Protein and Pimples: Are They Related?

Diet, including protein intake, may link to skin problems.
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Dealing with acne on your face or other parts of your body is not an ideal situation. The inflammation can be painful and just straight up annoying. Acne can occur for many different reasons, and whey protein may be one of them.


Underneath Your Acne

When your hair follicles and oil-producing glands become inflamed, acne emerges, notes the American Academy of Dermatology. Dead skin cells normally come to the surface of the pore, and then your body sheds the cells. But, if your oil-producing glands are over-stimulated, the skin cells cannot shed normally. The sebum (or oil) of the glands gets trapped in the hair follicles, and bacteria begin to multiply. This leads to the bumps, inflammation and redness that are associated with acne.


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According to the Mayo Clinic, this commonly occurs in puberty because there's a natural increase in the androgen hormones that cause increased oil production. Hereditary factors can also disrupt hormones in the body. Other possible causes of an acne flare-up, according to Mayo, include:

  • Cosmetics with oil
  • Stress
  • Certain medications, such as steroids and lithium
  • Ovary or adrenal gland problems
  • Diet


A common myth is that lack of hygiene causes acne, but the Mayo Clinic notes that excessive washing can actually cause acne flare-ups to become worse.

Read more: Does Whey Protein Cause Acne?

Protein and Acne

People often try cutting certain foods from their diet in an effort to improve their skin situation. What works for one person, though, may not help another.


A specific food component that's been studied in regard to its possible link to acne is protein. "Whey protein is the type of protein most associated with acne," says Melissa Nieves, RD, MPH, a dietitian in Puerto Rico and founder of Fad Free Nutrition Blog. "It's believed whey protein extract contains growth factors that may be related to this condition."

Whey protein is one of the main proteins found in dairy products, according to the Mayo Clinic, and many studies have been done on the possible link between dairy products and acne.


One meta-analysis in particular, published in Journal of The European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology in July 2018, reviewed multiple studies that identified an association between moderate-to-severe acne and milk consumption.

Serum IGF-1 levels (meaning levels in the blood of a growth hormone known as insulin growth factor-1) can be increased with milk consumption, and they were found to be elevated in the participants dealing with acne, compared with those who did not have acne.



Results from a laboratory study, reported in Annals of Dermatology in February 2017, supported the role of IGF-1 in acne, showing that it increased inflammatory factors and sebum production in cultured sebaceous gland cells (sebocytes).

When it comes to acne, it appears that less whey — in the form of supplements or dairy products — is the way to go. Non-dairy alternatives may be in order.


It also appears that a quality diet may be helpful to those suffering with acne. A small study published in The FASEB Journal in April 2017 analyzed five-day food records for 34 participants with no acne and 33 others with moderate or severe acne. The researchers found that participants who did not have acne ate more vegetables, beans, whole grains, seafood and plant protein, suggesting that there may be an association between diet quality and severity of acne.

Acne Treatments

Along with diet adjustments, you can treat acne or pimples with certain medications. Drug stores sell over-the-counter medicine, such as cleansers or creams that contain salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide, according to Mayo Clinic.


If over-the-counter products don't seem to help, it's best to visit a dermatologist for stronger options. Mayo Clinic states that dermatologists can prescribe certain antibiotics, oral contraceptives or anti-androgen agents to control acne and avoid scarring. Other therapy options, either alone or along with medication, include:

  • Lasers and photodynamic therapy
  • Chemical peels
  • Extractions of whiteheads and blackheads
  • Steroid injections directly into acne

Read more: Is There a Link Between Acne and Eating Cashews?




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