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 or cut down on 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 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, dietitians, or nutritionists. In fact, the majority dedicate time to unraveling the myth with clients — and some experts even suggest dairy alternatives may have their own 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, a registered associate nutritionist (ANutr). Light adds that while the latter is certainly something we need to pay attention to, the idea that dairy is objectively "bad" for us is a complete myth. Pixie Turner, registered nutritionist (RNutr), puts the popularity of milk alternatives down to "a number of fear-mongering 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 Light. "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." She 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.
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, writing, "In fact, this is probably the most common switch I see." She (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 savory dishes like curry. But is it better for your skin? Dr. Mahto explained 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? Light 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 full glass very regularly, she suggested it might be worth rethinking the product you've settled on.
Some dairy alternatives are more skin-friendly than others.
Sugar doesn't necessarily mean a food product is inherently bad for your diet or skin. None of these experts are demonizing oat milk or shaming those who consume it; they're simply looking at the research we have in relation to acne in particular. If you're looking for a dairy alternative to benefit your skin, Dr. Mahto suggests trying unsweetened soy milk or almond milk rather than oat. Instead of cutting milk out entirely, Turner suggests saving it for your coffee, "perhaps while using something like almond or soy milk in your cereal or smoothies." Light lists more options: "Fortified milk alternatives based on soy 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." She 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. Turner 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 says. "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 she suggest that everyone who experiences acne cut out dairy. "It can be quite a drastic change to someone's diet that requires careful consideration," says Turner. "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 mentioned, diet isn't the only thing that matters when it comes to skin. Light 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 Light, adding that sleep, pollution, and smoking — to name just a few environmental factors — may impact the general health and appearance of skin, too. Throughout the pandemic, many of us have experienced stress and anxiety, which, says Turner, can also have an impact on acne. "This happens through the release of the stress hormone cortisol," she explains.
Light 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," she says. "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 Light, 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 doctor or a registered dermatologist. For dietary advice, visit a qualified nutritionist.