It’s long been believed that a dairy-free diet could work wonders for skin and general health.
Vogue editor Chloe Malle gave up dairy and claimed she had more energy, less bloating and brighter skin. Cosmopolitan’s beauty editor Cassie Powney said cutting out milk and cheese from her diet helped reduce her acne.
While there are multiple studies that link cow’s milk to increased prevalence of skin issues like acne, the benefits of dairy alternatives on skin health have been called into question by experts who believe milk alternatives may do more harm than good.
In response to the various claims and comments surrounding a dairy-free diet and skin health, we spoke to dermatologists and nutritionists in a bid to settle the matter once and for all.
What is a dairy-free diet and how does it boost skin health?
A dairy-free diet is exactly what it says on the tin: cutting all dairy products such as milk, yoghurt and cheese from your life.
People may adopt this kind of diet for a variety of reasons, however more recently it’s become associated with helping to clear up skin – particularly among acne sufferers.
“It is generally largely known that in a subset of patients, a dairy-free diet certainly improves their skin and in particular acne,” Dr Firas Al-Niaimi, consultant cosmetic dermatologist at Sk:n tells The Huffington Post UK.
Numerous studies have found links between cow’s milk and skin troubles.
A study of adults aged 18-25 showed that diet – particularly dietary Glycaemic Index, saturated fat, trans fat, milk and fish – had the ability to influence or aggravate acne development.
Experts believe hormones and growth factors found in the milk could trigger acne flare ups in milk drinkers, but added that more studies are needed to look into this.
“Acne in adults is also associated with the western diet – defined as high consumption of milk, high glycemic load and high calorie intake,” consultant dermatologist Dr Daniel Glass tells HuffPost UK.
“This type of diet appears to influence your cell signalling, which increases levels of insulin/insulin growth factor 1 in your blood. This, together with other cell signalling molecules, can eventually lead to aggravation of acne.”
Glass adds that in western society, “almost all adolescents get some degree of acne”. But in certain non-westernised populations, “no acne is seen at all”.
“Canadian Inuits had no acne until they integrated with western society and adopted their diet,” he concludes.
Concerns around going dairy-free
Taking this information into account, a dairy-free diet seems like a promising alternative for those on a quest for clearer skin. But it’s worth noting that in some cases, it may cause more problems.
Dairy alternatives such as soy, almond and coconut milk can sometimes be sweetened with sugar to make them taste more like cow’s milk – and there is evidence to suggest that these levels of sugar could cause skin problems too.
“Soya milk can be high in added sugars and refined sugar may be implicated in skin ageing and acne,” Dr Anjali Mahto, consultant dermatologist and British Skin Foundation spokesperson tells HuffPost UK.
Sugar can cause a person’s insulin levels to rise and spike, which can lead to inflammation throughout the body. According to Dr Nicholas Perricone, a dermatologist and nutritionist, this inflammation can then result in the production of enzymes that break down collagen and elastin which causes sagging skin and wrinkles.
“Digested sugar permanently attaches to the collagen in your skin through a process known as glycation,” Dr Perricone previously told The Huffington Post.
“Aside from increasing the effects of ageing, glycation can also exacerbate skin conditions like acne and rosacea.”
Tips for going dairy-free healthily
There are some simple changes you can make to reduce sugar intake, so you can continue a dairy-free diet as healthily as possible.
“Ultimately if you’re opting for a dairy-free diet, it’s important to make sure you’re choosing milks and dairy alternatives which are fortified with vitamins and minerals such as calcium and B vitamins,” says nutritionist Charlotte Stirling-Reed.
“There are many unsweetened versions on the market, but sometimes you do have to seek them out intentionally. Soya milk is an option which has a similar protein content to cow’s milk and, as long as it’s fortified with calcium, is a good alternative to standard dairy milk.”
It is also possible to make your own milk substitute at home. For example, you can make almond milk with one cup of almonds, between three and four cups of water, three Medjool dates and vanilla bean seeds (see the full recipe here).
“Making your own milk is a great idea, but it’s important to remember that almond milk is often low in protein and calcium – so you’ll need to look at getting these from other sources in the diet,” adds Stirling-Reed.
To up your intake of calcium, she recommends eating nuts and seeds, dark green leafy vegetables such as kale, soya, lentils and beans, and tofu.
Ultimately, and dairy products aside, she says the best ways to boost skin health are to “eat well, exercise and get plenty of fluids”.
“Fruits and vegetables contain fibre, water and antioxidants, all of which are important for the body and therefore skin health too,” she continues.
“It’s recommended that we have around 6-8 glasses of fluid a day too, try and choose water whenever possible as your main source of fluid, as it contains no calories and no sugar.
“Additionally, make sure you’re taking a vitamin D supplement (10mcg a day), especially in the winter months.”