Once upon a time you and I were teenagers and chances are, you, like me, probably had some form of acne. We know raging hormones cause the annoying and sometimes painful bumps and irritation, but can food contribute to breakouts?

QUESTION: Does milk and greasy foods cause acne?

PROCESS: To verify if the bothersome bumps come from our diet, we reached out to Associate Professor and Residency Program Director of Dermatology at Wake Forest Baptist Health, Dr. William Huang.

First, does milk cause acne? Huang said it’s a common question he gets from patients.

“The cause of acne is quite complex,” Huang began. “With milk, there is a weak association with acne. Now, when I say association, that doesn’t mean it causes acne. But, in patients that already have acne, milk may be associated with acne worsening, especially skim milk in particular.”

The theory behind skim milk being worse than whole milk for acne, according to Huang, is due to some of the hormones and proteins that are put into skim milk to make it taste less watery.

So, if milk can make it worse sometimes, what about other dairy products?

Referencing medical studies, Huang said, “They didn’t find a strong enough association to say that (dairy products) existed. It was mostly with skim milk and again that was a weak association.”

Huang said he doesn’t recommend one diet over the other, but added if a patient notices certain foods make acne worse, then the person may want to avoid that certain food. And even with a change in diet, the results won’t be immediate.

“You probably wouldn’t see that change for eight to 12 weeks,” said Huang.

So, what about greasy food, you know, the good stuff.

Huang laughed,"Like friend chicken and pizza, hamburgers and hot dogs. The association with greasy foods and acne is less well established than milk and acne. It’s one if the common myths are out there.”

That means, the medical evidence isn’t strong enough to say greasy food causes acne. But, if you are enjoying a greasy slice of pepperoni pizza, it’s not a good idea to touch your face if you have acne or pimples.

In fact, it’s not a good idea to touch your face at all if you know you’re prone to breakouts (and yes, that means no popping your pimples).

“That leads to a cascade of inflammation and that can make acne worse,” said Huang.

So, we can verify, skim milk in particular can make breakouts worse, but it won’t cause acne to begin with. And greasy foods are okay, as far as acne is concerned.

So, what does cause acne?

“It’s related to hormones, it’s related to genetics and there is some weak association with diet and food,” explained Huang. “Acne is the most common skin condition we encounter and 50 million Americans deal with acne every year and it’s not only patients in the teenager years, although about 85 percent of people in their teens have acne.”

Huang suggests washing the skin or face with a gentle cleanser twice a day. If you do have deeper acne issues, visit a dermatologist who can discuss options like over the counter medications and cleansers.

And here’s a few bonus questions and answers from Huang.

Summer and heat? “There’s no real correlation between heat and sweat to making acne worse.”

Menstrual cycle and breakouts? “We see this observation quite commonly but it’s not a universal observation. The hormonal influence can be stronger in some woman than others.”

What’s are the most common foods that add to acne problems? “In particular studies, it shows people with high Glycemic Index diet were more prone to have more acne. This means, people who eat a lot of foods that elevate blood sugar like white bread, potatoes, some forms or rice and very starchy items.”


Dr. William Huang, Associate Professor and Residency Program Director of Dermatology, Wake Forest Baptist Health


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