Does drinking milk really cause acne?

Madge Maril
·3-min read
Photo credit: Elena Medoks
Photo credit: Elena Medoks

From Harper's BAZAAR

My milk preferences change with my mood. I opt for oat milk when I’m feeling fancy or almond if I want to cut back on sugar — though true to my midwestern roots, I still love taking my coffee with good, old-fashioned dairy milk. But late last month, I noticed something strange happening to my skin when I switched back to skimmed milk from oat: my nose and the skin around it was suddenly and inexplicably beetroot-red.

Naturally, my mind went straight to my increased dairy intake, since the aphorism that "milk's bad for your skin" is as common as "drink water for good skin." (Been there, tried that). And interestingly, I wasn’t completely wrong this time. “We know that dairy, particularly skimmed milk, has been associated with skin inflammation and acne breakouts,” says Dr. Joshua Zeichner, associate professor of dermatology and director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai hospital. “The thought is that skimmed milk contains a high sugar load as well as whey protein, which activates messengers that stimulate our oil glands. This means more oil and inflammation, leading to acne breakouts.”

Why does milk cause acne?

Let’s talk about whey protein, since you might only know it as something you can buy in bulk for your smoothies. “Whey proteins are mixtures of proteins isolated from whey, which is the liquid part of milk that separates when cheese is made,” explains Skin Wellness Dermatology’s Dr. Corey L. Hartman. From there, this protein can create a domino effect. “Whey increases the production of Insulin-like Growth Factor 1 (IGF-1). Insulin increases the production of oil, which contributes to the development of acne. It also triggers androgen production: testosterone hormones that stimulate oil and cause acne,” says Hartman. Dr. Joyce Imahiyerobo-Ip, CEO of Vibrant Dermatology and Skin Bar MD, also notes that cow milk contains casein—another protein linked to IGF-1—and “high levels” of progesterone, “which is converted to an acne-stimulating hormone dihydroxytesterone in human sebaceous glands.”

What about oat milk?

Swapping in a dairy-free alternative may not be the solution you're seeking, either. Shapiro points out that while plant and nut milks might not contain casein, whey protein, or hormones — "which can help consumers avoid skin and digestive issues"— they can be formulated with gums, emulsifiers, preservatives, carrageenans, and extra sugar. These can trigger gut and skin issues, too. “When purchasing alternative milks, I recommend reading ingredient labels first,” she says. “Look for clean, simple, whole-food-based ingredient lists.”

So, while I might still have a soft spot for dairy milk, this is all a lot to take in. “Dairy isn’t all bad. Fermented dairy products, such as yogurt, help deliver probiotics to the body,” says Zeichner. And that has a domino effect as well: “Probiotics are bacteria that help restore a healthy microbiome. The microbiome is the collection of microorganisms, including bacteria, fungi, and viruses that live symbiotically on our bodies.”

I switched from the occasional splash of skimmed milk just to see what would happen, and surprise, surprise — my involuntary sunburn went away. Although my nose is probably always going to look a little redder and jollier than I’d like, my skin tone actually looks like the rest of my face now. Not too shabby for a skin care fix I can take with my coffee.

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