insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) to help them produce more milk. IGF-1 is a natural growth hormone found in the body and is highest during adolescence - or exactly when acne is at its peak. IGF-1 can both trigger breakouts and increase the severity of acne.

A few great alternatives 

Some of you may be thinking, “my skin is clear and I drink milk.” The acne-dairy connection is a highly debated topic, even among medical professionals. While there is definitely some degree of a relationship between dairy products and acne, it’s not like chugging a bottle of milk will result in an instant breakout. However, if you already have sensitive or acne-prone skin, eliminating dairy or milk from your diet may benefit your skin. So why not give it a try? When you want a bowl of cereal or a splash of milk for your coffee, reach for coconut or soy milk instead. Both are healthy, delicious alternatives to dairy milk.


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