Can Dairy Really Cause Acne?

We asked a nutritionist, registered dietician, and dermatologist to explain the connection—if there is one—between dairy consumption and blemishes.

If you have ever spent some time researching your diet's impact on your skin, you have likely come across several stories and testimonials that suggest a link between dairy and acne. Science has yet to catch up: In reality, we just don't know if milk, yogurt, cheese, and (worst of all) ice cream lead to blemishes. To dig deeper into this common claim, however, we chatted with a dietitian, a nutritionist, and a dermatologist. Ahead, everything there is to know about the correlation between acne and dairy.

woman holding cheese platter
istetiana / Getty Images

The connection between dairy and acne is technically unclear.

As registered dietitian Cara Harbstreet of Street Smart Nutrition points out, research about the precise role that dairy plays in acne formation is unclear. "There is limited evidence that suggests consuming dairy causes acne, although there are associations between the consumption of dairy and the severity of acne," she explains. One of those associations is tied directly to adolescents. "Research shows that if you're a teen or a young adult, eating dairy foods does indeed increase your risk of acne," explains celebrity nutritionist Dr. Kellyann Petrucci, who is the creator of The Bone Both Revolution. "One reason is that milk contains hormones [like IGF-1 growth factor and androgen hormones] that can unbalance your own, and hormone imbalances are a leading cause of acne." Additionally, Dr. Petrucci points out that milk is rich in carbohydrates, which many people often forget, considering it's best known for being a high-protein beverage. "Adding a big glass of milk to each meal can increase your carb intake by as much as 40 grams per day," she says, noting that these nutrients can, in excess, increase breakouts.

But for some, dairy does lead to breakouts.

While adolescents are most likely to develop acne due to dairy consumption, board-certified dermatologist Dr. Dendy Engelman notes that those who are lactose intolerant or have lactose sensitivity or allergies are also more susceptible to resulting breakouts. Still, Dr. Petrucci says that teenagers are the most vulnerable. "Their hormones are already going wild, and because most of them are loading up on high-carb junk foods like pizza and fries," she says. "It's a double whammy: Dairy makes their hormones even wilder, and it raises their carb count even higher."

Monitor your body's reaction to dairy products.

Ultimately, you know your body—if your skin becomes angry every time you eat a piece of cheese, there is likely a connection. "If consuming dairy usually leads to a breakout for you, unfortunately, there is no way to completely eliminate breakouts and still eat dairy products," Dr. Engelman says. "However, there are a few things you can do to decrease your chances of breaking out." For starters, monitor how your body reacts to the amount of dairy you eat. "Try cutting out dairy entirely, then gradually re-introducing it throughout the week," she suggests. "If you see your skin reacting adversely, you can limit your intake or switch to a non-dairy alternative." There are a plethora of those: Oat, nut, and plant-based alternatives can give you the satisfaction of creamy dairy products without the negative side effects of acne or, if you're lactose intolerant, an upset stomach.

Dairy likely isn't the single, defining cause of your blemishes.

According to Harbstreet, more studies need to be conducted to uncover a 100-percent causal relationship between dairy and acne. "The bottom line is that since the evidence for dairy causing acne is shaky, there's no reason to actively avoid it unless you have a dairy allergy or sensitivity or prefer to avoid it due to personal preference," she says. "Acne is a complex, multifactorial condition and while changes to your diet could have an impact, clearing and preventing acne may require professional guidance from a dermatologist, an appropriate skin care regimen, or medication."

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