It’s Proven: Sugar and Dairy Cause Acne

I’ve been saying for 25 years: there is a definite link between diet and the skin. This is a fact that many don’t want to believe…but if you are only treating acne with topical products you are addressing the symptoms and not the cause. To get rid of blemishes for good, you need to address both. Below is an article by Mark Hyman, MD reporting on the recent clinical studies that link dairy and sugar consumption to acne.

“It’s confirmed. Dairy products and sugar cause acne.

As our sugar and dairy consumption has increased over the last 100 years so has the number of people with acne. We now have over 17 million acne sufferers, costing our health care system $1 billion a year, and 80-90 percent of teenagers suffer acne to varying degrees. The pimply millions rely on infomercial products hawked by celebrities or over-the-counter lotions, cleansers, and topical remedies. Recent research suggests that it’s not what we slather on our skin that matters most but what we put in our mouth.

Many have suggested a diet-acne link, but until recently it has not been proven in large clinical studies. Instead dermatologists prescribe long-term antibiotics and Accutane, both of which may cause long-term harmful effects. In 2009, a systematic review of 21 observational studies and six clinical trials found clear links. Two large controlled trials found that cow’s milk increased both the number of people who got acne and its severity. Other large randomized prospective controlled trials (the gold standard of medical research) found that people who had higher sugar intake and a high glycemic load diet (more bread, rice, cereal, pasta, sugar, and flour products of all kinds) had significantly more acne. The good news is that chocolate (dark chocolate that is) didn’t seem to cause acne.

The dietary pimple producing culprits–diary and sugar (in all its blood sugar raising forms)–both cause spikes in certain pimple producing hormones. Dairy boosts male sex hormones (various forms of testosterone or androgens) and increases insulin levels just as foods that quickly raise blood sugar (sugar and starchy carbs) spike insulin.

Androgens and insulin both stimulate your skin to make those nasty, embarrassing pimples. One patient recently told me he would give a million dollars for a pill to cure acne. He doesn’t need to. It seems that for many the cure to acne is at the end of their fork, not in a prescription pad.

While pimples are not as simple as too much milk or sugar in your diet, both have a significant impact. Nutritional deficiencies as well as excesses can worsen acne. Correcting common deficiencies including low levels of healthy omega-3 anti-inflammatory fats, low levels of antioxidants such as vitamin E, zinc, and vitamin A, and including an important anti-inflammatory omega-6 fat called evening primrose oil all may be helpful in preventing and treating unwanted pimples.

But first it is worth taking a deeper look at milk and sugar.

Stay Away from Dairy and Avoid Acne

One scientist referred to milk as a “complex aqueous, suspended fat, liposomal, suspended protein emulsion”. What we do know is that milk is designed to grow things–namely, babies–and in the case of cow’s milk, calves. It is naturally full of what we call anabolic hormones (the same ones that body builders and A Rod use to grow big muscles, and which cause bad acne). These are mostly androgens (like testosterone) and growth hormones including insulin like growth factor 1 (IGF-1). There is no such thing as hormone-free milk.

Here’s a short list of the 60-some hormones in your average glass of milk–even the organic, raw, and bovine growth hormone free milk:

  • 20α-dihydropregnenolone
  • progesterone (from pregnenolone)
  • 5α-pregnanedione
  • 5α-pregnan-3β-ol-20-one, 20α- and 20β-dihydroprogesterone (from progesterone)
  • 5α-androstene-3β17β-diol
  • 5α-androstanedione
  • 5α-androstan-3β-ol-17-one
  • androstenedione
  • testosterone
  • dehydroepiandrosterone sulphate acyl ester
  • insulin like growth factors 1 and 2 (IGF-1 and IGF-2)
  • insulin

This is what our government suggests we drink in high doses–at least 3 glasses a day for me, a healthy adult male, according to the website. Those guidelines have been strongly criticized by many including leading nutrition scientists from Harvard such as Walter Willett and David Ludwig.

The famous Nurse’s Health Study examining health habits of 47,000 nurses found that those who drank more milk as teenagers had much higher rates of severe acne than those who had little or no milk as teenagers. If you think it is the fat in milk, think again. It was actually the skim milk that had the strongest risk for acne. In other studies of over 10,000 boys and girls from 9 to 15 years old, there was a direct link between the amount of milk consumed and the severity of acne.

It appears that it is not just the anabolic or sex hormones in milk that causes problem but milk’s ability to stimulate insulin production. It actually may be the lactose or milk sugar in milk that acts more like a soft drink than an egg. Drinking a glass of milk can spike insulin levels 300 percent. Not only does that cause pimples, but it also may contribute to prediabetes. This is true despite studies funded by the dairy council showing that milk helps with weight loss. The question is compared to WHAT diet–a diet of bagels and Coke, or a healthy phytonutrient, antioxidant-rich, plant-based diet with lean animal protein?

Stay Away from Sugar, Refined Carbs, and Pimples

If a glass of milk causes pimples, that may drive you back to your Pepsi. But not so fast. Recent studies also show that sugar and refined carbs (a high-glycemic diet) cause acne. More importantly, taking kids off sugar and putting them on a healthy, whole foods, low-glycemic load diet resulted in significant improvements in acne compared to a control group eating a regular, high-sugar American diet. In addition to less pimples, the participants lost weight, became more sensitive to the effects of insulin (resulting in less pimple-producing insulin circulating around the blood). They also had less of the sex hormones floating around their blood that drive pimples. We know that women who have too much sugar and insulin resistance get acne, hair growth on their face, hair loss on the head, and infertility. This is caused by high levels of circulating male hormones and is called polycystic ovarian syndrome but is a nutritional, not gynecologic disease.

But the dietary influences don’t stop there. It is not just sugar, but the bad fats we eat that may also contribute to acne.

Get an Oil Change

Our typical Western diet is full of inflammatory fats–saturated fats, trans fats, too many omega-6, inflammatory, processed vegetable oils like soy and corn oils. These increase IGF-1 and stimulate pimple follicles. Inflammation has been linked to acne, and anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats (from fish oil) may help improve acne and help with many skin disorders.

Balance the Hormones that Cause Skin Problems

The link is clear–hormonal imbalances caused by our diet trigger acne. Our diet influences sex hormones like testosterone, IGF-1, and insulin, which promote acne. The biggest factors affecting your hormones is the glycemic load of your diet (which is determined by how quickly the food you eat increases your blood sugar and insulin levels), and the amount of dairy products you eat. The good news is that eating a healthy diet and taking a few supplements can balance those hormones. Exercise also helps improve insulin function.

How To Prevent and Treat Acne

Eight simple steps will help most overcome their acne problems.

1. Stay away from milk. It is nature’s perfect food–but only if you are a calf.

2. Eat a low glycemic load, low sugar diet. Sugar, liquid calories, and flour products all drive up insulin and cause pimples.

3. Eat more fruits and vegetables. People who eat more veggies (containing more antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds) have less acne. Make sure you get your 5-9 servings of colorful fruits and vegetables every day.

4. Get more healthy anti-inflammatory fats. Make sure to get omega-3 fats (fish oil) and anti-inflammatory omega-6 fats (evening primrose oil). You will need supplements to get adequate amounts (more on that in a moment).

5. Include foods that correct acne problems. Certain foods have been linked to improvements in many of the underlying causes of acne and can help correct it. These include fish oil, turmeric, ginger, green tea, nuts, dark purple and red foods such as berries, green foods like dark green leafy vegetables, and omega 3-eggs.

6. Take acne-fighting supplements. Some supplements are critical for skin health. Antioxidant levels have been shown to be low in acne sufferers. And healthy fats can make a big difference. Here are the supplements I recommend:

  • Evening primrose oil: Take 1000 to 1500mg twice a day.
  • Zinc citrate: Take 30 mg a day.
  • Vitamin A: Take 25000 IU a day. Only do this for three months. Do not do this if you are pregnant.
  • Vitamin E (mixed tocopherols, not alpha tocopherol): Take 400 IU a day.

7. Try probiotics. Probiotics also help reduce inflammation in the gut that may be linked to acne. Taking probiotics (lactobacillus, etc.) can improve acne.

8. Avoid foods you are sensitive to. Delayed food allergies are among the most common causes of acne–foods like gluten, dairy, yeast, and eggs are common culprits and can be a problem if you have a leaky gut.

Following these simple tips will help you eliminate acne and have that glowing skin you have always dreamed of. And it’s much cheaper (and safer) than expensive medications and dermatologist visits. Improve your diet and take acne-fighting supplements and you will watch your pimples disappear.

To your good health,

Mark Hyman, MD”

To read more about the link between diet and acne, read our book Under My Skin. To see our freshly made, ultra potent line of acne products, click here.

69 thoughts on “It’s Proven: Sugar and Dairy Cause Acne”

  1. Great blog. I was checking continuously this blog and I am impressed! Very useful info specifically the last part. I care for such info a lot. I was seeking this certain information for a very long time. Thank you and good luck.

  2. […] If you are devolping breakouts on your chin, jaw line and neck area, it might be a sign that you’re getting more dairy or sugar in your diet than your body can tolerate. Your skin acts as an excretory system to get rid of things that your body is not in agreement with, so when you get too much dairy or sugar, it is by nature harder to digest and can come out in the form of cystic blemishes in the lower area of the face. READ: It’s Proven: Sugar and Dairy Cause Acne […]

  3. […] Although berries are one of the most healthy ways to get a good boost in energy or satisfy a craving for something sweet, their quick absorption and high sugar content also creates spikes in blood sugar.Whether consumed through whole foods (like fruits) or in processed foods (like store-bought cereals), both natural and refined sugar stimulate the same initial response in the body. Insulin is released to help ensure that blood sugar—or blood glucose—levels are evenly regulated. Unfortunately, insulin also stimulates your skin to make those nasty, embarrassing pimples. Read more about the clinical proof of the link between sugar, dairy and acne here. […]

  4. Good article. If you have acne. I also recommend a method used by their. Apply a honey mask to your face once or twice a week – Honey has antibacterial properties so it is great for disinfecting and healing minor blemishes. It is also gentle on sensitive skin. the effect is good.

  5. Truly interesting findings. I’m glad i’m a java lover and not a milk gulper. What actually tickles my mind is the fact that some soap products contain traces of dairy that they claim to soften skin? How is that? Would be great if you can check on that too.

    Thanks for this post and I hope to see more.



  6. Yes, I have known for years that milk and sugar cause my Acne. Unfortunately I love cheese!! But whenever I eat cheese or candy I will develop acne a day or two later which lasts about a week. If I don’t eat milk products and cut down on calories I will always be close to pimple free within a couple of weeks and have less greasy skin overall. Not everyone reacts this way to milk .. but I certainly do!!!

    1. Dave. I know, it’s hard! I’m also a cheese lover too and will get a flare up within 1-2 days if I eat it, so I have had to stop completely. Any Vegans out there know of any good fake cheeses?

  7. This is a really useful blog! But one question:
    Is it prefered to have Almond/Hazelnut or even Goats milk, in replacement of cow’s milk?

    1. Yes — almond, hemp, rice or soymilk are good milk replacements and won’t break out the skin. We recommend getting the unsweetened versions to avoid excess sugar!

  8. Thank you for the help, I will definitely cut back on milk, I tend to have more than 3 glasses of milk a day. I also tend to drink milk with the wrong combination of food. Hopefully this works, I think that the heat doesn’t help out this horrible situation. Never have I had bad acne, not even as a teen. My kid brothers have better skin than I do.

  9. […] Two large controlled trials found that cow’s milk increased both the number of people who got acne and its severity. Other large randomized prospective controlled trials (the gold standard of medical research) found that people who had higher sugar intake and a high glycemic load diet (more bread, rice, cereal, pasta, sugar, and flour products of all kinds) had significantly more acne. For more information CLICK HERE […]

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  11. So glad i came across this blog. Last weekend i had loads of cheese, and then pasta for dinner. Then during the week i had a few cupcakes, a few glasses of coke, and alot of white bread (toast for breakfast and sandwiches for lunch). By the end of the weekend i had 4 massive (not exaggerating) pus filled pimple cysts under the skin. The ones that dont have a head, but you cannot cover them with makeup. A week later and they are still under the skin. I know its because of all the white bread and cheese and sugar. My body has reached a spike and cant cope so has come out in my skin. The weeks i eat pretty healthy my skin is beautiful. My doctor told me that food is no way related to acne. Doctors will never admit it for some reason. My bestfriend never stops gorbing on sugar and fat but yet has flawless skin. Its just my skin is different than hers, thats all. The only good thing to come out of this (if anything) is that it keeps my weight down and my cholesteral too. I will continue to just have carbs and dairy in moderation, not everyday. xx

    1. Wow I’ve had the same exact problem and the same pimples, at least I think that’s what they are. They seem to be deep under the skin. Diet is so much more influential on breakouts then many people think.

    2. Melanie is exactly right when she says “Doctors will never admit it for some reason.”

      Doctors are ignorant… depending on drug company adverts for their medical information.

      When I studied Agriculture at Aberdeen University I shared classrooms and laboratories with the medical students. We did the same course on nutrition – lasting for about three lectures.

      Ten years later one of the students became my doctor, and I asked him a nutrition question. He told me that the classes we shared on nutrition were the only lectures on nutrition he’d had, and that was ten years ago, so he’d forgotten everything.

      Because I was involved with animal nutrition research, he considered that I would know more about nutrition than he did, so I asked my boss, who had a non-medical doctorate, and he didn’t even need to look up the text books to give me a full answer.

  12. I figure out that my acnes are mainly caused by milk consumption, and I’m definitely not having milk as often as before. But, won’t cutting off milk cause calcium and vitamin D lacking? It has more of these nutrients than other foods.

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  18. Thanks tone of for your advice about acne problem .im suffering this since 5 years many i hv visited but all are waste even time n money also ….

  19. I cut dairy from my diet a month ago and my health improved almost immediately (within 2 days in fact) I started losing weight naturally (2 or 3 lbs per week) without doing anything else. My sinuses cleared up and my oily skin (a lifelong problem) dried up within a week. I feel so much better and my skin is starting to look healthy again. I really do believe you that dairy is a bad food at least for some people.

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