Is Your Protein Powder To Blame For Your Breakouts?

Food for thought.
Written by Elise Minton Tabin
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Is Your Protein Powder To Blame For Your Breakouts?Emma-Jane Hobden/Unsplash

Strange but true, the protein powder you down every day in the name of good health may be the cause for breakouts. The reason? Those milk-based hormones found in whey protein stimulate the sebaceous glands, which can lead to acne. But before you give up on the powdered goodness altogether, it’s essential to know the role of dairy and how it affects the skin.

You Are What You Eat (and Drink)

Ideally, everything that we consume should be beneficial and nutritious to the body. But life isn’t perfect and neither are our diets. While we are all about everything in moderation, there are plenty of regularly consumed foods and products that we believe to be good for us when, in reality, they aren’t.

Literally, every single morsel of food that we eat and every drop of liquid we drink becomes us. Our food is broken down and used for cellular growth and repair. The types of food we eat tell our hormones how to influence physiological changes in the body. “So, if we are eating a clean, minimally processed diet full of vegetables and fruits with lean proteins and healthy fats, then we are giving our bodies great ‘building blocks’ for every single cell in the body, including skin cells,” explains Jennifer Hanway, a board certified holistic nutritionist. She states that pairing this with foods that keep hormone levels stable helps keep the body functioning optimally from the inside out.

Good skin starts in the gut. The skin, our largest organ, directly reflects what is occurring inside the body, whether that's a harmonious balance of gut flora or an imbalance or deficiency of some sort. Jessica Sepel, nutritionist and founder of JSHealth Vitamins, says that the state of the gut affects the absorption of a nutrient, which may influence the progression of a condition or disease. “It's important to feed the skin all the amazing nutrients from the inside and limit foods that may be counterproductive to your complexion," she says. And when the gut is unbalanced due to a poor diet, it shows on the skin.

Certain foods, like dairy, processed meals, and sugar-laden treats (all considered pro-inflammatory foods), instigate skin issues like redness, breakouts, dryness, and even eczema. But when it comes to protein powders — mainly whey-based ones — the connection to breakouts is considered solid since whey protein is milk-derived.

Milk It Real Good

For years, it has been suggested that milk consumption may be an underlying cause for acne — other factors like hormones, bacteria, a buildup of dead skin cells, and oil production (to name a few) are also part of the formula for breakouts. However, the first correlation between the two actually dates back to the 1960s, when naysayers dismissed the idea of a relationship between diet and acne. From there, research by Clement A. Adebamowo et al. further established the link between acne and dairy and discovered that milk intake increased among adolescents with acne in an analysis of women who had experienced acne in their teenage years. “They found a positive link with acne for total milk intake and skim milk intake,” Sepel says. However, it's important to note that the limitations of this study included the self-reporting diet.

To add to the growing composite of data that links diet to breakouts, the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) reports women who drink two glasses of skim milk daily are more likely to have acne than those who don't. “Although the role of diet and acne is still being explored, research shows an association between high-glycemic foods and acne,” says Marisa Garshick, MD, a board certified dermatologist in New York City. “And limited evidence shows that some dairy (specifically skim milk) may be associated with acne.”

And nutritionists notice the parallels, too. “In my practice and clinical experience, there is a huge link between skin health and dairy consumption, although this is still considered controversial and not necessarily widely accepted," Hanway notes. More recent research shows a clearer association between the two, especially when exploring processed, low-fat forms of dairy.

Regular consumption of dairy can contribute to acne in two ways:

  1. Gut Inflammation: Dairy can cause inflammation in the gut, and high levels of inflammation increase the likelihood of breakouts.
  2. Increased Insulin & Testosterone: It can also raise insulin and testosterone levels. Sepel explains that insulin-like growth factors (a hormone similar in structure to insulin) increase androgen levels (hormones that contribute to growth and reproduction), which may increase the production of sebum (the oil in our skin) and, therefore, contribute to acne.

As acne relates specifically to cow's milk, “we do not fully know how it contributes to acne, though it's thought that some of the hormones in milk may contribute to inflammation and breakouts,” Dr. Garshick shares. And it's not just whole milk that's to blame — skim milk is an equal culprit in the influx of dairy-prompted breakouts and even shows a more significant association with acne than other types of milk in some studies. Many of these findings, however, highlight the association but do not suggest that eliminating the food or drink will be the cure for even reducing the existing acne.

The net-net: If you reduce or cut it out from your diet, the acne may still exist.

All About Whey Protein

We hate to be the bearer of bad news, but, if the skin is influenced by dairy and milk products and all that comes from them, then consuming milk-derived whey protein regularly very well could be the reason for clogged pores and pimples.

The thought is that whey protein, unlike other types of protein powders, may trigger the release of insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), which can increase androgen and sebum production, and subsequent inflammation, leading to potential breakouts. Any pro-inflammatory food is often associated with problematic skin, and, as Dr. Garshick explains, foods with a high glycemic index lead to spikes in blood sugar levels and may trigger an increase in sebum production and inflammation, contributing to acne.

That's not to say that all other types of protein are off the hook for being blamed for blemishes. But, again, it goes back to what we fuel our bodies with. If a non-whey-based protein powder results in poor gut health and increased inflammation, it too can negatively alter gut health and increase hormone secretion. “A hard-to-digest plant-based protein powder can raise inflammation and affect gut health (negatively affecting the skin), and a whey protein powder may cause these effects and trigger an increase in testosterone uptake, which leads to breakouts and acne," Hanway shares.

Cow's milk-derived whey protein is one of the most popular types of protein because of its high level of essential amino acids. Sepel says that leftover milk that thickens during cheese production contains six different growth factors linked to acne. “Whey protein is responsible for the effects of milk that stimulate the production and activity of insulin, which may contribute more to acne than the actual fat or dairy content,” Sepel shares.

Whey is one of two types of proteins in milk (the other is casein protein). There's less whey protein in milk than casein (about 20 percent compared to 80 percent), but whey is more common because it's a fast-acting digestible protein. As a result, the body consumes it quickly, so it acts as a good source of post-exercise fuel. In addition, whey protein is chock-full of branched chain amino acids (BCAAs), increasing muscle growth. “Dairy-based protein powders, such as whey or casein, may trigger acne because the levels of the amino acid leucine are higher in meat and/or dairy-containing diets compared to vegetarian and vegan diets,” Sepel explains. Leucine activates a growth regulator, possibly aggravating inflammation involved in acne.

While whey is the primary source in protein powders of unhappy skin, there is the potential for other ingredients to be present that can wreak havoc on your complexion, too. Always look at the ingredients list to see the exact type of protein powder inside. “Anything that says ‘whey protein isolate,’ ‘whey protein concentrates,’ ‘milk protein,’ or ‘casein’ means that it contains dairy,” Sepel says. A protein made from pea, soy, hemp, or brown rice is vegan and does not contain dairy. Generally, all labels should disclose if a formula contains dairy or is vegan.

There is science behind the notion of protein powder pimples. Nestle reported that its findings directly correlate with whey protein and insulin spikes, which influences inflammation, oil production, and an overgrowth of skin cells. Another study linked teenage athletes to constant breakouts after consuming whey-based protein.

But not everyone who drinks whey-based protein will experience acne breakouts. “If someone has a healthy gut (low intestinal permeability and a well-balanced, diverse microbiome), they may not react to a dairy-based protein powder if they consume it sporadically and do not eat a diet high in other inflammatory foods,” Hanway says. “Those with poor gut health and a diet high in processed foods may experience more breakouts from this type of protein powder.”

Like milk, many experts believe whey increases testosterone spikes and androgen activity, leading to blemishes via overstimulated oil glands. A study investigated the effect of whey protein on muscle performance by evaluating testosterone hormones. “The results showed that testosterone showed no significant difference between both groups after the sixth week and that whey protein combined with resistance exercise might enhance muscle strength and growth,” Sepel says.

Skin-Friendly Protein Options

If you're not quite ready to give up on your daily protein shake, there are a few ways to skirt the potential blemish issue.

  • Consider the milk source. Opt for nut-based milk instead of skim, low-fat, and whole milk. These varieties won't stimulate the sebaceous glands, which can lead to acne.
  • Choose vegan protein sources instead. From fruit- and vegetable-based proteins to soy-based ones and even hemp, there is now something for everyone. We are big fans of Naked Nutrition Naked Pea, which contains pea protein, and SunWarrior Protein Classic, a brown rice protein-rich formula. And for a delicious plant-based option that doesn't taste ‘green’ or ‘earthy,’ consider JSHealth x FitOnProtein + Probiotics.
  • Explore other options, like bone broth. Although it’s a different taste and experience, protein-rich bone broth (it’s more of a soup) is a nutrient-dense source of protein. Besides the liquid variation, there are also grass-fed beef protein powders, which Hanway recommends to all of her clients. “This is a very clean option that won’t spike blood sugar or cause an inflammatory response, and that is easily digested and absorbed by the body and has the added benefit of containing skin-boosting collagen too,” she shares. For her vegan and vegetarian clients, her choice is mung bean protein powder.
  • If your skin is oily or acne-prone, skip the whey. Of course, unless you try out a whey-based protein powder and experience pimples as a side effect, there's no way to tell how your skin will react. But, if you know that your diet easily influences your skin, it's better to veer on the side of caution and stay away from whey as a precaution.
  • Majorly cut down. If you can’t part ways with your whey protein powder, Sepel says to cut down on the servings and frequency. “If you have it every day, try halving the dose or enjoy it every second day,” she suggests.

If persistent breakouts are still an issue, consider working proven acne-busting ingredients, such as salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, retinoids, into your skincare routine. Additionally, oral medications may help treat certain types of acne. Consulting with a board certified dermatologist will help ensure the best treatment protocol for your skin concerns.

All products featured are independently selected by our editors, however, AEDIT may receive a commission on items purchased through our links.

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ELISE MINTON TABINis a contributing writer for AEDIT.

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