The principal cause of teenage acne is the hormonal upheavals that occur during adolescence, which can lead to overactivity of oil glands in the dermal layer of the skin. Contrary to popular belief, such foods as chocolate and soda, or such popular teen foods as pizza and French fries, haven't been linked to acne. However, a recent study suggests that dairy products, particularly skim milk, may play a role in acne outbreaks.
The study, reported in the February 2005 Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, analyzed responses from more than 47,000 women participating in the national Nurses Health Study II. Researchers from Harvard asked the women about their consumption of dairy food when they were teens, particularly about the type of milk they drank, and whether they had experienced severe teenage acne.
The women who drank more than three servings of any type of milk per day were 22 percent more likely to report having had severe acne than those who drank only one (or less) servings per week. Those who consumed two or more glasses of skim milk daily were 44 percent more likely to say that they had been diagnosed with severe acne as teenagers.
Other dairy foods that were associated with acne in this study include instant breakfast drinks, sherbet, cream cheese and cottage cheese. However, the researchers did not find as strong a link between whole or low-fat milk and acne.
These findings are not likely to be the last word on the subject. More studies will be needed to confirm the association between some dairy products, particularly skim milk, and acne. I've long advised parents to keep children off cow's milk and other dairy products at an early age, especially if the family history includes allergies, asthma, bronchitis, sinus conditions, or autoimmunity. I also think that individuals with those conditions should eliminate dairy from their diets. The milk protein casein can irritate the immune system and thicken mucus secretions. We'll see if acne is another condition that responds favorably to eliminating cow's milk and milk products.
In any event, I recommend calcium-fortified soy milk, almond milk, or rice milk for those teens and anyone else who habitually drinks a lot of milk. Remember that rice milk contains little protein, and other sources should be added to the diet, especially in growing adolescents or teenagers. Regarding soy milk, I would recommend buying organic products and looking for brands that don't have carageenan, a thickening agent which may not be safe.
Andrew Weil, M.D.