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Acne and skin problems

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. Eighty to 90 per cent of all adolescents in the Western world experience it to some degree and many become scarred.


Population studies show that acne is much less common in non-Western societies and increases with junk food diets. It is caused by obstruction and inflammation of hair follicles and the oil (sebum) glands in the skin. If hair follicles become infected with bacteria (usually Propionibacterium acnes) the situation worsens.


One of the largest ever (over 47,000 subjects) studies1 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 production of our body’s own IGF-1. On top of that, when dairy products are consumed, your body also produces insulin, which helps to digest the sugar in milk (lactose) but it produces too much and leaves more insulin in your bloods than you need. Increased insulin and IGF-1 make skin cells more sensitive to androgens – steroid hormones in dairy products which directly affect your skin cells. They encourage more and faster production of oil (sebum) and skin cells and the result is oily skin and clogged pores where bacteria can breed. 



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. Case studies show that some young athletes lost their acne when taken off whey supplements but it returned when they went back to using whey2.


Two large studies looked at nine to 15 year-old children, including over 6,000 girls3and more than 4,000 boys4. For girls, there was a strong link between acne severity and all types of dairy products – severe acne was 20 per cent more likely 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 significant for all their milk intake but also for skimmed milk alone - 16 per cent more likely have severe acne on two or more servings of milk per day compared to boys who consumed less than one serving per week. 


A 2012 study5 confirmed the dairy-acne link. Severe acne increased with rising milk consumption (more than three servings a week).


The research is very 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!


If you're worried about your calcium intake and unsure what foods are good sources, see our page on calcium!


Tips for better skin


  • Cut out all dairy products

  • Make sure you drink enough water - either on its own or as herbal or green tea (green tea has shown beneficial effects on the skin)

  • Eat fresh fruit and vegetables (for their antioxidants, vitamins and minerals) and add leafy green veg (broccoli, kale, cabbage, spinach, watercress, etc.) to one of your daily meals

  • 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!)

  • Cut back on sugary and processed food - these are a bad influence on the skin!

  • Alcohol dehydrates the body and is a source of sugar so it can contribute to skin problems - it's best to not have more than two alcoholic drinks in a day. Red wine is the best choice for its antioxidant content and other beneficial effects.

  • 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.

  • Use natural skin care products as many preservatives and synthetic ingredients can irritate your skin or clog the pores

  • Getting enough sleep can noticeably improve your skin - get at least seven hours at night!

  • 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, use a product with SPF15

  • 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!

  • Exfoliate - use a face scrub twice a week to remove dead skin and improve blood circulation

  • Give your skin a break - go make-up free for at least two days a week so your skin can relax and get enough oxygen

 


For references, please see the White Lies report.


For practical advice on how to go dairy-free, read our guide Everyone's Going Dairy-free: