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Does Dairy Cause Acne? Debunking the Connection

a woman pouring low fat milk on a glass

There has been a long-standing debate within the medical and health community about a potential link between dairy consumption and acne. This common skin condition affects millions of people worldwide. The idea is often met with scepticism given our historical association of dairy with a balanced diet. 

This article explores the science behind this claim, examining current research and evidence to give an informed perspective on whether dairy could contribute to acne development. 

It’s important to note that while we strive to provide accurate and up-to-date information, everyone’s body reacts differently, and what may affect one individual might not necessarily affect another in the same manner.

What is Acne?

Acne is a common skin condition characterised by the presence of spots, oily skin, and sometimes skin that’s hot or painful to touch. Primarily affecting teenagers, it can persist into adulthood and may result in emotional distress and skin scarring. The spots typically occur on the face, back, and chest, resulting in the hair follicles plugging with oil and dead skin cells. 

Acne development is attributed to several factors, including hormonal changes, increased sebum production, bacterial infection, inflammatory response, and blockage of hair follicles. It’s important to note that acne is not caused by poor hygiene or diet, though certain high glycemic index foods may exacerbate the condition in some individuals. Understanding acne’s root causes and triggers is the first step in effectively managing the condition.

Dairy Consumption and Acne

a person who likes to drink milk

The link between dairy consumption and acne is controversial, with studies providing conflicting results. On one hand, research has suggested a potential association between dairy and acne. 

study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology identified a correlation between acne and consumption of skimmed milk, suggesting that the hormones and bioactive molecules found in milk might contribute to acne formation. Another study in the same journal revealed an association between total milk consumption and acne, pointing to a possible role of dairy in exacerbating the condition.  

Conversely, other studies have found no significant link between dairy consumption and acne. 

How It Could Happen

Dairy products have been theorised to influence acne development through several mechanisms:

  • Hormonal Changes: Dairy products contain hormones such as progesterone and insulin growth factors, which may increase sebum production, a known contributing factor to acne.

  • Insulin-like Growth Factor 1 (IGF-1): Dairy consumption can increase the levels of IGF-1 in the body. IGF-1 is known to stimulate the growth of skin cells and the production of sebum, which can lead to clogged pores and acne outbreaks.

  • Inflammatory Responses: Dairy may trigger inflammation in some acne patients, particularly those with a dairy sensitivity or intolerance. This inflammatory response could exacerbate acne.

  • Allergies and Sensitivities: Dairy allergies or intolerances can cause inflammation and other skin reactions, including acne. People with a known sensitivity to dairy might observe more frequent or severe acne outbreaks with dairy consumption.

Types of Dairy Products

Different dairy products contain varying levels of hormones, fats, and proteins, which may impact acne development differently. 

  • Milk: Skimmed milk is strongly associated with acne due to its high whey protein and low fat content compared to whole milk. Whey protein can increase insulin levels and stimulate the production of hormones that promote skin cell growth and oil production, potentially causing acne.

  • Cheese: Processed cheese can worsen acne due to its high hormone content. However, some studies suggest that hard cheeses may have a lesser impact on acne than other dairy products due to the fermentation process, which may reduce acne-triggering components.

  • Yoghurt: Yoghurt, especially varieties with added sugars, may contribute to acne. However, probiotic yoghurt may have a milder effect due to beneficial bacteria that promote gut health and reduce inflammation, potentially reducing acne.

  • Butter: The impact of butter on acne needs to be clarified. Some theories suggest its high-fat content may increase oil production and lead to acne. However, butter contains less protein and hormones than milk or cheese, which may have a lesser effect on acne.

Dairy and Hormonal Influences

a person who doesnt have clear skin because of her own hormones

Dairy products, especially milk, can stimulate insulin and Insulin-like Growth Factor 1 (IGF-1) production, which play significant roles in acne development. Consuming dairy, particularly lactose-rich types like skim milk, raises insulin levels in the bloodstream. Insulin regulates blood sugar and increases sebum production, producing oily skin that promotes acne-causing bacteria growth.

Dairy also contains IGF-1, a growth hormone that mimics insulin’s effects on skin cells. It encourages skin cell growth, sebum production, and clogged pores, creating an environment for acne. IGF-1 can amplify the effects of androgens, male hormones linked to acne, by increasing sensitivity in oil glands.

While these hormonal changes may contribute to acne, they don’t guarantee its development. The complex relationship between dairy, growth hormones, and acne requires further research. Consult a healthcare professional or dermatologist for personalized advice on managing acne.

Scientific Studies and Findings

Much research has delved into the relationship between dairy consumption and acne. A study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found a positive correlation between acne and total and skim milk consumption in adolescent girls. Similarly, a separate study by Science Direct suggested a link between skim milk intake and acne, attributing it to the bioactive molecules and hormones in milk.

A study published in the Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology suggested frequent milk and ice cream consumption was associated with acne. Still, no association was found between acne and cheese or yoghurt consumption. 

Why Does Dairy Affect People’s Skin Differently?

The impact of dairy on acne is not one-size-fits-all. It varies significantly from person to person, largely owing to individual differences in genetics, skin type, and overall diet.

  • Genetic Factors: Certain genes make individuals more susceptible to acne from dairy, affecting how they metabolize dairy products.

  • Skin Type: Oily and sensitive skin types might see more acne with dairy due to increased sebum and inflammation, while dry or normal skin often shows no change.

  • Overall Diet: High-sugar, processed, and a high glycemic load diet can worsen dairy’s impact on acne, while a lack of anti-inflammatory nutrients like omega-3s and antioxidants can increase susceptibility.

Non-Dairy Options for Acne Control

Numerous dairy-free alternatives can be incorporated into your low glycemic diet for those concerned about the potential effects of dairy on acne. 

  • Plant-Based Milk: Almond milk, soy milk, oat milk, and rice milk are popular alternatives to cow’s milk. They are lower in hormones and IGF-1, potentially reducing their impact on acne. Most plant-based milks are fortified with essential nutrients like calcium and vitamin D, making them a healthy and nutritious choice.

  • Non-Dairy Yoghurts: Coconut milk yoghurt, almond milk yoghurt, and soy yoghurt are some types of non-dairy yoghurts. They offer the same probiotic benefits as regular yoghurt, which can improve gut health and potentially aid in managing acne.

  • Cheese Alternatives: Products made from nuts, soy, and root vegetables like cassava are excellent substitutes for dairy cheese. They provide the creaminess and flavour of dairy cheese without the potential acne-triggering effects.

How diet influences skin health

a woman eating healthy vegetables and fresh fruits

A well-balanced diet is crucial for maintaining healthy skin. Nutrient-rich foods promote a healthy glow and combat skin problems like acne. Fruits and vegetables contain vitamins A, C, and E, powerful antioxidants that protect against skin damage and inflammation. Omega-3 fatty acids in fatty fish and chia seeds reduce inflammation and hydrate the skin. Adequate hydration is vital as water flushes out toxins and moisturises the skin. 

Alongside a healthy diet, a good skincare routine is essential for skin health. Here are some tips for a balanced skincare routine:

  • Cleanse: Use a gentle, pH-balanced cleanser twice daily to remove dirt and excess oil from the skin.

  • Exfoliate: Exfoliate your skin 1-2 times weekly to remove dead skin cells. Use a product suitable for your skin type to avoid irritation.

  • Moisturise: Hydrate your skin daily with a moisturiser that matches your skin type. If your skin is oily, opt for a lightweight, non-comedogenic product.

  • Sun protection: Protect your skin from harmful UV rays by applying a broad-spectrum sunscreen daily. 

Consult a Healthcare Professional

A woman havaing a consultation because of her diet and acne trigger

If you’re worried about dairy’s impact on acne, consult a healthcare professional. They can assess your situation, offer personalized advice, and help you make dietary changes to manage acne. Everyone is different, so professional guidance ensures a safe and effective approach to acne management without compromising nutrition or overall health. 

Don’t hesitate to contact a healthcare provider if you suspect a link between dairy and acne. Make informed decisions about your health with professional guidance.

How Long After Consuming Dairy Can Acne Appear?

The time frame for acne to appear after consuming dairy varies, depending on individual factors like genetics and overall diet. Some people may experience a breakout within hours of consuming dairy products, while others may not see any changes or have delayed reactions that occur days or weeks later. Keeping a food diary and noting any changes in your skin can help identify patterns between your dairy food intake and acne breakouts.

Are Certain Age Groups More Affected by Dairy-Induced Acne?

While acne is most commonly associated with teenagers, individuals of all ages can experience it. Dairy-induced acne can affect any age group, from adolescents to adults in their 40s and 50s. However, studies have shown that the severity of dairy-induced adult acne and teenage acne may decrease with age as hormone levels stabilize. Regardless of age, reducing dairy intake and incorporating non-dairy alternatives


The relationship between dairy consumption and acne is complex and varies from person to person. While some may experience increased acne from dairy, others may not. Genetic factors, skin type, diet, and individual sensitivities influence how dairy affects the skin. 

For those concerned about dairy’s impact on acne, non-dairy alternatives and a healthy diet and skincare routine can help manage symptoms. Consult a healthcare professional for personalized advice. Mindful dietary choices contribute to skin health and well-being.


Medical Director

After graduating from the National University of Singapore, Dr Boey’s journey in aesthetics brought him to esteemed institutions such as Harvard Medical School, American Academy of Aesthetic Medicine and Queen Mary University of London in diverse cities like Seoul, London, Boston and New York.