For bodybuilders and fitness fanatics, whey protein is a go-to supplement for muscle building. But whey protein has a dirty little secret: It could cause or worsen acne.

Whey is one of the two main proteins found in milk (the other one is called casein). Too much whey can increase your level of insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), a hormone that boosts testosterone, causing breakouts.

Since whey comes from milk, you may be thinking you need to cut out all dairy to prevent acne flares. But before you throw out your cheese plate, you should know that not all dairy products are problematic.

Here’s the 411 on the possible link between whey protein and acne — and what else may be messing with your skin — so you can decide whether to go with a different protein powder.

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TL;DR: Whey protein increases IGF-1 and boosts testosterone, which can cause breakouts or worsen acne.

IGF-1 and acne

IGF-1 is an anabolic hormone, meaning it helps with growth, including muscle gains. Great news for your glutes but not so great for your skin.

Research suggests that too much IGF-1 can lead to problems such as acne because it can increase the production of androgens. The primary androgen is testosterone, which is known to trigger acne.

IGF-1 levels go up during puberty, which helps explain why many teens deal with acne. People with higher levels of IGF-1 in their blood tend to have worse breakouts.

Your skin also has IGF-1 receptors, where the hormone can bind and increase sebum production. Sebum is a waxy, oily substance that can help protect your skin, but it clogs your pores if your body makes too much of it.

Milk and acne

Some studies show that drinking milk and consuming whey protein supplements — remember, whey is a primary protein found in milk — are associated with an increased risk of acne.

A large 2020 study in more than 24,000 French adults with acne found an association between milk drinkers and acne severity. The authors concluded that along with a sugary, high fat diet, milk could increase the production of IGF-1 and make acne worse.

Milk contains whey protein, but do you need to say goodbye to all dairy to prevent acne? Probably not.

The connection between dairy and acne seems to be mainly due to whey protein and milk, at least according to research. Other types of dairy that have lower levels of whey might not be the culprits of your breakouts.

A 2019 review of studies on dairy and acne intake found a link between acne and milk consumption but did not find the same connection for other dairy foods like cheese and yogurt.

Are you mixing your whey with milk to make a protein shake? If you have acne, that could spell double trouble for your skin. Milk tends to be higher in whey, while cheese and yogurt are lower because the liquid that is strained and discarded during processing contains most of the whey.

How to decide whether it’s right for you

We all respond differently to foods, no matter what the research says. The only way to really know if dairy or whey protein is making your acne worse is to eliminate it and see what happens.

You can start by removing all sources of dairy, and if your skin starts glowing, there’s your answer. But you can also experiment by slowly adding certain types of dairy, like cheese and yogurt, back into your diet to see if it makes a difference or if whey is the troublemaker.

While whey could contribute to acne, it’s likely not the only offender. Here are a few more causes to consider:

  • High glycemic index (GI) foods. High GI foods like sweets and white flour, which spike your blood sugar, are also linked to acne. A 2021 review examining food and acne found that the strongest evidence linking what we eat to breakouts is connected to a high GI diet.
  • Hormones. Changes in hormone levels, like those that occur during puberty or pregnancy, can cause acne. Research indicates that acne is also a symptom of certain medical conditions that involve hormones, such as polycystic ovary syndrome.
  • Stress. Stress can aggravate acne symptoms. While stress does not directly causes acne, it can impact hormones via the stress response, and this can make acne worse.
  • Inflammatory fats. Studies suggest a link between saturated and hydrogenated fat intake and acne severity. Folks who eat less fish may also have more severe acne. This is likely related to higher omega-6 to omega-3 ratios. Research found that increasing omega-3 intake (think fatty fish like salmon) and decreasing omega-6 intake (think polyunsaturated fats in vegetable oils) may help improve acne.
  • Makeup. Some cosmetics and skin care products can trigger acne breakouts by clogging your pores.

If you’re dealing with breakouts and cutting whey doesn’t seem to do the trick, try to take a closer look at these factors.

Getting rid of breakouts can require a multifaceted approach. Here are some tips for getting rid of acne.

Resist the urge to pop

When you are face-to-face with a new whitehead, it’s hard not to be tempted to squeeze it out. But please, step away from the mirror.

Popping or picking can lead to worse breakouts and scarring. Instead, try using a pimple patch or spot treatment to dry it out or draw out the gunk from the clogged pore.

Cut down on sugary foods

Research suggests that low GI foods may reduce IGF-1 levels and androgens and improve acne. High GI foods, such as sugary ones, can have the opposite effect.

Instead, reach for nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables. These provide a steadier energy source throughout the day while helping clear up your skin.

Drink plenty of water

Water is essential for keeping your skin hydrated and healthy. Dehydrated skin may actually produce more oil to make up for lack of hydration (and unintentionally worsen acne breakouts).

Aim to drink at least eight glasses of water per day. Bored with plain water? Sparkling water could be your new best friend. You can try carrying a water bottle with you wherever you go as a reminder.

Take probiotics

The science isn’t 100 percent there yet, but some research suggests that probiotics may help improve acne breakouts. They can cool down skin inflammation and even balance certain types of bacteria that contribute to acne. And, interestingly, some research suggests that probiotics could help lower IGF-1 levels in the body.

To get more probiotics in naturally, try eating fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchi. You can also take a supplement daily for added benefits.

Take (and eat) your vitamins

Vitamins (like A, B, C, D, and E) and minerals (like zinc and selenium) have been used to help treat acne.

A 2021 review specifically noted that people who had both acne and low vitamin D levels had more severe acne and that supplementing vitamin D may help treat acne in people with low levels.

Studies have also noted that, in general, proper nutrition may help effectively prevent, alleviate, and treat acne. So stock up on those nutritious, vitamin-rich foods.

Get professional help

If you feel like you’ve tried everything and you’re still concerned about acne, try consulting a professional. A dermatologist can help you find the best treatment for your specific skin type and acne severity.

So, you’ve decided to break up with whey for a while but still need something to reach your protein goals? Don’t stress — there are a ton of tasty options out there:

  • Pea protein. This nutritious alternative contains antioxidants and minerals such as iron. Pea protein powder has a good amino acid profile, and one study found no difference in muscle growth between whey and pea protein powder supplements.
  • Hemp protein. Hemp protein powder (yep, it comes from the cannabis plant) is a complete plant-based protein, which means it has all the essential amino acids. It also contains fiber, magnesium, and omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Collagen protein. If you’re looking for a protein that will help keep your skin, hair, and nails healthy, collagen is the way to go. It’s not a complete protein on its own, but it can also support healthy joints following your workouts.
  • Pumpkin seed protein. Pumpkin seed protein is a fantastic vegan-friendly protein option that also gives you minerals such as zinc and magnesium. Like collagen, pumpkin seed is not a complete protein, but it can help you meet your protein goals as long as you eat other protein sources throughout the day.

Whey protein is a popular choice for athletes and people looking to increase muscle mass, but it can also cause acne. If breakouts are ruining your day, try cutting back on whey protein (or milk) and replacing it with a different type of protein to see if you notice a difference.

If you’ve tried everything and you’re still concerned about your acne, a dermatologist may be able to help you address it.