Milk: Its Effect on Acne and Ways to Minimize Dairy-Related Breakouts

does milk cause acne

Does milk give you acne?

"Milk acne" was never a term that even came close to entering my pubescent teenage brain. Growing up, milk was the true and tried path to becoming strong and healthy. Being an unnaturally skinny teenager wanting to add some size, milk and the calories that came with it became my best friend. I even tried something called GOMAD in my senior years of high school, which stands for “Gallon of Milk a Day”. For two weeks, I chugged down a gallon, or almost four liters, of milk a day. 

As you might expect, here began the problem. Suddenly, it was as if I flipped a switch and all acne engines began firing on full blast. Unlike a lot of people I know, acne never really surfaced as a real problem for me until around 16 or 17, but when it did…. Good lord, it struck me down with the force of a thousand suns.

Now, I know what you’re thinking – I was 16, at the height of my hormonal bombardment, and I was drinking barrels worth of cow product a day…. BUT, looking back, it still strikes me as odd that the acne didn’t really start until I upped my dairy intake. Long story longer, I gave up on the milk, watched my skin return to normal, and forgot about the whole experience within the week. 

milk acne

Fast forward to years later, now in my third year of university, and I’m back to my old ways. Partly because I had forgotten my high school experience, and partly because of how cheap it is, I reincorporated milk back into my diet. I figured if I kept it under two or three glasses a day, I’d be fine.

And I was. Or so I thought.... The problem was I had an incredibly limited reference point. I figured if my body didn’t instantly explode into one large pimple like it had in high school, then I was completely fine drinking milk again. As a result, the subtle breakouts on my back and face, the irritating phlegm in the back of my throat, the minor stomachs ache every morning when I woke up – it all seemed tolerable in comparison.

Again, it wasn’t until I just happened to go a few days without milk that I realized the negative effects it was having on me. No gallons this time around, but even from the small amount I was drinking my body was producing negative reactions. Within a week of cutting out the milk, the breakouts once again diminished, the irritation in my gut disappeared, and I generally just felt better. This time around I learned my lesson, and I now stay away from milk to the best of my ability.

Turns out I'm not alone. Dairy and its inflammatory effect on the skin is actually quite a documented area. The reasons why some of us take so poorly to cow juice can be broken down into three basic sections: it's hormonal make-up, it's insulin-raising properties, and the degrading effects it can have on the structural elements of our skin. 

Milk and Hormones

hormones in milk

Like our mother’s milk is designed to help us grow, cow’s milk is specifically designed to develop baby cows. As a result, there are over 60 different hormones in your average cup of milk, the majority of which are androgens (like testosterone) and growth hormones (like IGF-1 – insulin like growth factor 1). These are the same male sex hormones that are typically found in steroids used by bodybuilders, the same steroids that cause acne as much as muscles.

This is obviously not to say that drinking milk is the same as taking steroids (the concentration is much, much higher in steroids, for one), but only that some of the hormones found in both are the same. Really, it's the sheer amount of different hormones found in milk and their individual, sometimes unknown effects on the body that is the main concern.


Milk and Insulin 

milk and insulin

It’s weird to associate milk more with sugar than with fat, but lactose, the sugar found in milk, may in-fact play a bigger role in causing our skin to break out than fat. Particularly in skim milk, the amount of sugar in milk can cause huge spikes in our insulin levels – upwards of 300%!

How does this relate to our skin? Insulin, like the above-mentioned IGF-1, can produce and increase hormonal-related acne. Not only that, but it can also increase the bioavailability (your body’s ability to absorb certain substances) of IGF-1.


Milk and Oily Skin

milk and oily skin

The IGF-1 found in dairy can increase the production what is called sebum – an oily or waxy substance our body uses to lubricate and/or waterproof our skin and hair.

Too much of it, though, and our pores begin to clog, resulting in breakouts and more visible skin pores. It also seems to tamper with out body’s ability to naturally discard dead skin cells through our pores, leading to even more harmful clogging.


So what can you do?

The most logical step is to cut dairy completely from your diet. I'll be the first to admit, however, that that can be tough to do. Here are some more approachable steps to decreasing dairy and its potentially harmful effects on your skin and body:

  • Drink higher fat percentage milk (less lactose than skim milk, and thus less of a hit on your insulin levels)
  • Avoid "Fat-free" dairy products (they tend to be filled with more sugar and fillers than their fat-filled counterparts)
  • Go organic and grass-fed (you are going to have hormones in your milk no matter what, but organic at least ensures that it is free of artificially-injected hormones)
  • Substitute milk for cheese or Greek yogurt (cheese and Greek yogurt generally have much less lactose than milk, making it less likely to spike your insulin levels)



It's kind of silly – it took me 22 years to realize I react poorly to dairy. The symptoms were always there, but I suppose I just wasn't paying close enough attention. Morale of the story is you don't have to cut dairy completely out of your life, but just to take notice of what does and doesn't react well with your body. Give the list above a go and see what works for you.

Have any stories of your own or tips you'd like to share? Drop 'em down below. When you're done with that, go grab yourself a handful of our Original Coffee Scrub and treat yourself to a refreshing scrub down.


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