Will giving up dairy help my acne?
May 13, 2012 10:43 AM   Subscribe

Will cutting dairy help my acne?

I love dairy. LOVE it. Not cheese so much, but I eat lots of Greek yogurt and milky cups of tea. Sometimes I drink a glass of milk, just because I like the taste. At the same time, my acne, no matter what I try, just seems to get worse. (I'm in my thirties, so this isn't teenager stuff. Tried all sorts of products/prescriptions.) I've got PCOS, so I think it's hormonal but the pill has only made a mild difference. I am normal weight, and eat pretty healthily, low-carb-ish and low-meat, lots of vegetables, eggs, fruit, and of course dairy.

I've been reading that dairy sometimes contributes to acne, and I'm thinking of cutting it out. This will be a BIG Deal for me, and the literature seems kind of vague, so I'd love to hear any anecdotal evidence of the positive changes that cutting dairy has make to your skin or PCOS symptoms.

Bonus points for telling me other diet changes that helped, how you gave it up, or linking to studies can provide some conclusive evidence! I'd also like to know if cutting out dairy could be really bad for me or if this is all just nonsense.

I know you are not my doctor or nutritionist, but mine does not seem to know the answer to this either.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (22 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
This doctor seems to think there is a link. In his citations, he inlcudes the scientific studies he speaks about.

I have no personal reference for this - if you like dairy, but are willing to give it up to try, I don't see any harm in doing so.
posted by quodlibet at 10:51 AM on May 13, 2012

I am 31 and still have acne. Im also lactose intolerant - so not having dairy doesnt help me. The only that helps me is using cetaphil and skipping any acne medicines. And also washing my hands and face after I eat stuff like pizza. I also use a mint julep mask once a week. This keeps me acne free until a couple of days before my period, then I'm just screwed.
posted by KogeLiz at 10:53 AM on May 13, 2012

My skin cleared up a little bit when I cut out dairy - but what REALLY helped was cutting out pretty much all grains. I eat meats, veggies, healthy fats, nuts and fruits and chocolate (some things just can't be cut out). I have been eating this way for about 3 months, and my skin is the best it has been since before puberty. I can't cite specific studies, but it is fairly well documented that sugar causes inflammation, and since all grains turn in to sugars eventually. . .
posted by dirtmonster at 11:01 AM on May 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

Personally, I have noticed a correlation between the amount of sugar I eat and my breakouts. For a couple of weeks after having my Valentine's chocolate, for example, I got some of the worst cystic acne of my life. Also after the Easter Candy (I'm looking at you, jelly beans!). Bad news.
posted by fancyoats at 11:04 AM on May 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

My sister (mid 30s) gave up coffee and peanuts recently, and her skin cleared up dramatically - and her overall complexion appeared brighter.

In college, she drank crazy amounts of coffee - which coincided with having bad acne flareups that resulted in some scarring. She didn't put two and two together until recently, and decided to stop coffee (all - regular and decaf, as well as caffeinated teas) and seems to have found that it was her big trigger. Not too sure about why she stopped with peanuts. But it has definitely and noticeably helped her complexion.

I have sensitive skin as well (acne prone, but my skin is on the dry side). The only thing that works for me to keep things under control, is drink lots of water, getting enough sleep, and really minimize putting stuff on my skin (wash my face with only water, or something like baking soda, no toners or anything, no fancy creams or anything). And the pill (or the particular brand of pill i'm on). I don't really notice any diet connections with my skin. Mostly keeping my skincare routine very simple has helped me keep things under control.

As always, unfortunately, this kind of thing is often trial and error. YMMV.
posted by raztaj at 11:04 AM on May 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

This is anecdata, but it makes an absolutely enormous difference for me. I rarely eat any dairy at all now and it used to be a huge part of my diet. It seemed like an insurmountable hurdle giving it up but it's really not that big of a deal now that it's gone. (To be clear, I'm vegetarian and cut it out for ethical reasons, and then discovered the happy side effect of having essentially clear skin for the first time in my life.)
posted by something something at 11:05 AM on May 13, 2012

My sister swears it definitely reduces her break outs. She has had acne issues since her thirties and although dairy-free diet reduces it, she believes it is caused by hormonal changes.
posted by abirdinthehand at 11:06 AM on May 13, 2012

I know people who have had success by cutting out gluten (which it sounds like Dirtmonster did). Try both for a month or two, and see. Coffee seems to be a trigger for me.
posted by backwards guitar at 11:10 AM on May 13, 2012

This is entirely speculation, but for me, cutting out dairy that has a ton of added sugar is what helps me with my acne. I'm a huge yogurt eater, for example, and I've always stuck to the organic stuff that I find at Trader Joe's and Whole Foods, but I never realized that some of that yogurt has more sugar than some candy bars. :( Now I get plain yogurt only and that seems to be making a difference.

Other things my dermatologist and I know cause breakouts for me:

Caffeinated drinks of any kind
Palm Kernal Oil
Any hydrogenated/fractionated oil
Being dehydrated
Strawberries and Lemonade (too acidic, immediate reaction around my mouth)
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 11:19 AM on May 13, 2012

I have PCOS and am eating a dairy-heavy diet, because I'm a vegetarian and have cut out carbs/sugar, and I've got to eat something. :-) Because I have insulin resistance I decided that cutting carbs/sugar was more important for me at this point in time and as a nice bonus I've lost a bunch of weight. However, for me, being on hormonal birth control completely cleared up my skin. Even on Nuvaring my skin was great. (The only thing that didn't work for it was Mirena). I think the thing about PCOS is that not all PCOS is the same, there's a whole spectrum out there and where you are on the spectrum affects what will help you. Like, I have lean PCOS with mild insulin resistance and infertility. There are other women who are very overweight with PCOS and type II diabetes and who don't have a problem with infertility. I feel like I cannot assume studies looking at that group of women are going to have results that apply to me.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 11:29 AM on May 13, 2012

p.s. I did not make this fully clear but cutting out carbs/sugar did not help my skin.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 11:30 AM on May 13, 2012

I'm in my twenties and honestly, I went through a period where I had very little dairy and grains and it made zero difference in terms of my skin. I eat cheese and bread now on a regular basis (thanks to a Trader Joe's five minutes away...) and have noticed zero correlation with outbreaks. What did make a difference was trying a variety of HBC types, including both generic and non-generic formulations, which I did through my dermatologist. There are some that worked really terribly for me but I'm pretty happy with the one I'm on now in terms of side effects/skin. Have you tried different pills or HBCs? It's a bit of a pain because it really took me 4-5 months to settle into a real rhythm with them. I doubt there's any harm in trying a low grain or low dairy diet though, unless it's really important as a source of protein/calcium for you, or if it makes you unhappy and unsatisfied with your food!
posted by jetlagaddict at 11:36 AM on May 13, 2012

A very interesting article from the Archives of Dermatology: Acne Vulgaris, a disease of Western civilization. That's kind of a dramatic title but it's published by a medical journal. Basically, studies have been done on people subsisting on a more traditional diet (Inuit, Peruvian Indians, Okinawans, Zulu) and "all of these studies suggest that the prevalence of acne is lower among rural, nonwesternized people than in fully modernized Western societies," and goes on to say that "It is possible that low–glycemic load diets may have therapeutic potential in reducing symptoms of acne..."

Acne may be linked to insulin-resistance, and, more importantly, a high-glycemic diet (lots of carbohydrates). Dairy might also be a culprit as many (not all) traditional societies didn't eat much or any dairy; in fact, lactose intolerance is very common amongst people outside nothern Europe and parts of Africa. So cut out as much refined carbs and dairy as you can - maybe even go on a paleo diet - stick it out for a few months and see if that helps.

Also - use a clean pillowcase EVERY SINGLE NIGHT. It made a noticeable difference for me. I buy extra pillowcases just for this reason.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 11:59 AM on May 13, 2012

Eliminating dairy does help me, but not dramatically. What helped dramatically was switching from toothpaste to baking soda. I don't know if it was the fluoride or some other ingredient, and I'm never going to find out, because I'll never use anything but baking soda again.
posted by HotToddy at 12:38 PM on May 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

My triggers:

whole milk or ice cream (skim milk is fine, cheese is fine)

other things people have mentioned that are not triggers for me:
acidic stuff like lemonade
posted by jockc at 1:13 PM on May 13, 2012

Response by poster: It really depends on the person. There isn't any harm to cutting it out for 3-4 weeks and seeing what happens. Have yourself a brie binge at the end of it if it turns out it wasn't an issue.
posted by Anonymous at 1:54 PM on May 13, 2012

First, try PanOxyl 2.5 left on for 30 minutes, morning and evening, before moisturising with Cetaphil Daily Advance Ultra Hydrating Lotion (left on for at least 10 mins before doing anything else to your skin). You may want to moisturise for 15 minutes before, too, I always do. Washing with 2% salicylic acid wash (Garnier) morning and evening, left on for 2 minutes, can also help. As for end-of-day cleansing, Cetaphil face wash is the only one worth bothering with and I always wash twice in the evenings and follow with a final rinse (Garnier comes after that, then moisturiser, then PanOxyl).

I think trying to control acne through diet is going to take you down a rabbit hole. That said, to satisfy your curiosity you could try cutting out dairy completely for 9 months, and I guess then you'll know. Other than that, I think you'd have to go on a supervised elimination diet to really find out anything useful - one where you cut out almost all foods but brown rice and gradually reintroduce things one by one. Since acne cures take at least 2 months to show results, I have no idea how you'd manage that.

If you've been on bcp for less than nine months, hang in there. No one will tell you this but it can take up to 9 months to work.
posted by tel3path at 2:57 PM on May 13, 2012

I eat a fair amount of dairy-- yogurt, cheese, milk. My skin has gotten a lot better fairly suddenly, after having made these changes:

- switching to local creamline organic milk and pastured organic butter, homemad yogurt, (no change to cheese type)
- upped supplements: Nordic Naturals Omega 3 supplements at twice the daily dose, vitamin D, iron, a multivitamin, Culturelle probiotics (I think it's mostly the O3 and probiotics)
- I'm not paleo by any stretch, but I've been watching my blood sugar, and my macros have been looking like 50-55% fat, 20-25% protein, the remainder carbs

My skin has gotten so dramatically better that I've gotten lazy about taking care of it, and it doesn't seem to matter if I fall into bed occasionally without washing my face, which would have never been the case before.
posted by instamatic at 3:25 PM on May 13, 2012

My sister is a lot like you--an atypical PCOS sufferer (normal weight, etc.). She is also lactose intolerant, to the point where she does not consume dairy at all, and she still has trouble with her skin in her early thirties.

A friend with PCOS stopped washing her face about a year ago--just rinses with water a couple times a day--and her skin has drastically cleared up. She consumes dairy.

I don't consume dairy or meat or eggs, and my skin is still miserable in my mid-30s.

It seems like different things work for different people; there's not necessarily consistent advice for clear skin.

If you do eliminate dairy, the dietary worries include getting enough calcium and getting enough protein (which isn't a worry if you eat meat regularly). Dairy-free can be good for your cholesterol, too, depending on the rest of your diet and your genes.
posted by Fui Non Sum at 3:47 PM on May 13, 2012

My triggers are almost exclusively dorm food-related. I rarely get flare-ups when I'm off campus for an extended period of time because my school tends to put far more oil than is necessary on/in everything. If you already eat pretty healthy, you might want to visit a dermatologist.
posted by lotusmish at 7:08 PM on May 13, 2012

Dairy exacerbates some people's acne. It has no impact on other people's acne. My brother tried all kinds of dietary interventions, including six months of no dairy, but for him no dietary changes helped.

So you'll have to run your own science experiment here. Best of luck.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:54 PM on May 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I haven't read the other comments, but I just want to say: Yogurt is not like regular dairy. My mom the herbalist says that yogurt is "Pro-biotic poop" and it doesn't have the same properties as dairy. The way the lactose ferments it changes the milk protein.
posted by frecklefaerie at 7:06 AM on May 14, 2012

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