Does Whey Protein Powder Cause Acne?

That refreshing protein powder shake may be causing your acne.
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Whey protein powder is an effective supplement for bodybuilding: One serving of it can provide you with over 30 grams of protein for muscle growth and repair. While the protein payoff is high, there is a caveat: some studies have linked the supplement to acne breakouts. While genetics is the leading cause of acne, those susceptible to breakouts should consider themselves warned — whey protein could cause hormonal activity that leads to breakouts.

Who Gets Acne?

Acne, the pimple-causing skin condition that invades one's face, chest, upper back and shoulders, is most common among teenagers and young adults. However, no one is safe! Its cause is not well understood — but genetics and puberty-related hormonal changes are likely factors. Milk and dairy products are also known to increase sebum, or oil production in some, making them likely to break out from whey protein, which is a by-product of the cheese making process.

"Everyone I speak to has said they've seen this in at least two or three patients," M.D., acne expert and Acne Treatment and Research Center medical director Hilary Baldwin told Self when discussing the effects of eliminating whey from diets.

Whey Protein Supplementation

A few small-scale studies have already explored the link between whey supplements and acne. Published in a 2013 issue of Brazilian Annals of Dermatology, a study observed 30 participants who took whey protein supplements and concluded that consuming whey led to acne breakouts. Women, as well as people with no prior acne breakouts, had more prominent symptoms. A male-centric study published in a 2012 issue of Cutis supports this link: The five participants, all teenage athletes, experiencing breakouts while consuming the protein and found relief after discontinuing use. Six different brands of whey protein were used during the study, so breakouts are not dependent on the brand or quality of the supplement.

The Underlying Cause

Whey protein and other milk products increase insulin-like growth factor-1, or IGF-1. According to the University of New Mexico, IGF-1 is a hormone believed to support muscle growth. However, because it is linked to an increase in sebum production, IGF-1 might also contribute to acne breakouts. As a paper published in the "Nestle Nutrition Workshop Series Pediatric Program" notes, consuming whey protein causes an insulin spike, which leads to breakout-friendly conditions such as an overgrowth of skin cells, excess inflammation and oil production. Yikes!


Are you finding that your acne breakouts and whey protein consumption correlate? The best option might be to discontinue use and consult a doctor for further advice, studies suggest. You might also benefit from restricting your consumption of dairy products. Some nondairy protein supplements to consider trying are vegan protein powders, including hemp, pea and brown rice. Foods such as meat, poultry and fish are also great sources of protein!

What Do YOU Think?

What is your preferred source of protein? Have you ever tried whey protein powder and did you notice any breakouts from it? Let us know in the comments section.