Can milk cause acne?

Around 90% of people experience acne in their lifetime. Acne can be caused by skin follicles becoming blocked and oil building up under the skin. The blocked pore can then become infected with bacteria which can result in painful spots.

There are many factors that trigger breakouts, including your diet. Carb-rich, sugary and dairy items are often blamed as culprits for causing acne for many individuals. Looking a little deeper into the issue, several scientific studies have measured whether consuming particular foods such as milk could be a trigger of acne.

In the American Growing Up Today study which surveyed 4,273 boys and 6,094 girls aged 9–15 years, scientists found that there was a significant correlation between the consumption of milk and acne. These results are echoed by another study that analysed adults food diaries and revealed that those who drank one glass of milk or more per day were more likely to experience acne.

Dairy Intake and Acne Vulgaris: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of 78,529 Children, Adolescents, and Young Adults (Juhl et al., 2018)

Contrary to common belief, milk isn’t linked to acne because it contains high levels of dairy fat. This claim is supported by one survey that showed teenage boys who drank semi-skimmed milk suffered from more severe acne than those who drank full-fat milk. This suggests that the fat content of milk is not important in acne production.

Instead of fat, it is the increase of the hormone Insulin-Growth-Factor 1 (known as IFG-1) which is likely causing acne. IGF‐1 promotes growth of all tissues, including the skin follicle. It is believed this follicular stimulation may lead to acne as it increases hyperkeratinization – the process where cells do not shed from the skin surface, but instead block the pores.

Acne can be caused by bacteria or dead skin cells accumulating under the surface

Moreover, milk is known to contain other hormones which affect the skin such as estrogen. Estrogen can suppress the sebaceous gland function – preventing the antibacterial sebum from moisturising the skin. Milk consumption has also been linked to an increase in androgenic hormones too which can cause a chain reaction that leads to oily skin.

When educating ourselves on food-acne linkages, it is important to caution against extreme dietary practices. Even though there seems to be a link between milk and acne for the general population, it is important to draw your own conclusions based on personal experience. A really good way of finding your own acne triggers by keeping a food diary for a few weeks to see whether drinking milk is followed by an increase in flair ups on your own skin.

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