The connection between milk and breakouts: Does dairy cause acne?

Diving into the controversy surrounding dairy and acne.

Written by
Tori Crowther
Medically reviewed by
min read
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When we talk about acne, myths are rife so it can be difficult to know what to believe when it comes to possible causes and links. One of those myths is that you should cut out all dairy if you have acne.

It’s a topic that’s been discussed widely in the dermatology space for years, and while there is a link between some dairy products and acne, it doesn’t mean you need to cut the food group out altogether (rejoice cheese lovers!) 

We’ve gathered everything you need to know about the golden question: does dairy cause acne?

What is acne? 

Acne happens when you have a number of pustules and papules (small raised bumps with or without pus) for more than a few weeks. It's caused when pores get filled with oils, dead skin cells, and dirt, which ends up blocking them, trapping the dirt and bacteria inside, and producing pustules. 

There are several degrees of severity when it comes to acne ranging from mild, which can be treated at home, to severe, which typically needs professional help and a number of treatments. 

You can get acne on your face, back, bum, and chest. The latter areas are often referred to as body acne and can be treated in similar ways to face acne. However, body acne can often be harder to beat, since reaching certain areas, like your back, is trickier than reaching your face.

Is dairy bad for your skin?

Now, dairy is not bad for your skin per se — it really depends from person to person. But so far, science is pointing towards some dairy products having the potential to aggravate some skin types

A 2018 study found that acne patients' intake of various dairy products — including different types of milk and yoghurt — was associated with a higher odds ratio of acne when compared to those who had no intake of dairy products [1]. 

Having said that, the researchers stated that there are limitations to this study so caution must be taken when interpreting the results.

Can dairy cause acne?

As far as what the studies tell us, dairy alone does not cause acne. There are lots of other reasons why you might struggle with this skin issue, including:


Studies have suggested that genes influence acne and the inflammatory response in the skin [2]. Unfortunately, having a family history of acne might increase your chances.


Having polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) increases your chances of acne due to high androgen levels, which increase oil production. In some people, this can actually be a sign and symptom that pushes them to see a doctor for a diagnosis. 

Hormonal changes 

Going through puberty, pregnancy, and menopause can also boost your chances of acne and breakouts. This is due to hormone fluctuations and changes, which can trigger an overdrive of sebum production and, as a result, lead to a higher risk of clogged pores. 

Certain medications 

Some medications, including the contraceptive pill, can trigger breakouts. It can be a real potluck as to whether contraception causes acne but it’s more likely in those who are predisposed to breakouts to begin with. Steroids can sometimes increase your risk of acne, too.


This seems like an insignificant one but excessive friction from things like masks, helmets, and straps can cause acne, especially when you’re hot as sweat can get trapped with dirt and bacteria. Over time, this can result in bouts of breakouts. 

There are also lots of things that can exacerbate acne and breakouts, which is where dairy might come in. 

  • Cow's milk: Studies have shown that cow's milk consumption can lead to worsened breakouts when compared with cheese and other dairy products [3]. This is why some skin experts recommend patients try swapping out cow's milk (though not for really sugary alternatives) to see if it makes a difference, rather than cutting out dairy altogether, which can be tricky and not beneficial. 
  • Skincare: Good hygiene doesn't determine whether a person will have acne or not. It’s a damaging myth to suggest so. However, breakouts can be worsened if the wrong skincare is used (namely harsh chemical exfoliators that destroy the skin barrier) and if you don’t cleanse away leftover makeup and grime from the day. 
  • Stress: Often overlooked, stress can have a profound impact on the skin. Although it won’t cause acne, it can make breakouts worse or increase frequency [4]. Easier said than done, try to decrease stress as much as possible (meditation, journaling, and spending time in nature can help here). 
  • Washing: Keeping on top of washing pillowcases and using sensitive-skin-friendly detergent can sometimes help reduce triggers.

To answer in short: does dairy cause acne? No, dairy intake doesn't cause acne. Can it aggravate and trigger severe acne cases? Yes, some types of dairy can.

Skim milk vs whole milk

Many of us are led to believe that low fat is a better alternative but that’s not always the case. In fact, full-fat versions can often be a healthier choice when part of a balanced diet, and when it comes to acne severity and milk intake, the same can be said. 

Interestingly, a 2016 study found that teenage acne increases with low-fat milk — or skim milk — versus full-fat [5]. If you’re interested in trying to limit dairy intake to see if it makes a difference in your breakouts, this might be a good place to start.

Does whey protein cause acne?

Although further studies need to be carried out, so far, research suggests that whey protein — a protein derived from cow’s milk — can be related to acne [6]. 

Again, this doesn’t necessarily mean that whey protein causes acne lesions but it may worsen breakouts in those who are predisposed.

Can dairy products cause itchy skin?

If you have a sensitivity to them, dairy products can absolutely cause itchy skin. 

In those with acne, this aggravation can cause a worsening of the pimples due to the irritation. How skin reacts to certain foods varies so keeping a food intake diary can help assess triggers.

Skin conditions like eczema can also find that dairy is a trigger for itchiness. If that's the case for you, and the itchiness is getting worse or interfering with daily life, please seek medical attention as it can indicate an allergy.

How to treat (and prevent) acne breakouts

When it comes to acne — and any skin condition for that matter — there isn’t one definite answer for prevention and treatment. It’s a game of trial and error to see what your triggers are and what works best for you. And some help from the experts never goes astray. 

Keep skim milk consumption to a minimum

Based on the research, if you want to change your dairy consumption, stick to full-fat milk versus skim milk. Acne-prone skin types should also be mindful when consuming whey protein as this can worsen breakouts.

Maintain a good skincare regimen

First and foremost, a dedicated skincare routine is a must to both prevent and treat acne. While skincare (or lack thereof) doesn’t necessarily cause breakouts, it can definitely make them worse. By the same token, many people find the right routine can dramatically improve their skin.

Software’s Acne Kit has everything you need in a handy step-by-step set with ingredients to control oil production and reduce inflammation. Together, the Salicylic Acid Foaming Wash, Ceramide Repair Balm, Acne Supplement, and AHA/BHA Pimple Patches target acne at all stages for a clearer, more glowing complexion.

Sticking to a dedicated skincare routine also means not being tempted to try trendy products you see online. Remember: the happiest skin is the one where you’re most consistent. 

Keep a food diary

If you suspect certain foods, including dairy, are a trigger for your breakouts, keeping a food diary can help you keep track. That way you can start a process of elimination to try and find a cause. It’s important not to cut foods unnecessarily though, and if you’re unsure if there’s a link, always seek professional advice. 

Try medical treatments

When acne is on the moderate end of the scale, medical treatments can be game-changing. Software’s acne treatment helps to treat the acne topically in a bespoke-made treatment.

Complete our online consult and our Australian health practitioners will create a formula just for you. This is delivered straight to your door and you can access ongoing follow-up support from your practitioner as you use your treatment.

For moderate to severe acne, oral acne medication can also be helpful.

Consider in-clinic treatments

You can seek professional help with in-clinic treatments, such as chemical peels and lasers, to help target acne and reduce any scarring from breakouts

Be kind to your skin

Although it sounds a little out there, being kind to acne is one of the best ways to treat it. When we attack our skin with harsh astringents and over-wash it, it can lead to far more irritation and inflammation, which then exacerbates the pimples. Remember, skin concerns can take time to resolve. 

Finally, for really severe acne cases, a dermatologist’s help is always recommended. 

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