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Dairy & Acne – All you need to know

By Katherine Kimber, Registered Dietitian | July 3, 2018

Dairy and it’s link to Acne is a topic that many people seem to be confused about. Some people are convinced dairy makes their skin worse, while some are just not sure.

We all have our individual needs and differences, however, we can’t just say ‘probably true’ and make wild guesses. So let’s look at what the scientific evidence says…

(click away on the links throughout this document for more info & the actual research studies if you’re a research geek like me!)

What is Acne?

It’s a skin condition, that affects between 50-95% of teenagers aged 12-18 years, and adults too. The main method of acne development is through the overproduction of skin oil (sebum) by skin oil (sebaceous) glands. The sebaceous glands are small glands in the skin which secrete lubricating oily matter (sebum) into the hair follicles to lubricate the skin and hair. 

Acne can be really damaging socially and emotionally for that individual. Several factors are involved in the development of acne including, genetic, sex-hormonal, disease fighting systems, mental factors, and the environment. Some say that western dietary habits, and in particular – cows milk and dairy products – add to acne development.

What research has been done?

Interestingly, a huge new study came out last month, which is the first large and high-quality study in this area. It was a “meta-analysis of observational studies” which is one of the highest quality study designs out there in food studies like this.

They basically searched huge scientific computer files of information for all of the studies published in this area (a very long process which I am very familiar with) and pulled the studies together to create one overall result.

The observational studies that they pulled together, are a study design where they watch large groups of people over time and look at their dietary intake through food recalls and food diaries. They then see who has/hasn’t developed acne. Observational study designs have their limits, but they are the easiest studies to try when looking at population diets and medicine based results like acne.

They found that dairy, total milk, whole fat milk, low fat milk, and skimmed milk consumption was connected with the presence of acne.

So what did they find?

They pulled together 14 observational studies looking at milk, cheese, yoghurt and total dairy intake. The study people ranged from 9-30years old from the USA, Brazil, Italy, Malaysia, Norway, France, Egypt, and Kazakhstan. They found that dairy, total milk, whole fat milk, low fat milk, and skimmed milk consumption was connected with the presence of acne.

The presence of acne appeared to increase with increasing intake of dairy. The low fat products tended to have more of an effect on acne development than the whole milk. Potentially related to the glycaemic index (higher concentration of milk sugars) in the low fat products. But these are speculations. There was no relationship between yoghurt or cheese intake and the presence of acne.

I know what you are thinking… now you want to cut out dairy. But hold fire!!

There were some limits to this study.

Firstly, when looking at individual dairy products (milk, cheese, yoghurt etc.) the number of studies available was very low. For example, only 4 studies looked at low-fat milk, and five at full-fat milk. 

Secondly, there were other factors that could have been related to acne development, that were not recorded in the study. For example, genetics, sex-hormones, disease fighting systems, mental factors, and the environment. The association between acne and dairy could therefore, have happened together by accident. 

Some of the studies identified acne based on self-reports, rather than official diagnosis by a doctor. A few pimples could therefore, have been mistaken for acne.

Finally, there was lack of data on the preparation of the milk which differs from factory to factory and country to country. In fact, we know that boiling and ultra-heat treatment (UHT) techniques have a protective effect against acne. No studies were done in UK population groups!  

How does milk actually affect the skin?

It has been identified that milk and dairy can increase our growth chemicals (hormones) in our body (IGF-1).  IGF-1 is a growth chemical that stimulates growth, cell reproduction, and cell regeneration. Milk and dairy products contain IGF-1 that is not broken down by gut enzymes and leads to IGF-1 elevation.

Also, a protein called casein in milk and dairy products stimulates our liver to release IGF-1. Subsequently, this leads to an increase in the production of skin oil by our skin glands. Also, milk contains some sex hormone derivatives and iodine which have been identified to affect acne development.

So should you avoid dairy if you have acne?

I’m going to start by saying… not right now. Firstly, while this study was the largest and highest quality to date in this area, it still had its limits that I have given above. Further studies, especially randomised controlled trials are needed. This is where they randomly assign groups to eat dairy compared to not eating dairy in controlled conditions.  These will help to confirm the effect of milk and dairy products on acne development.

Secondly, milk is a very nutritious source of protein, calcium, potassium, magnesium, vitamin A and B12 and is recommended as a part of healthy diet. Previous high-quality studies have showed that milk and dairy products can help reduce the risk of high blood pressure, stomach cancer, stroke and colorectal cancer.


Although the large review does suggest a promising link between dairy and acne development, the studies included in the review had their limits. We therefore, cannot say there is an exact causal relationship without further studies.

Everyone’s reactions to what we eat are very personal and therefore, if you are someone who wants to trial changing your diet, it’s important to follow the guidance of a qualified professional. There is unfortunately no one size fits all. I offer FREE 20-minute discussion to advise on things like this!

Also, if you are thinking of going more plant-based and reducing your dairy intake, it’s really important to choose milks that are fortified with calcium.

Finally, we must remember that diet is not going to fix acne alone. Seeking advice from a doctor or consultant dermatologist is a good place to start! 

Link to more info:

(Links highlighted throughout the text)

NHS Choices Acne

The large meta-analysis I have referred to throughout this post

Welcome to Nude Nutrition

I am Katherine Kimber, a Registered Dietitian, and Certified Intuitive Eating Counsellor with a first-class Undergraduate and Masters’s degree from Kings College London.

Are you fed up with not knowing what you should or shouldn’t be eating? Perhaps relying on external tools such as the time of day, points systems, calorie tracking or rigid rules to show you the way.

If you’re ready to get out of your head when it comes to food decisions, and more into your body then you’ve come to the right place. I’m here to strip the nonsense, so you can feel better in your body and figure out a sustainable approach to movement and nutrition.

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