Anyone that’s dealt with consistent breakouts has likely gone through the gamut of ingredients and treatments. We often reach for topicals to treat breakouts, and rightfully so — there’s plenty of research that suggests that ingredients like retinoids, sulfur, salicylic acid, and benzoyl peroxide can be extremely effective at treating mild to moderate acne. But if you’ve tried everything to no avail, it might be time to take a good look at your dietary habits— your dairy consumption in particular.
Perhaps you’ve heard this advice before and immediately thought to cut treats like cheese, ice cream, and milk, but there’s a key ingredient that often gets overlooked within the dairy category — your protein powder. If you’re using whey protein on the reg, you might be surprised to learn that it contains lactose, and may trigger breakouts in the same way that dairy can. Confused? So were we. That’s why we’ve tapped board-certified dermatologist and Surface Deep founder Dr. Alicia Zalka to explain everything you need to know about the purported link between whey protein supplements and breakouts.
What Is Whey Protein?
Whey protein is a type of protein derived from a cheese byproduct called whey. It’s often formulated into powdered supplements ranging across the flavor spectrum (although you can also find whey protein in pre-packaged baked goods, desserts, and drinks). Whey protein is easily dissolvable in milk — dairy, oat, almond milk… you can take your pick — and water, so you can easily blend it up into a shake, bake it into your favorite brownie recipe, or even froth it up in your coffee to increase your daily protein intake.
Why Are Whey Protein Supplements Associated With Breakouts?
If you’ve been dealing with breakouts for a while now, chances are you’ve heard the rumor that there may be a link between dairy consumption and inflammatory breakouts. And because whey is a byproduct of the cheese production process, it gets the same bad reputation.
Whey protein contains lactose (just like milk and your favorite ice cream), which means it can have a similar less-than-desirable effect on the skin. Here’s the theory: Dairy products (including whey protein) can cause a spike in testosterone production, which can increase sebum production and clog your pores, which ultimately leads to breakouts. But just how accurate is this theory?
“Studies suggest that people who consume dairy foods regularly (whole milk, skim milk, and cheese in particular) may be more prone to acne compared to those who do not consume dairy foods,” says Dr. Zalka. “Additionally, milk products may contain hormones that can also affect the skin.” But the keyword here is may — more on that below.
Is The Link Legitimate?
Unfortunately, the answer here isn’t black and white. While certain studies have shown a link between whey protein supplements and breakouts, this theory has yet to be 100 percent proven. “Before you accept whey protein causing breakouts as a hard and fast rule, be aware that acne is a multifactorial condition and has several interrelated causes — dairy intake alone is not the only culprit,” says Dr. Zalka. “Furthermore, research suggests that the acne/dairy connection can vary between countries, suggesting that some can tolerate dairy more than others based on nationality and heredity.”
What You Can Do
Whether or not whey protein can trigger breakouts depends greatly on your genes. If you’ve tried the most logical, evidence-based treatments for your acne — like avoiding comedogenic ingredients, using a gentle cleanser, and treating your skin with a retinoid — then quitting your whey supplements certainly can’t hurt. “The best approach is to avoid whey protein altogether if you suspect it is affecting your complexion,” says Dr. Zalka. Instead, try a vegan protein source, like soy protein or pea protein. These vegan options can give you just as much protein per dose, sans any dairy.
Many dermatological studies have been conducted in an attempt to prove or disprove the link between whey protein and breakouts. The majority of these studies have found a link between the two, but the evidence isn’t strong enough to assert that the link is proven. In fact, many dermatologists — including Dr. Zalka — will tell you that the effects of dairy products like whey protein on the skin can vary significantly from person to person depending on heredity and regionality. But with that being said, if more evidence-based acne treatments haven’t been successful, it doesn’t hurt to take a good look at how your nutrition might be playing a role in the clarity of your complexion. Switching to a vegan protein powder is a great option — supplements like pea protein can provide the same grams of protein per serving, but with no dairy or cheese byproducts.
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