Acne: Are Milk and Sugar the Causes?

Mark Hyman, M.D. by Mark Hyman, M.D. | October 21st, 2011 | 7 Comments
topic: Green Living

Woman Hiding Her AcneIt’s confirmed. Dairy products and sugar cause acne.

As our sugar and dairy consumption has increased over the last 100 years, so has the number of people with acne. We now have more than 17 million acne sufferers, costing our health care system $1 billion a year, and 80-90 percent of teenagers suffer acne to varying degrees. The pimply millions rely on infomercial products hawked by celebrities or over-the-counter lotions, cleansers and topical remedies. Recent research suggests that it’s not what we slather on our skin that matters most but what we put in our mouth.

Many have suggested a diet-acne link, but until recently it has not been proven in large clinical studies. Instead, dermatologists prescribe long-term antibiotics and Accutane, both of which may cause long-term harmful effects. In 2009, a systematic review of 21 observational studies and six clinical trials found clear links. Two large controlled trials found that cow’s milk increased both the number of people who got acne and its severity. Other large, randomized, prospective, controlled trials (the gold standard of medical research) found that people who had higher sugar intake and a high glycemic load diet (more bread, rice, cereal, pasta, sugar and flour products of all kinds) had significantly more acne. The good news is that chocolate (dark chocolate, that is) didn’t seem to cause acne.

The dietary pimple-producing culprits — dairy and sugar (in all its blood-sugar-raising forms) — both cause spikes in certain pimple-producing hormones. Dairy boosts male sex hormones (various forms of testosterone or androgens) and increases insulin levels just as foods that quickly raise blood sugar (sugar and starchy carbs) spike insulin.

Androgens and insulin both stimulate your skin to make those nasty, embarrassing pimples. One patient recently told me he would give a million dollars for a pill to cure acne. He doesn’t need to. It seems that for many, the cure to acne is at the end of their fork, not on a prescription pad.

Stay away from dairy and avoid acne

Milk is designed to grow things — namely, babies — and in the case of cow’s milk, calves. It is naturally full of what we call anabolic hormones (the same ones that body builders and A-Rod use to grow big muscles, and which cause bad acne). These are mostly androgens (like testosterone) and growth hormones including insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1). There is no such thing as hormone-free milk.

Here’s a short list of the 60-some hormones in your average glass of milk — even organic, raw and bovine-growth-hormone-free milk:

  • progesterone (from pregnenolone)
  • androstenedione
  • testosterone
  • dehydroepiandrosterone sulphate acyl ester
  • insulin-like growth factors 1 and 2 (IGF-1 and IGF-2)
  • insulin

This is what our government suggests we drink in high doses — at least 3 glasses a day for me, a healthy adult male, according to the website. Those guidelines have been strongly criticized by many, including leading nutrition scientists from Harvard such as Walter Willett and David Ludwig.

The famous Nurse’s Health Study, examining health habits of 47,000 nurses, found that those who drank more milk as teenagers had much higher rates of severe acne than those who drank little or no milk as teenagers. And if you think it’s the fat in milk that’s to blame, think again. It was actually the skim milk that had the strongest risk for acne. In other studies of more than 10,000 boys and girls from 9 to 15 years old, there was a direct link between the amount of milk consumed and the severity of acne.

It appears that it is not just the anabolic or sex hormones in milk that cause problems, but also milk’s ability to stimulate insulin production. It actually may be the lactose or milk sugar in milk that acts more like a soft drink than an egg. Drinking a glass of milk can spike insulin levels by 300 percent. Not only does that cause pimples, but it also may contribute to prediabetes. This is true despite studies funded by the Dairy Council showing that milk helps with weight loss. The question is, compared to WHAT diet — a diet of bagels and Coke, or a healthy, phytonutrient, antioxidant-rich, plant-based diet with lean animal protein?

Stay away from sugar, refined carbs and pimples

Learning that a glass of milk causes pimples might drive you back to your Pepsi. Not so fast!

Recent studies also show that sugar and refined carbs (a high-glycemic diet) cause acne. More importantly, taking kids off sugar and putting them on a healthy, whole foods, low-glycemic load diet resulted in significant improvements in acne compared to a control group eating a regular, high-sugar American diet. In addition to noticing fewer pimples, the participants lost weight and became more sensitive to the effects of insulin (resulting in less pimple-producing insulin circulating around the blood). They also had less of the sex hormones floating around their blood that drive pimples.

We know that women who have too much sugar and develop insulin resistance experience acne, hair growth on their face, hair loss on the head and infertility. This is caused by high levels of circulating male hormones and, though it’s called polycystic ovarian syndrome, it is a nutritional — not gynecologic — disease.

How to prevent and treat acne

The link is clear: Hormonal imbalances caused by our diet trigger acne. Our diet influences sex hormones like testosterone, IGF-1 and insulin, which promote acne. The biggest factors affecting your hormones are the glycemic load of your diet (which is determined by how quickly the food you eat increases your blood sugar and insulin levels) and the amount of dairy products you eat. The good news is that eating a healthy diet and taking a few supplements can balance those hormones. Exercise also helps improve insulin function.

Eight simple steps will help most overcome their acne problems:

1. Stay away from milk. It is nature’s perfect food — but only if you are a calf.

2. Eat a low glycemic load, low-sugar diet. Sugar, liquid calories and flour products all drive up insulin and cause pimples.

3. Eat more fruits and vegetables. People who eat more veggies (containing more antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds) have less acne. Make sure you get 5-9 servings of colorful fruits and vegetables every day.

4. Get more healthy anti-inflammatory fats. Make sure to get omega-3 fats (fish oil) and anti-inflammatory omega-6 fats (evening primrose oil). You will need supplements to get adequate amounts (more on that in a moment).

5. Include foods that correct acne problems. Certain foods have been linked to combating the underlying causes of acne and can help correct it. These include fish oil; turmeric; ginger; green tea; nuts; dark purple and red foods such as berries; green foods like dark green leafy vegetables; and omega-3 eggs.

6. Take acne-fighting supplements. Some supplements are critical for skin health. Antioxidant levels have been shown to be low in acne sufferers. And healthy fats can make a big difference. Here are the supplements I recommend:

  • Evening primrose oil: Take 1000 to 1500 mg twice a day.
  • Zinc citrate: Take 30 mg a day.
  • Vitamin A: Take 25000 IU a day. Only do this for three months. Do not do this if you are pregnant.
  • Vitamin E (mixed tocopherols, not alpha tocopherol): Take 400 IU a day.

7. Try probiotics. Probiotics also help reduce inflammation in the gut that may be linked to acne. Taking probiotics (lactobacillus, etc.) can improve acne.

8. Avoid foods you are sensitive to. Delayed food allergies are among the most common causes of acne. Foods like gluten, dairy, yeast and eggs are common culprits and can be a problem if you have a leaky gut.

Following these simple tips will help you eliminate acne and get that glowing skin you’ve always dreamed of. And they’re much cheaper (and safer) than expensive medications and dermatologist visits. Improve your diet and take acne-fighting supplements and you will watch your pimples disappear.

For more information on how to optimize your nutrition and improve your skin, visit

To your good health,

Mark Hyman, MD

This article originally appeared on Huffington Post.


  1. I definitely agree with the dairy link. I used to get cysts on my chin. I couldn’t figure out why. One day I went to cheesecake factory, and I had a horrible breakout. I decided to cut out all dairy products, and my skin is much better (though not perfect, it’s hard to stay away from the sugar completely).

    Helga | October 27th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  2. Definitely agree with number 8. Too many acne breakouts are caused by undiscovered food sensitivities! Sadly, without allergy testing, the only real way is to eliminate practically all food, then reintroduce it slowly to figure out what causes your breakouts. It’s not a fun process!

    Ryan | November 8th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  3. havent had any luck with number 5 and 7, but i do think there is a dietary link to acne

    mr. acne | November 10th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  4. the hormone link is the most interseting one, i will definately look more into that and research it a little more, thanks for the list Mark.

    jackie | November 10th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  5. great article

    billy | March 29th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  6. We talked about it back in school but back then they didn’t have definite cause for being a factor for acne. I don’t know. With all these “research and findings” coming up – it all gets too confusing.

    Bess | April 9th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  7. Hi, Everyone :)

    This is the best advice:

    “3. Eat more fruits and vegetables. People who eat more veggies (containing more antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds) have less acne. Make sure you get 5-9 servings of colorful fruits and vegetables every day.”

    Here is a good acne mask recipe:

    See It: Skin Brightening Turmeric Acne Mask Recipe Here!

    - 1/4 teaspoon turmeric powder.
    - A few drops of honey.
    - 2 tablespoons flour (used to thicken the paste).
    - For oily skin: 1/4 cup plain yogurt & few drops of lemon juice.
    - For dry skin: 2 tablespoons olive oil, almond oil or coconut oil.

    Blend the flour and turmeric together.

    In the event you have oily skin:
    1.) Add fresh lemon juice and stir.
    2.) Slowly mix in the yogurt until a creamy paste is created.
    3.) Use more or less yogurt to your preference.

    In the event you have dry skin:
    1.) Add the oil slowly and stir until a paste is created. Add more for additional creaminess.
    2.) Apply mask to your face and neck.
    3.) Leave the mask on for 10-15 minutes.
    4.) Using a warm, wet washcloth which you don’t mind staining (turmeric will stain), rinse off the mask.

    Thanks for this article.

    Guy Shane

    Guy Shane | April 17th, 2013 | Comment Permalink

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