At-Home Beauty

The Truth About Dairy: A Dermatologist Weighs In

You don’t sleep in your makeup. You cleanse, tone and moisturize. You don’t even touch your face mindlessly while you stare at the computer anymore. You’ve tried every product under the sun and yet, your skin still breaks out. Sound familiar? Well, what if the answer is more than skin deep?

Food affects everything — our mood, energy levels, ability to fight disease and yes, the health of our skin. We’ve gone on and on about the life-changing benefits of collagen, and even your grandma knows to take fish oils in the winter to combat dry skin, but what if the secret to clearer skin comes down to subtracting from your diet instead of adding? We sat down with Dr. David Lortscher, a board-certified dermatologist and founder and CEO of Curology, to get to the bottom of the matter.


How does what we eat contribute to problematic skin?
Acne is very much multifactorial with hormones, genetics, lifestyle, diet, fabric choices, exercise/sweating, choice of skincare products, and more all possibly influencing acne development. Studies have shown that diet can influence skin health, but the relationship between acne and diet is complicated. Certain foods may trigger acne, but it’s not the same for everyone. Some people break out from food and others don’t. The scientific community continues to investigate conclusive links between diet and acne.


What types of foods should we avoid if we want to steer away from breakouts or acne flare-ups?

Avoid consuming “bad” carbs and sugary foods. When you eat carbohydrates, especially sugar, your blood sugar levels increase and your pancreas responds by releasing insulin. When insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) production is stimulated, this results in increased sebum (oil) production, leading to more inflammation, and thus increased acne severity. I recommend avoiding high glycemic index foods like white bread, pasta, and potatoes.

Consuming dairy. Milk contains precursors to testosterone and other androgens, which influence the hormone receptors in the skin to turn on the process that causes acne. The likely link involves Insulin-like Growth Factor-1 (IGF-1) as a general stimulant, synergized by the steroid hormones present in milk. IGF-1 is present even in organic milk. Although the mechanism is unclear, the association with acne is marked more with skim milk than whole milk, and in those consuming more than three portions per week.

Whey protein supplements. Although weight training alone is not thought to result in significant hormonal changes that could lead to acne, supplementation with whey proteins have been shown to flare acne. These can have similar effects on the skin as drinking too much milk as they also trigger insulin release from the pancreas and raise insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) levels. The influence of whey may be greatest on acne located on the back and chest of male bodybuilders. Bodybuilders who use testosterone or any type of androgenic or anabolic steroids are at increased risk for developing acne.



Are there foods that are unnecessarily demonized?
While we hear it all the time, it’s unlikely that eating fatty foods or chocolate, when consumed in moderation, causes acne in most people.


Are there certain dairy products that are more problematic than others?
It is possible that cheese, ice cream and yogurt are associated with acne, but the link appears to be stronger with milk. Skim milk seems more likely to cause breakout than whole milk or cheese or yogurt.


Any tips for someone who is trying to cut dairy (and possibly gluten) out of their diet?
Try eliminating dairy for at least two weeks (several months would make for an even better trial) to see how your skin reacts. If you plan on cutting back on dairy, make sure to get calcium and vitamin D elsewhere. Plain or unsweetened soy or nut milk beverages may be substituted for milk.

Non-dairy calcium-rich foods include:
*Fish (like canned salmon with the bones, sardines, perch and rainbow trout)
*Greens (spinach, kale, okra and collard greens)
*White beans
*Foods that are calcium-fortified, such as orange juice and oatmeal (check labels)

For protein shake lovers, we definitely ask that they pay attention to whey, caseinates and milk solids, as they can have a similar effect on the skin as milk (see above for information on whey protein supplements).



What are the top three food that you recommend for beautiful skin?
Stock up on “good” carbs. In other words, low GI foods such as whole grains, leafy veggies and berries. Avoid sugary foods and drinks. Foods that are low on GI (meaning “smart carbs” that do not make our blood glucose levels rise very high), such as high-fiber, unprocessed foods are better choices than empty carbs or sugary snacks. A recent study showed that low weekly intake of fruits or vegetables and low consumption of fresh fish were associated with adult acne.

Try 2 to 4 weeks eating only low GI foods, and see if that makes a difference in your acne. Eating more fish rich in omega-3s (such as wild Alaskan salmon) seems to have a protective effect when it comes to acne, as does having lower BMI (body mass index) values.




About Dr. David Lortscher 

Dr. Lortscher completed his dermatology residency training at the University of California, San Diego and earned his medical degree from Washington University in St. Louis. He started Curology in 2014 after a successful career at a dermatology practice in New Mexico where he witnessed the economic, geographical and psychological barriers to seeing a dermatologist. He also noticed how changes in a person’s skin could have a major impact on his or her life both socially and emotionally.



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