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You hit the gym, eat plenty of fruit and veggies, get your rest and take advantage of some many men’s skincare products now on the market. It’s all part of a healthy lifestyle that should leave you looking and feeling your best, right? You’d think so, but if you’re regularly adding protein powder to your diet and you’re dealing with acne, you may want to rethink your routine. 

It turns out that protein powders–specifically those made from whey–may be behind the acne that plagues so many of us. A 2012 PubMed study links acne vulgaris to milk ingestion via whey protein supplementation. Another PubMed study from 2011 states that acne has become an epidemic affecting 85 percent of adolescents and mentions milk and whey protein-based products as contributors to the problem.

So how can this seemingly healthy supplement be causing breakouts?  Let’s start with the basics to get a better understanding.

Added Protein Is Good for Your Muscles

Protein is a vital component of every cell in the body. It’s in hair, nails, bones, blood and–you guessed it–those muscles we’re all trying so hard to build. In fact, the idea that added protein supports muscle and strength gains is widely accepted, as stated in the 2012 Journal of International Sports Nutrition study.  And, according to a 2009 study on optimal protein intake, if you’re an athlete, your optimal level is likely well above the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of 54 grams for a 150-pound person.

So if more protein is better, the concept of using protein powder to increase consumption may seem logical. After all, it’s one of three macro nutrients our bodies need to stay alive. And, unlike fat and carbohydrates, protein can’t be stored in the body, so we need to find ways to get more of it into our diet on a regular basis. Protein powder makes this process a lot easier than cooking up meat at every meal.  And with a variety of options and flavors to choose from, it can taste pretty great, too.

Whey Protein Powder Is a Popular Option

With so much buzz about the health benefits of protein, it’s no surprise that protein powders have become so popular, especially among those looking to build muscle. When it comes to choosing a specific type of protein powder, whey is a top seller with some great research to back it up. For instance, according to the 2003 Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry study, whey contains a wide variety of high-quality proteins and amino acids that may promote muscle protein synthesis. 

ACNE | Longevity LIVE

So what exactly is this wonder-ingredient exactly? It turns out, it’s something you probably already consume every day–dairy. Whey is one of the two proteins present in milk. (The other is casein.) Found in the watery portion of milk that rises to the top of yogurt, whey is also a by-product of cheese-making.  Seems like a great natural solution, right? So how is it that a powder derived from something as simple as milk and cheese is sending so many of us straight to the dermatologist?  

For Some, Dairy May Cause Acne

As mentioned above, whey is a dairy product. And dairy is widely accepted as a possible cause for acne. Just look at the 2018 systematic review of Nutrients. It shows an increased incidence of acne with increased dairy consumption. Other studies, like the 2013 study published by the Brazilian Society of Dermatology, zero in on whey, showing the onset and exacerbation of acne in young adults who use whey protein supplementation. It’s worth noting that many people add both milk and whey protein powder to smoothies, potentially making the problem even worse.

So, how exactly does whey create such havoc for our skin? While the research is ongoing, one theory is that whey increases insulin and insulin-like growth factors. This hormone then causes the production of sebum, an oily secretion that is linked to acne. They may also trigger hormones that overstimulate oil glands and clog pores. Add in the inflammation that can be caused by dairy and you’ve got a perfect storm of acne-causing factors wreaking havoc on your face.

Added Sugars Don’t Help Either

Dairy isn’t the only thing you need to be concerned with when scooping out your daily serving of whey protein powders. More and more, research like a 2016 study shows a link between acne and high-glycemic load diets. So, even if you have a consistent skincare routine and you’re making sure to maintain healthy habits, the added sugars in your protein powder may be messing with your ability to keep your skin clear. To avoid this problem, read labels. Look for natural ingredients and options that are low in sugar or unsweetened. Or better yet, opt for unsweetened varieties and sweeten yourself with ingredients like bananas, berries, honey or agave.

Taking a Break Could Reveal Whether Whey Is the Problem

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If you suspect that whey protein powder may be causing your acne, your next step is simple. Cut it out of your diet and see if your skin clears up. If so, you’ve got your answer. Just be sure to be patient. Everyone is different and it may take several weeks of eliminating it from your diet before you notice a difference in your skin.

There Are Alternatives 

If you do have a problem with whey, what can you do? Fortunately, there are several alternatives that can provide you with the same benefits, minus the zits. Pea protein, for example, packs an impressive 20-25 grams of protein per scoop. It is also known to promote a feeling of fullness. Hemp is another great alternative. Why? It has all nine essential amino acids and is a great source of both omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. 

If neither of those options appeals to you, consider egg white protein powder, known for its bio-availability. Or check out brown rice protein with nearly 25 grams of protein per scoop. With so many protein powders to choose from, chances are you’ll find one that keeps your skin–and your physique–looking its best.


Akin Tosyali

Akin Tosyali

Akin Tosyali serves as the Director of Digital Marketing for Tiege Hanley and oversees all digital marketing activities from the Chicago headquarters. Before joining Tiege Hanley, Akin was VP of Marketing for a staffing agency, and Sr. Dir. of Digital for Grainger, 9th largest e-tailer in the U.S. Akin loves sailing, grilling, and building things with his family. Their last project was building an X-wing shaped bike trailer because it is a much cooler way to arrive to the neighborhood pool. Name of his rescue dog is Chewbacca.


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