Is there a link between acne, dairy and protein powders?

As the saying goes, good skin begins in the gut! Diet is closely related to acne as it affects the absorption of a nutrient, which may influence the progression of a condition, including common skin conditions such as pesky breakouts. 

The skin is also the largest organ in the body and its outward appearance is generally a reflection into what is going on inside. This is why, in order to achieve healthy, clear and glowing skin, it’s important to feed it all the amazing nutrients from the inside and limit foods that may be counterproductive to your complexion.

So could there be a link between acne and the consumption of dairy and protein powders? Read on for our community Q&A on the topic, answered by our health team.

Q: I heard that dairy can play a role in acne? Are there any studies on this?

A: The understanding of the mechanism of the development of acne is still evolving, and there are many factors that influence acne other than diet such as genetics, hormones, inflammation and the environment. 

The relationship between acne and dairy was first established by Adebamowo et al., (2005) who in a questionnaire based study found that milk intake was increased among adolescents with acne in an analysis of women who had experienced acne in their teenage years. They found a positive link with acne for total milk intake and skim milk intake. However, it’s important to note that limitations of this study included the self-reporting diet.  

It has been suggested that milk consumption may be a cause for acne breakouts. Although milk has a low glycaemic index, when it comes to acne, leucine (the amino acid mainly found in meat and dairy) has been shown to activate a specific growth regulator that is activated by insulin. Insulin-like growth factor (a hormone similar in structure of insulin) can also increase androgen levels (hormones that contribute to growth and reproduction), which may increase the production of sebum (the oil in our skin) and therefore contribute to acne. 

Q: When I started using a new protein powder, I noticed an increase in my skin breakouts. Why is this?

A: It could be many factors, however if you feel it’s related to the protein then you may want to check if you are using a formula with whey in it. Whey protein specifically is a source of protein that is extracted from cow’s milk, which have higher levels of essential amino acids. It is left over when milk is thickened during the process of cheese production and contains 6 growth factors that may be related to acne. Whey protein is responsible for the effects of milk that stimulate the production and activity of insulin, which may contribute more to acne than the actual fat or dairy content. 

Q: Are all types of protein powders responsible for potential breakouts? 

A: The good news is that not all types of protein powders are known to cause acne! Dairy-based protein powders, such as whey or casein, may be linked with the potential to trigger acne. The levels of the amino acid leucine are higher in meat and/or dairy containing diets compared to vegetarian and vegan diets. As mentioned before, leucine activates a growth regulator, possibly aggravating inflammation involved in acne. 

Q: How can I tell if my protein powder contains dairy?

Make sure to have a look in the ingredients list and it will mention the type of protein powder contained inside. Anything that says whey protein isolate, whey protein concentrate or casein means that it contains dairy.

Q: What skin types are most susceptible to protein powder-related breakouts?

A: Skin types that would be most susceptible to protein powder-related breakouts may be those with oily or combination type skin. 

 Q: What are best skin-friendly protein powder options?

A: People who are potentially experiencing skin issues related to consuming a dairy-based protein powder (which are generally the biggest culprits) may like to experiment with a vegan protein powder instead. Good sources of plant-based protein that are used in dairy-free protein powders include pea, brown rice, soy and hemp.  

Our Protein + Probiotics blends are a range of delicious, easy-to-digest pea protein powders enriched with the benefits of probiotics to support gut and skin health. It’s 100% vegan, available in a variety of decadent flavours, and is always free from nasties, sugars and preservatives!


References:

Adebamowo CA, Spiegelman D, Danby FW, Frazier AL, Willett WC, Holmes MD. High school dietary dairy intake and teenage acne. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2005 Feb;52(2):207-14.

 Kucharska A, Szmurło A, Sińska B. Significance of diet in treated and untreated acne vulgaris. Adv Dermatol Allergol. 2016;23(2):81–6.

Melnik B. Dietary intervention in acne: attenuation of increased mTORC1 signaling promoted by Western diet. Dermatoendocrinology. 2012;4(1):20–32.

Danby FW. Nutrition and acne. Clin Dermatol. 2010 Nov-Dec;28(6):598-604. 

Cengiz FP, Cevirgen Cemil B, Emiroglu N, Gulsel Bahali A, Onsun N. Acne located on the trunk, whey protein supplementation: Is there any association?. Health Promot Perspect. 2017;7(2):106-108. Published 2017 Mar 5. 

Baldwin, H., Tan, J. Effects of Diet on Acne and Its Response to Treatment. Am J Clin Dermatol 22, 55–65 (2021).