With all the recent craze over charcoal peels,
Korean face masks and even acne-zapping light rays,
one thing holds true.
The secret isn't snail poo.
These products might clear out a few nose pores or leave us feeling fresh and hydrated for the hour but, without regulation of diet, hormones and stress, none of these will ever fully cure us of our acne or our obsession with quirky, new beauty trends.
As part of my recent Biochemical studies, I wrote a short research paper on the relationship between dairy consumption and acne production, as well as, a revelation on who the true pimple-provoking perps really are. Please enjoy.
The Role of Dairy in Acne Production
While acne might commonly be considered a simple yet pesterous skin condition tragically affecting teenagers in the throes of puberty, it is more technically considered by experts a skin disease known as acne vulgaris[⁸] and can affect adults as well, with research showing 35% of women in their 30s, a quarter in their 40s, and 15% of those 50 or older battle breakouts due to hormones, stress, medical conditions and diet.[³] The four physical effects of this skin disease are open comedones, closed comedones, papules and pustules affecting the pilosebaceous units which consist of the hair follicle and surrounding sebaceous (sebum-producing) glands.[⁵,⁶] The major question being investigated here today is whether or not dairy could be a major acne-causing culprit in the diet, and, if so, how this relationship transpires.
First, one should understand those four physical effects of acne. Comedones, here, is a word of Latin origin that means “clogged pore” as in, clogged with the bacteria P. acnes[⁸], and is the plural of the word comedo. A closed comedo appears as a tiny raised bump also known as a whitehead ‒ which is actually a bit of a misnomer being that a bump that actually appears white is more likely a pustule (pimple). To further prove this misnomer, an open comedo is a closed comedo that has erupted open causing a blackhead.[⁶] Therefore, if a blackhead is the result of a whitehead and a pustule the result of a papule, then a pustule is not the erupted form of a whitehead. The difference between comedones and papules and pustules is that, comedones are non-inflammatory and contain no liquid whilst papules and pustules are inflammatory and do contain liquid (pus). So, to quickly review, the teeny goosebump-like pores are closed comedones and any black-looking pores are open comedones, and these are merely clogged. Papules and pustules are larger, inflamed bumps that have become infected. Papules contain the liquid pus just below the skin and pustules contain it above. Contrary to popular belief though, greasy food doesn’t clog these pores, rather, spikes in blood sugar do.[³]
Additionally, “several studies have shown a link between dairy products and pimples, perhaps because of the hormones that are present in these foods.”[³] This is because the hormones in cow's milk are intended to help raise strong, healthy calves, not humans, and the growth needs of a cow are quite different from that of a human. Oddly enough, however, the “consumption of low-fat / skim milk, but not full-fat milk, was positively associated with acne”[¹] in experiments, and “no significant difference was found among total dairy intake.”[¹] So, this likely means that the offending ingredient lies within the milk proteins as, without the fat, this and water are all that really remain in low-fat or skim milk. In fact, in Bodo C. Melnik’s paper “Diet in Acne: Further Evidence for the Role of Nutrient Signalling in Acne Pathogenesis” the German researcher states, “The intake of abundant hyperglycemic carbohydrates, and high consumption of milk and dairy protein, predominantly during puberty ‒ a period of high insulin / IGF-1 (insulin growth factor 1) signaling ‒ may overactivate [mammalian target of rapamycin complex 1], which enhances [sebaceous gland cell] growth and [sterol regulatory element binding protein]-mediated sebaceous lipogenesis.”[²,⁴] Which all basically translates into the cells within the glands that produce the skin’s oil going into overgrowth and producing too much sebum.
So, without question, scientists have found links between dairy and increased acne, as well as, a whole host of other problems. The advice of experts from the Nestlé Nutrition Institute is that “both, restriction of milk consumption or generation of less insulinotropic milk will have an enormous impact on the prevention of epidemic western diseases like obesity, diabetes, cancer, neurodegenerative diseases and acne.”[²] Therefore, if acne sufferers cut back on dairy, there is a strong chance, given their stress levels are under control and hormones normal, that they could see clearer skin.
However, diet and acne don’t end there. Clearly, carbohydrates have even more influence in causing this hormone / hyperglycemia-induced skin disease but, how is it that milk proteins could raise glucose levels? Proteins becoming carbs? How does that work? Interestingly enough, it is the presence of both carbohydrates and protein in a food that causes this. Lean meat, without batter or sauce, would raise glucose levels only minimally because they contain very little carbohydrate.[⁹] Dairy and legumes, however, are protein-rich yet starchy foods and raise glucose levels considerably, meaning, there’s a chance replacing cow’s milk with soy milk could be just as influential in acne production. The big difference though, is that soy is known to raise estrogen hormone levels while it is the spikes in androgen hormone levels that result in acne during adolescence that soy does not raise.[⁷]
So, in conclusion, dairy plays a factor but, too much testosterone and sweets are the real culprits. The hormones both naturally present and given to cows to force them to grow larger and faster get passed onto humans through dairy consumption, while the sugars in foods cause rises in insulin and IGF-1 leading to hyperglycemia which allows “activated androgen receptor[s] to trigger a chain of metabolic events, which” then leads to the production of excess sebum.[⁸] The positive relationship between dairy consumption and acne is, therefore, confirmed and, despite there being organic options that claim to contain no added hormones, the condition would best be mediated by reducing or eliminating dairy and refined carbohydrates completely and / or consulting with a doctor about stabilizing one’s hormone levels.[⁷]
¹ LaRosa, Caroline L., Quach, Kim A., Koons, Kirsten, Kunselman, Allen R., Zhu, Junjia, Thiboutot, Diane. M., Zaenglein, Andrea L.. “Consumption of dairy in teenagers with and without acne”
² Clemens RA, Hernell O, Michaelsen KF. “Evidence for Acne-Promoting Effects of Milk and Other Insulinotropic Dairy Products”
³ Goldstein, Jennifer. “In The Clear”
⁴ Melnik, Bodo C. “Diet in Acne: Further Evidence for the Role of Nutrient Signalling in Acne Pathogenesis”
⁵ “Pilosebaceous Unit”
PubMed Health. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMHT0025357/
⁶ Moshell, Alan N.. “Skin Disorders”
⁷ Reactions/American Chemical Society. “What’s The Deal With Acne?”
⁸ Lynn, Darren D., Umari, Tamara, Dunnick, Cory A., Dellavalle, Robert P.. “The epidemiology of acne vulgaris in late adolescence”
PubMed Central Canada. http://pubmedcentralcanada.ca/pmcc/articles/PMC4769025/
⁹ Harris, Nadia. “How Does Protein Affect Blood Sugar in Diabetics?”