Look, my skin has never quite been awful. I do my best to wash my face within an hour of working out, always take my makeup off before bed, and change my pillowcase once a week. Though I don’t use any acne-fighting cleansers or spot treatment, I also couldn’t tell you the difference between serum and moisturizer.
Thing is, a regular slew of chin zits do persist. (Recently, my father lovingly pointed out that my chin looked more like a golf ball than a lacrosse ball.) So, I set out on a mission to nix the breakouts once and for all. I mean, come on—I thought my blemishes should have been left behind with AP Chemistry and prom!
When my dermatologist told me I couldn’t get an appointment for two months, I decided to take my complexion into my own hands. An old college friend had sworn that ditching dairy cleared up her skin, so I pledged to give the stuff the boot for the next month.
What’s The Skin-Dairy Connection, Exactly?
As I contemplated ditching dairy for a month, I couldn’t help but wonder: Why would dairy affect my complexion? So I did a little digging.
The theory: A growth hormone called insulin growth factor-1(IGF-1) found in dairy aggravates the skin, dermatologist Yoram Harth, M.D., Medical Director of MDacne told me. IGF-1 enlarges our sebaceous glands, which release the oily substance (called sebum) that lubricates or moisturize our hair and skin. “This can lead to increased sebum production, which clogs your pores,” he said. “The bacteria in these clogged pores then triggers the skin’s immune response and ultimately lead to breakouts.”
“What you eat matters,” said medical and cosmetic dermatologist Gary Goldenberg, M.D., who recommends people avoid inflammatory foods (dairy, included) and eat a plant-based diet to support clear, healthy skin.
Though dairy doesn’t have the same effect on everyone’s skin, Harth suggested people with dairy intolerances are most likely to notice issues. “Food intolerances can manifest on the skin as rashes, eczema, swelling, and acne breakouts,” he said.
My Skin: A History
Interestingly enough, I rarely ate dairy growing up. My body just didn’t like it. Every time I ate cheese or poured milk over my cereal, bloating and stinky farts followed. Though I tested negative for a true allergy, my doc suggested I stay away from dairy—so I did. For the next decade, I ate mostly dairy-free.
Throughout adolescence and beyond, my skin proved to be pretty average; not terrible, but not great. Those chin zits, though, persisted at every stage.
One absurdly busy day last spring, I ordered lunch at a local coffee shop instead of making my usual eggs, salad, and toast at home.
The yogurt parfait caught my eye—and I went for it. Creamy vanilla yogurt, chia seeds, strawberries, a drizzle of honey, and cacao nibs—it may have been the best thing I’d ever eaten. How had I gone so many years without Greek yogurt?
I’ll admit, the yogurt left me a little bloated—but I enjoyed it so much that I ignored my belly’s disapproval and started indulging in that heavenly parfait a few times a week.
Then, after my fave dietitian—Jonathan Valdez, R.D.N., owner of Genki Nutrition—told me Greek yogurt also made a good post-workout snack, I began eating it after CrossFit, too. What can I say? I was making up for lost time.
My No-Dairy Challenge
Dr. Goldenberg told me I’d likely start seeing some improvements in my skin after two weeks dairy-free, but that I’d have to commit for longer to see real results. (According to Goldenberg, the epidermis takes four weeks to completely turn over.)
I’d miss my parfaits, but clear skin seemed well-worth one month without dairy.
As I set out on my experiment, I knew my three major dairy swap-outs would be:
- my post-workout snack
- my coffee shop parfaits
- occasional cheese on salads (the yogurt had been a bit of a gateway dairy…)
For my post-CrossFit snack, Valdez recommended I try half a peanut butter sandwich, hard-boiled eggs, or almond butter with an apple. I hit the grocery store to stock up on dairy-free eats and tested out my new options.
The verdict? Hard pass on the hard-boiled eggs, but the PB sandwich or almond butter-apple combo did the trick. They definitely satisfied my desire for something creamy!
Though my skin still looked more or less the same at the end of that first week, I was certainly less gassy. A good sign!
Though I missed my fancy coffee shop yogurt parfait, I discovered that my regular joint also made a baller eggs and greens bowl. When I didn’t have time to make lunch at home, it saved the day.
Otherwise, I started ordering salads sans the cheese and stuck with my new post-workout snacks. Honestly, I didn’t miss the dairy all that much.
By the end of the second week, the zits on the bottom of my chin looked smaller! Definitely still there, but less red and bulbous.
I started my third week anticipating a breakout at some point. That week, I’d be leaving for a 10-day trip to Utah, and I figured the stress of packing and flying would make itself known on my face. (My anxieties only increased after Goldenberg told me that many patients face flare-ups while traveling.)
To make matters worse, my flight out west got delayed five hours. To apologize, the airport staff (gotta love small airports) bought all the passengers pizza. And, well, in my stressed-out state, I accepted their apology and chowed down.
I immediately felt guilty. Stress plus cheese? I was sure my skin would lash out. (My stomach certainly did.)
Surprisingly though, my skin didn’t look any better or worse the next morning. “It’s about making the right decision more often than not,” Goldenberg reassured me. “This isn’t a diet; this is a lifestyle modification.” After 17 days without dairy, I guess one slip-up really wasn’t so bad after all.
By the end of the week, though, my skin had made major strides. My chin was less speckled, my complexion generally more even, and it felt all-around less bumpy! (I’m sure replacing the usual work grind with plenty of sleep and fresh air, hikes, and sunset yoga on my trip didn’t hurt…)
Throughout the last week of my dairy-free month, I enjoyed the rest of my vacation. I slept like a baby, romped around the great outdoors (don’t worry, I wore sunscreen!), and ate a mostly plant-based diet.
By those last few days, I’d really settled into my dairy-free routine. I no longer had to remind myself, “Oh, I can’t eat dairy because I’m doing this experiment.” Rather, requesting cheese on the side and asking if soups or dressings were cream-based had become an easy, automatic part of my day. (As did snacking on nut butter.)
The last day of my trip also happened to be the last day of my experiment—and I couldn’t believe how clear my skin was. I could barely make out the zits around my chin at all, and my skin felt smooth and well-nourished. My complexion was so even I practically glowed.
In the end, I couldn’t believe how much my skin had transformed in those four weeks
I kept up my dairy-free eating for the next week after returning to the hustle and bustle of New York City, and my skin continued to look almost as good as it did on the last day in Utah—though admittedly less sun-kissed.
Though I won’t continue to eat completely dairy-free (that parfait is just too good to kiss goodbye forever), I certainly will save it for special occasions.
My month-long break from dairy definitely brought the diet-skin connection to light—and that’s motivating enough to keep me mostly dairy-free from here on out. Like Goldenberg said, “It’s about moderation. It’s about lifestyle change.”
Something unexpected this experiment also highlighted: the connection between stress and my skin. Though I think ditching dairy definitely benefited my skin, I’m sure my vacation helped, too. (I played outside! I slept in! I didn’t check my emails! I relaxed! And my skin—along with my overall well-being—benefited.)
Ultimately, I’ve learned that moderation has its perks—not only for my mind, but for my face!