This is the time of year when a lot of people are making resolutions to look better.  There’s nothing wrong with trying to improve your look.  After all, when you look good, you feel good.  All that delicious goodness can’t help but spill over and positively influence the way you show up in the world.

But how do you avoid some of the pitfalls that are lurking around the corner threatening your plans for success?  One key way to gain momentum in achieving any goal is to avoid stumbling blocks that slow down your progress.  Sounds pretty obvious right?  Yet, how often do we begin a new project with great expectations only to have them dashed on the rocks of stagnation?

If you’ve been stalling and stalling in clearing your skin, the protein you’re consuming might be the culprit.  Protein packed smoothies, bars, chips, and cookies are everywhere.  Unfortunately, none of them come with a label that says, “may cause acne” in big, bold letters.  When it comes to the biggest offenders, whey and casein top the list.

Whey & Casein

Let’s say for a moment that you just finished pouring yourself a nice, cold glass of milk to go with some piping hot chocolate chip cookies.  In a hurry to start munching on your goodies, you accidentally forget to put the milk back in the fridge.  Well, if you left it sitting out long enough you’d notice that it would start to form lumps, or curds.  If you were to strain the remaining liquid after the milk curdled, you’d have what’s known as whey.

Whey can also form as a byproduct when making cheese.  It can also be a byproduct of casein.  Casein is the name for a family of related phosphoproteins that are commonly found in milk.  Casein can be found in abundance in cheese.  Both casein and whey are frequently used as food additives to enhance the texture and flavor of food products.

Why Are They Used?

Whey is a popular filler because it is cheap and companies like to save money to maximize profits.  You see back in the day whey was viewed as a waste product from making cheese.  What do you do with waste?  You dump it of course.  So manufacturers started pumping whey into streams and rivers in the U.S.

This practice didn’t go so well considering the protein caused large concentrations of algae to develop.  The government stopped the practice after realizing the algae kept sunlight and oxygen from reaching water which would harm the ecosystem.  But then they had another problem.  What were they going to do with all that whey they could no longer pump into our water?   They decided to use it as cheap filler in ice cream.

I don’t know about you, but that pint of Ben and Jerry’s is starting to sound a little less appealing.  You might be surprised to find that whey has also made its way into many other common household food items like breads, crackers, and pastries.   Over the years, whey has even managed to creep into health food products.

How Do They Cause Acne?

Most protein powders use whey as a primary ingredient.  Athletes know it’s a great way to get the needed amount of daily protein to keep them lean and strong.  Leucine, one of three branched-chain amino acids, is found in high amounts in whey protein which makes it ideal for growing and repairing muscles.

So if you’re a bodybuilder looking to pack on muscles, this can be a good thing.  But if you are someone who struggles with acne, this can be the kind of stuff that makes your skin look like a hot mess.  After all, both whey and casein are byproducts of dairy, a known acne aggravator.


Milk is a dairy product that has been shown to raise our levels of dihydrotestosterone (DHT), a hormone that sparks acne formation. Removing dairy products and byproducts like whey and casein is key to keeping acne away over the long haul.  Another reason why milk doesn’t agree with acne sufferers is that it increases insulin and IGF-1 levels in our blood.  Both of these hormones, along with androgens, are found in higher levels in acne sufferers.  As levels of these hormones increase, so does the number of blemishes and the amount of oil from the sebaceous glands.

The Proof Is In The Protein

A large study conducted from 1996-1998 examined the dietary habits of 6,094 teenage girls.   They recorded the amount of milk they drank and the results were analyzed at the end of the study.   It was revealed that acne was elevated in those who consumed regular amounts of dairy.  The proof was clear.  The girls who had  2 or more daily servings of milk (compared to the group who had less than 1 serving a week) showed a 20% increased rate of acne.

Here is where it gets really interesting.    When they checked out the fat content of milk, it showed that higher-fat milk did not impact acne.  As a matter fact, it was the low-fat skim milk that showed a slightly higher rate of acne compared to higher-fat whole milk.  How does that help our understanding of the role milk plays in spiking acne? It is in line with the theory that it is the dairy proteins (such as whey and casein)  in milk products, not the fat, that are the likely aggravators of acne.

Milk, whey, and casein aren’t the only dairy products and byproducts to avoid like the plague.  Here are a few more dairy derivatives to avoid that may not be as obvious as cheese, ice cream, and yogurt:

  • Lactose
  • Lactalbumin
  • Lactoglobulin
  • Lactalbumin phosphate
  • Modified milk ingredients
  • Potassium caseinate
  • Sodium caseinate

Plant Based Proteins

Healthy alternatives to whey and casein are soy protein, rice protein, and pea protein.  Check your local health food store, Amazon, or Vitacost for a variety of plant based protein powders.  They are easy to digest and provide an impressive list of naturally occurring amino acids, the building blocks of protein.  I’m a big fan of NutriBiotic’s Raw Rice Protein Powder.  I either get chocolate or mixed berry.

I’ve added it to smoothies and even my cashew and almond butter balls and it doesn’t effect the taste at all.   In addition to being dairy free, it is also free of gluten, pesticides, herbicides, GMOs, PCBs, preservatives, eggs, yeast, wheat, corn and nuts.  It can be a great option for acne sufferers, vegetarians, and those who also suffer from common food allergies.

Join the Conversation

My favorite part of doing these posts is getting your feedback. Each week, I ask a question. This week, it is this:

What changes are you  planning on making this year to improve your skin?

The information contained on this site is provided as an information resource only.  It is not to be used or relied upon for any treatment or diagnostic purposes.  This information is not intended to be patient education.  It should not be used as a substitute for professional diagnosis and treatment.   The statements on this site have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.   This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.  Please consult your healthcare provider before making any healthcare decisions or for guidance about a specific medical condition, such as if you are pregnant, nursing, taking medication, or have a mental condition.  Please read all product packaging carefully and consult with a healthcare professional before starting any diet, exercise, supplementation or medication program. Cosmetic products have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent disease.
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Adebamowo CA, Spiegelman D, Berkey CS, Danby FW, Rockett HH, Colditz GA, Willett WC, Holmes MD., “Milk consumption and acne in adolescent girls,” 2006 May 30;12(4):1.,