Published On: Wed, Jun 20th, 2018

Spot on: How ditching dairy can help improve acne

Veronika Powell confirms that the key to avoiding acne can be to ditch the dairy… 

does quitting dairy improve acne

Skin is the body’s largest organ and has a string of important functions, but what we usually care about is how it looks. The last thing it needs is acne, and there is a mass of scientific research pointing the finger at one particular culprit – dairy products.

Acne is one of the most common diseases of the skin, which can affect our social and emotional life more than we’d like to admit. 80-90 per cent of all adolescents in the Western world experience it to some degree and many become scarred – both physically and mentally!

Acne is caused by obstruction and inflammation of hair follicles and the miniature oil (sebum) glands in the skin. And if the follicles become infected with bacteria, you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

Population studies show that acne is much less common in non-Western societies and increases with junk food diets. One of the largest ever (over 47,000 participants) studies discovered that the more dairy products women consumed as teenagers, the more they suffered from severe (GP-diagnosed) acne. The most likely cause, say the authors, is the many hormones and other bioactive molecules that dairy products naturally contain.  

One of the main culprits is a growth hormone called IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor 1), which is what calves need to grow fast. Dairy products contain it, but they also increase the production of your body’s own IGF-1. On top of that, when you eat dairy products, your body produces insulin, which helps to digest the sugar in milk (lactose). This is not a very precise process, so your body ends up producing too much and leaves more insulin in your blood than you need. Insulin, together with IGF-1, makes skin cells more sensitive to androgens – steroid hormones also present in dairy – which directly affect your skin cells. They encourage more and faster production of oil and skin cells and the unfortunate result is oily skin and clogged pores where bacteria can happily breed. 

does quitting dairy improve acne

What does research say?

It’s interesting that body builders who use steroid hormones are more prone to acne and so are athletes who use whey-based shakes, supplements and the like. Dairy affects hormone levels and therefore the skin, it’s a simple equation. Case studies revealed that young athletes got rid of their acne when taken off whey supplements, but it returned when they went back to using whey.

Two large studies looked at nine to 15 year-old children, including over 6,000 girls and more than 4,000 boys. For girls, there was a strong link between acne severity and overall dairy consumption. Their chances of developing severe acne was 20 per cent higher if they consumed two or more servings of milk per day, compared to girls who consumed less than one serving per week.

For boys, the association was not just significant for overall milk intake, but also for skimmed milk intake alone – two or more servings of milk per day made them 16 per cent more likely to have severe acne compared to boys who consumed less than one serving per week. 

does quitting dairy improve acne

And yet another study confirmed the dairy-acne link. Severe acne increased with rising milk consumption and decreased with very little or no dairy in the diet.

This is what the world-famous actor Woody Harrelson had to say on the subject in an interview with Maxim magazine: “I was about 24 years old and I had tons of acne and mucus. I met some random girl on a bus who told me to quit dairy and all those symptoms would go away three days later. By God she was right.”

The message is clear – dairy is the main offender where acne’s concerned, closely followed by sugary and processed food. A diet high in fruit and vegetables, wholegrains and pulses, on the other hand, seems to be the best for your skin. Oh, and research shows that chocolate (non-dairy) is not linked to acne!

does quitting dairy improve acne

Tips for better skin

  1. Cut out all dairy products (done!)
  2. Make sure you drink enough water – either on its own or as herbal or green tea (green tea has beneficial effects on the skin).
  3. Eat fresh fruit and vegetables (for their antioxidants, vitamins and minerals) and add leafy green veg (broccoli, kale, cabbage, spinach, watercress, etc.) to at least one of your daily meals
  4. Snack on unsweetened dried fruit and nuts – nuts are a good source of B and E vitamins, essential fats and a range of minerals such as zinc, manganese and iron (and your skin needs all of them!)
  5. Cut back on consumption of sugary and processed food – these are a bad influence on the skin!
  6. Alcohol dehydrates the body and is a source of sugar, so it can contribute to skin problems – think before you drink!
  7. Treat yourself to some nice dark chocolate – non-dairy chocolate with a higher cocoa content is actually good for you! (Although, sadly, not in unlimited amounts.) It’s full of antioxidants and makes you feel happier.
  8. Use natural skincare products. Many preservatives and synthetic ingredients can irritate your skin or clog the pores.
  9. Getting enough sleep can noticeably improve your skin – get at least seven hours each night!
  10. Protect your skin – we all need vitamin D, which the skin can cleverly manufacture when exposed to sunlight, but we only need about 15-20 minutes of unprotected skin exposure a day, so if you know you’ll be spending a lot of time outside, then always use a sunscreen.
  11. Increasing blood flow can work wonders for your skin – get active! Go for a brisk walk, dance, exercise, cycle, run up the stairs, have fun!
  12. Exfoliate – use a face scrub twice a week to remove dead skin and improve your blood circulation.
  13. Give your skin a break – go make-up free for at least two days a week so your skin can breathe and relax.

Viva!Health is a part of the vegan charity Viva!. Veronika is a campaigner and researcher here. Viva!Health monitors scientific research linking diet to health and provides accurate information on which you can make informed choices about the food you eat. For details, visit vivahealth.org.uk

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