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Skim Milk and Acne

The National Dairy Council denies that milk intake causes acne, but a study they supported—the Harvard Nurse’s Health Study—found otherwise, as I show in my 3-min. video National Dairy Council on Acne and Milk. The conclusion reads: “We found a positive association with acne for intake of total milk and skim milk. We hypothesize that the association with milk may be because of the presence of hormones and bioactive molecules in milk.”

Association does not necessarily mean causation, though. From the accompanying editorial in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology:

“The papers…from the Harvard School of Public Health establish an association between milk consumption and acne. But how could milk cause acne? Because, drinking milk and consuming dairy products from pregnant cows exposes us to the hormones produced by the cows’ pregnancy, hormones that we were not designed to consume during our teenage and adult years. It is no secret that teenagers’ acne closely parallels hormonal activity…So what happens if exogenous hormones are added to the normal endogenous load? And what exactly is the source of these hormones? Consider that, in nature, milk is consumed from a mother, whether human or bovine, until weaning occurs. Normally, the mother then ceases lactation before the next pregnancy occurs—so that consuming milk from a mother pregnant with her next offspring is not a common occurrence. We’ve all seen nature films of animals chasing their offspring away to encourage weaning at the appropriate time. Further, in nature the offspring consumes only the milk of its own species—but both of these natural rules are broken by humans. Viewed objectively, human consumption of large volumes of another species’ milk, especially when that milk comes mainly from pregnant cows during the human’s normally post-weaned years, is essentially unnatural.”

The Harvard Nurse’s Health Study found that the association between milk intake and severe physician-diagnosed teenage acne was even more marked for skim milk.  This may be because there is so much more estrogen in skim milk. Researchers found 15 steroid sex hormones in commercial milk right off the shelves, and the highest levels were found in skim milk, compared to 2% and whole (see my 4-min. video Hormones in Skim vs. Whole Milk).

Milk—organic or conventional—is naturally a hormone cocktail. This is not a consequence of bovine growth hormone injections or added steroids. As a commentary in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology noted: “It should surprise no one that milk contains such a heavy complement of growth-enhancing hormones. Milk is, after all, specifically designed to make things grow.”

As detailed in my 2-min. video Skim Milk and Acne, further studies of both adolescent girls and boys found a similar link between milk intake and acne, but pimples may be the least of our worries. The latest published update suggests that the restriction of cow’s milk consumption could have a beneficial effect on more serious epidemic diseases. Quoting from the review (in my 2-min. video Acne-Promoting Effects of Milk):

“By million years of evolution the growth signaling system of mammalian milk is exclusively and physiologically provided to the newborn only during the nursing period. The chronic ‘abuse’ of this mammalian postnatal signaling system by widespread cow milk and dairy consumption in humans of industrialized societies has been proposed to be the major cause of the acne epidemic and the more serious chronic western diseases.”

There’s lots of diseases associated with unrestricted growth. So what should we do? The research scientists suggest two solutions to the problem: the restriction of milk consumption or the engineering of milk that doesn’t have these adverse effects. Either way, “Both, restriction of milk consumption or the generation of less insulin affecting milk will have an enormous impact on the prevention of epidemic western diseases like obesity, diabetes mellitus, cancer, neurodegenerative diseases” and acne.

Michael Greger, M.D.


Michael Greger M.D., FACLM

Michael Greger, M.D. FACLM, is a physician, New York Times bestselling author, and internationally recognized professional speaker on a number of important public health issues. Dr. Greger has lectured at the Conference on World Affairs, the National Institutes of Health, and the International Bird Flu Summit, testified before Congress, appeared on The Dr. Oz Show and The Colbert Report, and was invited as an expert witness in defense of Oprah Winfrey at the infamous "meat defamation" trial.

26 responses to “Skim Milk and Acne

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  1. Codayon, perhaps…but look at who sponsored the research most likely.  The Dairy Industry sends schools the most beautiful free posters for teachers to use in schools touting the amazing benefits of dairy.  I thought this was so nice of them until I realized how promotional the material really was and many of us get sick from excess dairy.  Lots of green snotty noses stop runny when dairy is stopped.

  2. Anybody know are USA and europe similar or entirely different when it comes to dairy farming etc. I feel the USA may be a lot more extreme? Hard to know if these studies are fully relevant.

    1.  It shouldn’t matter either way. The substances discussed here that are found in dairy milk are inherent of milk. Primarily, xenostrogens are the culprit. Xenoestrogens and milk go hand in hand.

  3. It was hard for me to understand why a hydrophobic molecule like a hormone would be found in a greater amount in skim milk. Hydrophobic hormones would associate withmilk fat and be removed with milk fat. So I looked around and found research done by Sonia Hartman that shows a decrease in hormone amount in milk after the fat has been removed. Which makes sense to me.

    1. Hormone simply means signaling molecule, it does not refer to a molecule of a specific structure. You may be thinking specifically of steroidal hormones, which do have a high degree of hydrophobicity as you said. However there are several classes of hormones, many of which are indeed water soluble.

    1. Hi Amanda,

      I can only speak to my own experience, though I know the frustration when you feel like you are doing everything right and still dealing with these problems. For me the issue was a need for chemical exfoliation. I started using glycolic acid and salicylic acid based products and within a couple months my skin was clear (I also had those little bumps). I don’t mean to advertise, but there is a company called paula’s choice whose products I use. She also provides reviews for and recommends other brands as well. She’s kind of like the Dr. Greger for cosmetics :) I had tried salicylic acid before and it had never worked for me, but her products are at the correct pH to function properly and do not contain irritants, fragrance, or alcohol, and have worked wonders for me.

      All the best!

      1. A friend’s 2 sons had bad acne for years, and doctors prescribed antibiotics. After doing a lit review I suggested they do the following: replace refined carbs inc sugar with low glycemic whole carbs, drink more water from early morning, replace dairy products with soy, reduce fat and meat intake and replace with legumes, >=7 cups of vege and 2 cups fruit /day, cardio exercise daily, sleep by 930pm, continue with facial scrubs…..what do you know? for the 3 weeks they complied before going back to their slacker ways, their skin cleared up dramatically.

        1. I absolutely agree those are good starting points. Though if someone already eats a whole foods plant based diet with no refined sugar or grains and still has acne, as I did, then it gets more complicated. I do think most people out there (that don’t already follow the advice from this website) would benefit greatly from the type of dietary advice you gave. It’s too bad they went back to their old ways! Maybe you can convince the parents on the merits of the diet health-wise, so it’d be easier for the sons to stick with it?

          Also I would reiterate to Amanda that after using an alcohol/irritant/fragrance/color-free salicylic acid with a fragrance/color/irritant-free benzoyl peroxide, my skin is still completely clear. In fact it’s now quite beautiful, smooth, and glowing. I feel like all the kale and berries I eat now actually get a chance to show on my skin. Amanda, if you would like the exact products I can put the links but I don’t want to feel like a spammer :)

  4. My mom bought my a topical cream from Eminence that has yogurt in it and it says it is for acne prone skin. How does applying a yogurt topically affect acne?

    1. HI Gabrielle. Researchers are studying the bacteria found in our pores and found that not all strains cause acne. Feb 2013 study, UCLA researchers found there are “bad” strains associated with pimples and “good” strains that may protect the skin. Research is ongoing but in the words of the researchers: “This P. acnes strain may protect the skin, much like yogurt’s live bacteria help defend the gut from harmful bugs,” Li said. “Our next step will be to investigate whether a probiotic cream can block bad bacteria from invading the skin and prevent pimples before they start.”

        1. Hi Gabrielle, that is what this research is saying – that yogurt with its probiotic properties may (repeat may) also be effective for the skin. Try it and see – your own personal study!

          1. I read the ingredients: cucumber juice, zea mays (corn) germ oil, salix alba (willow bark) extract, yogurt, butyrospermum parkii (shea butter) , lactic acid, vegetable glycerin, calendula officinalis (calendula) oil, melaleuca alternifolia (tea tree) oil, panthenol (vitamin b5), zea mays (corn) starch, vegetable squalene, ubiquinone (coenzyme q 10), tocopheryl acetate (vitamin e), ascorbyl palmitate (vitamin c ester), xanthan gum, salicylic acid, sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate, and menthol.

            I know yogurt has good bacteria, but I also know that tea tree oil combats bacteria. I’m not sure if the two ingredients would affect each other and the tea tree oil kill bacteria of the yogurt, while doing nothing to kill bad bacteria on the skin.

    1. Hi Gabrielle, I’m not sure about that but what we eat does affect how our skin looks and feels. Have you seen Dr. Greger’s video on eating more veggies to improve skin condition? . His Update on Gluten video also points out that only 1% of the population has celiac disease, so if you’re concerned about having a gluten sensitivity it may be worth confirming it with a test. Hope that helps! :)

  5. I had acne in my face for a long time, and i was so angry about it, days after, i was surfing in the internet, i just found some useful products one of them is Coconut oil for acne, i tried it , and i can proudly say, that i don’t have acne in my face anymore, i want to help other people to try it.
    Thank you


  6. Hi,
    I’m lactose-intolerant and I don’t easily get acne. I was a little bit concerned about not being able to consume dairy products but reading this post makes me realize that I’d rather not drink milk than having pimples. I take calcium supplements, though, but it sure doesn’t give me zits. Thanks!

  7. Obviously diet, especially the foods and liquids that we eat and drink every day, have a major impact on how our bodies function. When it comes to sorting out causation from correlation, though, it can be tough to see the difference from a single study.

  8. Hi,

    I always avoid dairy products because I know, this is also one of the reasons for acne breakout. I just enjoy eating raw fruits and vegetables because it’s healthier than to juice. Proper exercise, enough sleep, and drinking lots of water are also important factors to avoid acne.

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