Dairy is an all-encompassing food type that includes the likes of milk, butter, cheese, and yogurt and is a staple of many western diets.
It’s no secret that dairy can be beneficial for our health, providing us with essential nutrients like calcium and protein. However, there is some debate over whether foods like milk are good or bad for our skin.
On the one hand, some people believe that dairy can cause acne. On the other hand, dairy contains beneficial nutrients, which can support and improve skin health.
So, what’s the verdict? Is dairy bad for your skin, or do the positives outweigh the negatives?
Research says: dairy and acne correlate
The elephant in the room here is, does milk cause acne? The answer is, maybe.
A 2019 meta-analysis (that’s a study that studies the studies for those of us who aren’t scientists) looked at 14 different pieces of research that analyzed the link between dairy and acne and concluded that there was indeed a link between dairy intake and acne occurrence.
“Intake of any dairy, any milk, full-fat dairy, whole milk, low-fat/skim milk, and yoghurt regardless of amount or frequency was associated with a higher odds ratio for acne compared to no intake in individuals aged 7–30 years” 
Those 14 studies, involving a total of 78,529 people, from places like the USA, Turkey, Italy, Brazil, France, and Nigeria, all showed a positive relationship with dairy causing acne – it seems pretty damning, right?
Well, hold on a second. Further research is needed to establish a direct link; correlation doesn’t always equal causation!
The same meta-analysis states that the findings of those 14 studies should be “interpreted with caution”, as many of them had participants self-report their acne, rather than have it diagnosed and confirmed by a doctor.
What’s more, the results showing that dairy increased the likelihood of acne varied massively, ranging from just 7% to a massive 89%, which is somewhat suspicious.
Why does dairy seem to cause acne?
There is some evidence to suggest that dairy products, particularly milk, may contribute to the development of acne in some people. However, the exact mechanisms by which dairy might cause acne are not fully understood and further research is needed to confirm these findings.
One possible explanation is that dairy products can raise levels of insulin and insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) in the body, which in turn can stimulate the production of sebum, a type of oil that can clog pores and contribute to acne. Another possibility is that milk contains hormones such as estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone, which can also influence sebum production and contribute to acne.
In addition, some people may be sensitive or allergic to certain components in dairy products, such as casein or whey protein, which can trigger an inflammatory response and contribute to acne.
It’s worth noting that not everyone who consumes dairy products will develop acne and that other factors such as genetics, lifestyle, and skin care habits can also play a role in the development of acne.
Dairy’s skin benefits
Dairy products can provide several benefits for the skin when consumed in moderation as part of a healthy, balanced diet. Some of the potential skin benefits of dairy include:
Lactic acid, which is found in dairy products such as milk and yogurt, is a type of alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) that can help to exfoliate and hydrate the skin. By gently removing dead skin cells and promoting skin cell turnover, lactic acid can help to improve the texture and appearance of dry or dull skin, leaving it looking brighter, smoother, and more radiant.
Vitamins A and D are both essential for healthy skin and can help to reduce the signs of aging. Vitamin A helps to stimulate collagen production, which is important for maintaining skin elasticity and firmness. Collagen is a protein that helps to support the structure of the skin and keep it looking smooth and youthful. Vitamin D, on the other hand, helps to protect the skin against environmental damage, such as UV radiation from the sun, which can contribute to premature aging.
While some studies have suggested that dairy products may contribute to the development of acne in some people, other research has suggested that probiotic-rich dairy products such as yogurt may help to reduce inflammation and improve skin health. Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that can help to restore the natural balance of bacteria in the gut and on the skin, which can in turn reduce inflammation and promote healthy skin.
Vitamin K2, which is found in some dairy products such as cheese and butter, has been shown to have potential sun-protective properties. Studies have suggested that vitamin K2 may help to protect the skin against the damaging effects of UV radiation from the sun, which can contribute to premature aging and skin cancer. However, it’s worth noting that the amount of vitamin K2 in dairy products is relatively small, and other sun protection measures such as wearing sunscreen and protective clothing are still important for reducing the risk of sun damage.
How you can tell if dairy is causing your skin problems
The best way to figure out if dairy is causing your acne is to completely remove it from your diet for 4-6 weeks and see if your skin improves.
If you do see an improvement in your skin, dairy was likely the culprit. However, if you don’t see a change, it’s probably not the cause of your acne and you can continue to enjoy dairy as part of a healthy, balanced diet.
Additionally, keeping a food diary could be useful for tracking your food intake and identifying any patterns or triggers that may be linked to your skin problems. Write down everything you eat and drink, including the time of day and portion sizes, as well as any symptoms or changes in your skin that you experience. This can help you to identify potential triggers, such as consuming dairy products, and make changes to your diet as needed.
So, what’s the verdict? Dairy and acne – is there a link? The research seems to suggest that there might be, but more studies are needed.
If you’re struggling with breakouts and want to test out whether dairy could be the culprit, try cutting it out of your diet for a few weeks and see if your skin improves.
If it does, then you know what the solution is – but don’t forget that dairy also has some important nutrients for keeping your skin looking its best. You could try switching to a plant-based milk alternative and see if that makes a difference, or if you do remove dairy completely, make sure you’re getting the nutrients dairy would provide elsewhere in your diet.