Does Whey Protein Cause Acne?

Written by Arshiya Syeda

For many gym-goers, whey protein supplements are the best sources of essential nutrients. They help improve muscle protein synthesis to encourage the growth of lean muscles and effective weight management (1). However, whey protein supplements may also cause acne. Several inconclusive scientific studies and trials have found a possible link between whey protein and acne. Read on to find out how protein shakes, especially whey protein, may trigger acne and how to manage it.

Whey Protein: Does It Really Cause Acne?

Yes. Whey protein may cause acne as it is derived from milk (along with casein) and forms as a by-product of the cheese-making process. Dairy intake is linked to acne (2). Several studies have found a possible link between the two:

  • A study involving teenage athletes found that whey protein triggered acne lesions in them, and they diminished once the drink was discontinued (3). However, further studies are required to determine the exact mechanism.
  • In another study, researchers observed that whey protein could enhance insulin levels or insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) and aggravate acne in healthy men (4).
  • In a study involving 30 patients, researchers found that females were prone to develop acne after taking whey protein. They also concluded that whey protein could trigger acne in people with no active lesions and no family history of acne (5).

Even though further studies are required to determine the exact mechanism and link, we cannot deny that whey protein aggravates and triggers acne. Let’s explore the possible reasons and mechanisms in the next section.

How Whey Protein May Trigger Acne: The Mechanism

Dairy products (including whey protein) spike up blood sugar levels and produce insulin and insulin-like growth factor  (IGF-1) in your body.  IGF-1 is the factor that is thought to accelerate muscle growth and trigger acne. Milk has a low glycemic index (GI), but it also triggers the release of comedogenic hormones like progesterone, estrogen, androgen precursors, and 5-alpha-reductase steroids. This hormone imbalance increases excess sebum production, abnormal keratinization, and bacterial proliferation, causing acne (5), (6), (7).

Most of us consume whey protein either with our food, smoothies, or water. The ingredients you add to your protein powder also make a difference. Scroll down to know more!

Ingredients To Avoid In Your Protein Shakes

What you mix in your protein shake may also play a key role in acne. Adding milk, especially skim milk, may double the risk of acne.

Manufacturers often add whey protein to skim milk to maintain its consistency. Moreover, compared to regular and full-fat milk, skim milk increases the risk of comedogenesis (formation of comedones due to clogged pores) (8), (9). Hence, avoid preparing your protein shakes with skimmed milk.

It is best to avoid any foods that may trigger acne. However, it may not always be possible if you are into athletics. Here are a few ways to prevent and manage breakouts caused by whey proteins.

How To Prevent Acne Breakouts Caused By Whey Protein

  1. Avoid wearing tight clothing during exercising. It may cause accumulation of sweat and sebum, leading to acne.
  2. Shower immediately post-workout. Avoid using dirty towels and clothes to prevent bacterial growth and dirt accumulation in the skin pores.
  3. Reduce the intake of whey protein. You may reduce the quantity or frequency and check how it is working. If there is no improvement, stop consuming it and look for alternatives.
  4. Use a medicated acne treatment (like benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid) to reduce inflammation. Talk to a dermatologist for product suggestions.
  5. Use a non-comedogenic cleanser, preferably with salicylic acid, to unclog the pores.
  6. If you have acne-prone skin, avoid consuming foods with a high glycemic index (GI) like sugar, processed food, and carbohydrates. Also, drink plenty of water to stay hydrated.

You may check out vegan proteins instead of whey protein. Here are a few alternatives you may try to minimize the acne lesions without affecting your muscle-building goals.

Whey Protein Alternatives

The best alternatives for whey protein include:

  • Pea protein powder
  • Soy protein powder
  • Egg white protein powder
  • Brown rice protein powder

Other than these protein powders, nuts, lentils, and oily fish are good protein sources.

Plant-based protein powders are easier to digest than whey protein. However, before buying, check the product to ensure they contain minimally processed ingredients.

To Conclude

Whey protein helps maintain body weight and muscle strength. However,  it is better to steer clear of it to avoid unwanted acne. You may try the alternatives suggested in the article and follow acne management tips. If there is no improvement in your condition, consult your doctor immediately.

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  1. Emerging trends in nutraceutical applications of whey protein and its derivatives
  2. Dairy Intake and Acne Vulgaris: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of 78,529 Children, Adolescents, and Young Adults
  3. Whey protein precipitating moderate to severe acne flares in 5 teenaged athletes
  4. Acne and whey protein supplementation among bodybuilders
  5. Incidence of acne vulgaris in young adult users of protein-calorie supplements in the city of João Pessoa–PB
  6. Evidence for acne-promoting effects of milk and other insulinotropic dairy products
  7. Acne located on the trunk, whey protein supplementation: Is there any association?
  8. Significance of diet in treated and untreated acne vulgaris
  9. Dairy intake and acne development: A meta-analysis of observational studies
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Arshiya Syeda is an editor and certified counselor. Ever the lover of the written word, she served on the editorial boards of her school and college newsletters. Writing articles on hairstyles, hair care, and nutrition helped her combine her love for reading, writing, and research. As an editor, she helps her team members deliver polished and meticulously researched content. Arshiya is fluent in English, Urdu, and Hindi and aims to become a multilinguist by learning German and teaching herself American Sign Language (ASL).