We’ve all got that friend who gave up dairy and says it “totally saved” their skin. It’s a tale so common in beauty circles that dairy is widely regarded as public enemy number one when it comes to our complexion. Whether it’s eczema, acne, or simply the dullness that accompanies unhealthy skin, apparently dairy has an awful lot to answer for.
According to the Vegan Society, the number of vegans in the UK has quadrupled in the last six years, with almost 600,000 of us avoiding dairy (and meat, of course) in pursuit of improved health, boosted energy levels and better skin. Oat milk is now de rigueur on breakfast menus, dairy-free cheese is stocked by local supermarkets, and ice cream is just as nice made with cashew nuts rather than cream. When it comes to our diet, we have options galore – but does giving up dairy in pursuit of better skin actually make it so?
“While it’s been suggested that dairy products play a role in developing skin conditions, such as acne, the current evidence is actually very limited and conflicting,” says Dr Megan Rossi, a dietitian and gut health specialist. “It’s important to note that most of the studies done so far are observational studies, which can be a useful place to start, but are pretty weak in terms of take-home messages. In fact, there are a number of variables that could be affecting the results – it could be that people who drink more milk eat less dietary fibre and more added sugars. These types of stats make it impossible to determine if one thing causes the other,” she adds.
Facialist Debbie Thomas asks her clients who suffer with acne to consider both diet and lifestyle. “Yes, dairy can be a trigger to some, but not all acne is caused by it,” she says. “However, acne is usually more likely to be caused by sugar, stress that’s sending hormones loopy, or underlying conditions, like polycystic ovary syndrome.”
Both experts acknowledge that reports of dairy’s effect on the skin aren’t totally unfounded – rather, that its impact has not been scientifically proven by a solid number of studies. “Remember that acne is a condition you have – and spots are the end result of what’s being triggered by the reactions within the body – so it’s important to work out, on an individual basis, what triggers your skin,” says Thomas. Both experts advise keeping a food diary to track skin triggers and make links between your own diet and skin health.
Below, four things to know about dairy and how it relates to our skin.
We know that our hormones can impact our skin – the spots that can appear at certain points in our menstrual cycle provide monthly anecdotal evidence of this. What we eat (and, of course, how we live) can affect our hormones, too. “Cow’s milk and dairy products contain casein and whey protein, which are thought to raise levels of a certain hormone (insulin-like growth factor-1, or IGF-1) which is linked with increased production of sebum, the oily substance produced by our skin, which is, in turn, linked with acne development,” says Rossi. “Some studies have shown that people with acne have higher levels of the IGF-1 hormone.” A link has been drawn between a high sugar, dairy and carb diet and increased incidence of acne in the western world, but as Rossi points out, a clinical trial is yet to have shown that dairy alone causes skin issues.
Dairy alone isn’t the only foodstuff that can impact our hormones – other foods, when combined with dairy products (like milk) can leave them out of whack, too. “Milk, combined with other processed foods and sugar, disrupts insulin levels, pushing other hormones out of balance; because when we digest milk we break down the proteins it contains, turning them into hormones that are very similar to insulin,” Thomas says. The higher our insulin levels, the more susceptible we are to infection, and the more inflammation our bodies suffer – cue more breakouts and angry skin. “Inflammatory skin conditions include, most commonly, acne, eczema, and rosacea,” says Thomas. “If the inflammation is present in the body as a long-term issue, it will eventually reach the skin, which results in a breakdown of collagen, faster appearance of fine lines and compromised skin health.”
“Lactoses in milk need enzymes to break them down,” says Rossi. “About 65 per cent of people lose these enzymes when they pass infancy. When we’re older, the body develops an intolerance or allergy to the lactose, which triggers an inflammatory reaction within the body.” Of course, some of us are more intolerant than others, and if you suffer from any symptoms – like bloating, nausea or flatulence – Rossi recommends trying her three-step Record, Restrict, Retintroduce assessment (found in her book Eat Yourself Healthy) to find out if you could have a food intolerance safely and effectively.
Not all dairy products are made equal
If you’re considering quitting all dairy in pursuit of better skin, know that not all cow produce is created equal. A 2019 study found that there was some association between overall milk consumption and acne, particularly for those consuming a lot of it. “Interestingly, the relationship of acne with different types of milk – whole, semi-skimmed or low fat and skimmed – varied, with skimmed milk having the highest [negative] impact on the skin,” says Rossi. Fermented dairy, on the other hand, has not been found to increase the risk of acne, so consider things like yoghurt and (hallelujah!) cheese, your friends, rather than enemies. “Furthermore, fermented dairy, such as kefir and live yoghurt, has been linked with better heart and bone health, plus improved digestion and weight management,” she points out. So perhaps, as with all good things in life, it’s about opting for moderation and balance, rather than total dairy abstinence.
From British Vogue