THIS Is What Happened To My Skin When I Cut Out Dairy

Photographed by Amanda Ringstad.
My name is Maria Del Russo, and I hold these truths to be self-evident: A cheese plate is a perfectly respectable meal. A pack of shredded cheese is a great snack. Nachos deserve their own food group. If you're picking up what I'm putting down, then you're likely wondering why the hell I'd give up dairy for a month. Well, because good skin might just be more important to me than cheese. Might.

The theory that dairy affects your skin is one that's been hotly debated among nutritionists, dermatologists, and pseudo-scientists on the internet. "The issue is more complex than saying it's good or bad," says Walter Faulstroh, the cofounder of Hum Nutrition. "There are a lot of different things that can be 'bad' about dairy. Is it the dairy itself, or is it the hormones? Or the way it was processed? That's why it's so heavily debated." Indeed, multiple studies have found that it's not always the dairy causing the breakouts, but how what is in dairy interacts with our unique chemistries.

However, some dermatologists — like Jeannette Graf, MD — claim that there is an apparent link between dairy and acne. "When a patient of mine comes to me with a problem with acne, I put them on medication and I try to take them off dairy," she says. "I've noticed that when they don't stop with the dairy, the medication doesn't work as well."

Thankfully, I no longer suffer from severe acne. After a short stint on doxycycline, and a serious restructuring of my skin-care routine, I've gotten to the point at which I only break out on my chin, with a few stragglers on my cheeks. Everyone from makeup artists to Facebook commenters to dermatologists says that I would likely see an improvement in those areas if I ditch dairy.

It pained me deeply, but on July 31, I went through my cabinets and fridge and cleared out every last dairy product. Goodbye, Parmesan. See ya later, cow's milk. Of all the challenges I've tried, I knew this would be the hardest. Hell, even on the Perricone Diet, I was allowed a sprinkling of feta.

I'd done my research into dairy-free alternatives ahead of this challenge, even going so far as to create a Pinterest board with all of my recipes. (It's not my sexiest board, I'll admit.) I looked into cheese-free ways to make some of my favorite things — like pesto and quesadillas. I went to Whole Foods and stocked up on Daiya cheese and nutritional yeast — both of which tasted like shit. I know that there are some major nutritional-yeast fans out there, but I'm here to tell you that stuff tastes and smells like a goddamn foot.

After two days, I started craving cheese less. I didn't feel as bloated, and my stomach hardly ever bothered me. I also stopped getting that uncomfortable "full" feeling after meals. And even though I was just a few days away from getting my period, my skin didn't look all that terrible. In fact, it looked kind of glowy.
Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
On the right is day one of my experiment. On the left is day 30.
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When I cooked at home, the dairy-free lifestyle was easier than I'd imagined it would be. The trouble came when I went out to dinner. I had to ask if there was dairy in anything I was ordering — and found that things I had assumed would be safe, like tomato sauce, were not. (Some restaurants put butter in theirs to make it creamier.) Soon, I just started telling waiters I had a dairy allergy in order to ensure a side of sour cream didn't show up on my plate. If it did, I didn't know if I could trust myself to resist. Some cuisines were better than others: Japanese and Thai were always safe bets, while Italian and Mexican were practically impossible. Also, what's the deal with coffee shops not having milk alternatives for coffee? This is 2016, people. Get with the program.

About a week into the experiment, our beauty director Cat Quinn said she noticed a difference in my skin — and I did, too. It was significantly less inflamed, the zits that I did have were a lot smaller, and my texture felt smoother and looked brighter. No, nixing dairy hadn't completely cleared up my complexion, but there was improvement. (Check out the photos above.)

I'll come clean: I cheated once. (There was pesto risotto on the menu — enough said.) But my skin didn't flare up then, and even when I fully returned to dairy a week ago, things didn't go haywire, like I thought might happen. Faulstroh said that this likely had to do with the quality of the dairy I was eating. "It may have been less processed and more organic," he says, adding that certain types of dairy products tend to be less inflammatory than others. Faulstroh, like myself, is a cheese devotee, but he sticks to goat-based products as opposed to cow-based ones.

Dr. Graf also says that dairy is rarely the sole cause of acne — it's just one piece of the puzzle. "A lot of people will also have reactions to sugar, or they'll need some medication as well," she says. "It's never just dairy that causes breakouts." This is music to my ears, because I just can't quit the stuff. There's no question that I need to cut back (Case in point: As I'm writing this essay, I'm eating Shake Shack cheese fries and feeling ill), so I'll be putting almond milk in my coffee and suggesting fewer dates at wine-and-cheese bars from here on out. But if you think I'm gonna pass on the queso dip making its way around the party, you're out of your damn mind.
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