The Big Lie You’re Made To Believe About Dairy & Clear Skin

Photographed by Kristine Romano
A large part of my job is meeting celebrities and influencers to discuss all things beauty. As we're increasingly obsessed with clear, glowing skin, the chat always leans toward their strict daily routines. Most rely on expensive LED treatments or deep face peels for great skin but there's something else they tend to have in common: regardless of skin type or lifestyle, almost all have cut out dairy in a bid to keep their skin in tip-top condition.
Facilitated by the boom of veganism and consumers making better choices to benefit the planet and animal welfare, dairy alternatives such as plant-based milk and cheese have become popular in recent years. But somewhere down the line, dairy has become demonized in regards to skin, specifically how it is said to worsen skin gripes such as breakouts and excess oil, or exacerbate skin conditions like acne. Interestingly, though, this school of thought isn't necessarily supported by many dermatologists, dieticians or nutritionists. In fact, the majority spend their time unravelling the myth with clients. More surprisingly, experts suggest it's actually dairy alternatives that potentially have a link to skin issues.

The link between dairy and skin is weak

"Cow's milk, in particular, is becoming increasingly demonized, partly (and incorrectly) in relation to nutrition, and in terms of the environmental impact of the dairy industry," says Kelly Light, registered associate nutritionist (ANutr). Kelly adds that while the latter is certainly something we need to pay attention to, the idea that dairy is 'bad' for us is a complete myth. Pixie Turner, registered nutritionist (RNutr), puts the popularity of milk alternatives down to "a number of fearmongering documentaries in recent years, which have scared people away from dairy and made false or exaggerated claims." She also mentions that it's impossible to scroll through Instagram without coming across ads for dairy alternatives, or influencers making them seem cool and trendy.
"Dairy is so often believed to be linked to skin problems, but the truth is that the evidence to support this is lacking," says Kelly. "If there is a link, then it is likely to apply only to a select group of individuals. While some people do cite dairy as a personal trigger for skin issues like acne, this is typically anecdotal." Kelly adds that dairy spans such a wide range of foods (not to mention sources) that it can be difficult to study each one in isolation in regard to its impact on skin. In other words, while some individuals may attribute their clear skin to ditching dairy, concrete proof simply doesn't exist. So is it helpful to be as wary of it as many of us are?

Dairy alternatives might not be 'better' for your skin after all

One expert who often discusses the link between diet and skin is consultant dermatologist Dr. Anjali Mahto. Dr. Mahto recently took to Instagram to write a post on milk alternatives, sharing some research that showed whether they are better for skin compared to dairy, and divulging observations she has made from treating patients in clinic. Dr. Mahto wrote that the conversation between diet and acne never goes out of fashion: "I see many patients who decide to go 'dairy-free' for their skin. Some are vegan, others are not, but cutting out dairy seems to [be] a very common scenario." Dr. Mahto pointed out that the subject is divisive. "Data can often be cherry-picked to either show there is or isn’t a link between [diet and skin, particularly acne]," she wrote. "What I will say is that there is potential emerging evidence that foods with a high glycemic index (GI) [otherwise referred to as high in sugar] may be one of the multiple factors which may trigger or worsen acne."
Dr. Mahto added that many people she sees in clinic cut out dairy and switch to oat milk. "In fact, this is probably the most common switch I see." Dr. Mahto (and the millions of oat milk fanatics across the globe) understands why. It's sweeter and creamier than cow's milk, and tastes amazing in everything from smoothies, lattes and ice cream to savoury dishes like curry. But is it better for your skin? Dr. Mahto pointed out that oat milk, in particular, is a "high GI index food due to the sugar maltose, which raises blood sugar levels rapidly, especially when compared to dairy or almond milk." She added: "Many people are therefore cutting out dairy for their skin, but potentially replacing it with something more problematic from a GI and current data point of view."
What's the actual effect of dairy alternatives (specifically those high in sugar) on skin? Kelly says our body's response to high blood sugar levels is to release the hormone insulin. Dr. Mahto added that this then causes a spike in androgen (or male) hormones, which can drive acne. Of course, Dr. Mahto emphasizes that no food is 'good' or 'bad' and that demonizing dairy alternatives is not the answer at all; rather, we should be mindful and look at diet as a whole. "A splash of oat milk in your coffee if you are acne-prone is probably fine, as acne is multifactorial and is rarely caused by diet alone," said Dr. Mahto. But if you're consuming oat milk or sugary dairy alternatives in high quantities, such as in smoothies or a glass full very regularly, she suggested it might be worth rethinking the product you've settled on.

These are the best dairy alternatives for your skin

Sugar doesn't necessarily mean a food product is inherently bad for your diet or skin. None of these experts is demonizing oat milk or shaming those who consume it; they're simply looking at the research we have in relation to acne especially. If you're looking for a dairy alternative to benefit your skin, Dr. Mahto suggests trying unsweetened soya milk or almond milk, rather than oat milk. Instead of cutting milk out entirely, Pixie suggests saving it for your coffee, "perhaps while using something like almond or soy milk in your cereal or smoothies." Kelly lists more options: "Fortified milk alternatives based on soya or pea protein are most similar to the nutrition profile of cow's milk and both typically contain low amounts of sugar, therefore these could be considered 'better' options." Kelly also recommends looking out for products fortified with nutrients such as calcium, vitamin B12 and iodine.
With all this in mind, if cutting out dairy has worked for you personally and you're happy with your skin and diet, that's great. Pixie says it's important not to overthink things, though. "What you decide is worth compromising on is your own personal decision that is unique to you," she explains. "If you decide you don't want to give up your oat milk then fair enough. There are other options for you to manage acne." Nor does Pixie suggest that everyone who experiences acne cut out dairy. "It can be quite a drastic change to someone's diet that requires careful consideration," Pixie concludes. "It's about finding a balance between being mindful of what foods may have an impact without too much stress and overthinking it."

Diet isn't the only factor in achieving skin you're happy with

As Dr. Mahto has already mentioned, diet isn't the only thing that matters when it comes to skin and Kelly agrees that causes and triggers of acne are so much wider than the food we consume. "Factors such as genetics [for example, if your parents suffer with a skin condition] and hormones play a significant role," says Kelly, adding that sleep, pollution and smoking to name a few elements may impact the general health and appearance of skin, too. Throughout the pandemic, many of us have experienced stress and anxiety, which, says Pixie, can also have an impact on acne: "This happens through the release of the stress hormone cortisol."
Kelly also busts the myth that beauty supplements are a must for 'good' skin. "From a nutrition perspective, despite misleading marketing claims around nutrition supplements, your skin can get what it needs through a balanced and varied diet. Nutrients such as omega 3, vitamin A, B vitamins, zinc and selenium can play a beneficial role, and our requirements for all of these nutrients can be met through what we eat and drink." Hydration is also important, says Kelly, who suggests drinking plenty of water throughout the day.
If you'd like to know more about how to treat skin conditions such as acne, it's worth booking an appointment with your GP or a registered dermatologist. For dietary advice, visit a qualified nutritionist.

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