DOES WHEY PROTEIN CAUSE ACNE? (12+ STUDIES): SCIENCE-BACKED SOLUTIONS (2021)10 minute read

Has your acne flared as you’ve upped your gym game?

And do you have a sneaking suspicion your new whey protein habit is involved?

Read on to discover the link between whey protein and acne—and how you can have both clear skin and solid gym gains.

 

Contents

What is whey?
Does whey protein cause acne?
Why does whey protein cause acne?
What else is whey in?
How do you know if whey protein is causing your acne?
Protein powder that doesn’t cause acne
What about soy protein powder?
Takeaway points

 

What is whey?

Whey is one of the main proteins in milk. Picture curdled milk: the blobby, solid bits contain casein (another type of protein in milk), while the liquid part contains the whey.

Liquid whey is a waste product from the dairy industry [1]. It goes through an extensive filtration and drying process to remove the fat, lactose, minerals and water, leaving mostly protein behind. Depending on the degree of filtration, the finished product is either:

– Whey protein concentrate

– Whey protein isolate

The isolate form has a higher protein content than the concentrate and tends to be more expensive. Both forms are popular with gym lovers because they’re rich in branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), which help to boost muscle size, strength and athletic performance [2].

Does whey protein cause acne?

Here’s the short answer: whey protein can trigger acne flares.

Want the full lowdown? Let’s look at some research:

– One study looked at five teenage boys who were taking whey protein. They stopped taking the whey protein—and their acne disappeared. When one of the boys resumed taking the whey, his acne flared again [3].

– Another study looked at five adult men. One stopped his whey-protein habit, and his acne disappeared after six weeks. The other four men continued taking whey protein, and their acne persisted [2].

– A third study looked at both men and women. They all used protein powder, the majority of which was whey. Researchers measured their acne before starting protein powder, one month into regular protein powder consumption and then two months in. Here’s what happened:

At the start of the study, roughly half of the men and women had acne. By the end of the study, all of them did [4].

The study didn’t find any difference between whey and other forms of protein, but this may be because the sample size was too small to show any significant difference.

It’s important to note that all of these studies are small and uncontrolled, so we can’t definitively say that whey protein causes acne in everyone. And yet these studies do show a trend—which means that it can be worth investigating if whey protein is a problem for you.

 

Why does whey protein cause acne?

Whey protein causes acne because of the way it makes your hormones behave. It causes a spike in both insulin and IGF-1, which start a chain of reactions that makes your skin more oily and more acne-prone [4, 5].

Plain old dairy does the same thing. A recent meta-analysis (a study of studies) used fancy statistical analysis to work out that for every extra serving of skimmed milk, the risk of acne went up by 26% [6]. (Interesting side point: studies often find that skimmed milk is more acne-triggering than full-fat milk. This may be because skimmed milk is more liquidy, and therefore contains more whey.)

Whey is a super concentrated form of dairy. In fact, the average whey protein intake equates to gulping down 6 to 12 litres of milk daily [2]. Considering that a single serving of milk increases your risk of acne, it’s hardly surprising that whey can do a number on your skin.

What else is whey in?

Along with whey protein and dairy products, whey is often found in:

– Shop-bought baked goods

– Bottled salad dressings

Whey also crops up as emulsifiers in pre-packaged food [7]. If you suspect whey is a problem for you and you’ve cut out whey protein, get into the habit of reading ingredients labels too.

How do you know if whey protein is causing your acne?

Lots of factors contribute to acne, but there are clues that whey protein is a key driver for you:

– You started taking whey protein 2–6 months ago. Studies show there’s a slight delay between starting whey protein and acne appearing [8, 2].

– The usual acne treatments don’t work. Remember that study of teenage boys? The standard approach of antibiotics, retinoids and benzoyl peroxide didn’t work for them while they were taking whey [3].

– The acne is on your back and chest, as well as your face. We don’t really know why, but whey protein seems to cause acne eruptions on your body [8].

– You’re a woman, and all of the above apply. Again, science can’t yet tell us why, but the effect of whey protein seems worse in females [4].

 

Protein powder that doesn’t cause acne

The good news is that if you suspect whey protein is driving your acne, the solution is simple: cut out whey protein. Your acne should start to clear in a matter of weeks [2, 3]. If your breakouts persist, you may need to make a few more tweaks. Have a browse of my articles for tips, or get The Happy Skin Roadmap for a step-by-step guide.

The Happy Skin Roadmap cover

But how can you replace whey protein? Well, it depends on why you’re taking it in the first place. Let’s look at a few scenarios:

 

1. You want to make those muscles pop

Solution: go for pea protein. A small study showed that pea protein was just as effective as whey protein in promoting strength, performance and body composition [9, 10]. This is likely because pea protein is also rich in those muscle-boosting BCAAs [9].

 

2. You use protein in smoothies or as a meal replacement

Solution: combine plant-based protein powders. Although pea protein contains all nine essential amino acids, it doesn’t have sufficient levels of all of them to be considered a ‘complete’ protein. It’s particularly low in the amino acid methionine.

Luckily, brown rice protein contains plenty of methionine—so combine the two, and you have a solid source of protein.

You can buy both pea and brown rice protein and mix them yourself, or there are several plant-based brands out there who have already done it for you. Simply flip the packet over and look for both ‘pea protein isolate’ and ‘brown rice protein concentrate’ on ingredients labels.

What about soy protein powder?

Although soy protein is a complete protein, it does have a couple of drawbacks:

– Some research suggests it can have oestrogen-like (or estrogen-like) effects [11]. This can be helpful if you’re a post-menopausal woman, but it’s not necessarily appropriate for everyone else.

– Soy protein contains phytates, which can hinder the absorption of essential nutrients [12].

Neither of these issues is a biggie if you’re eating a normal amount of soybeans and fermented soy foods. But, like whey protein and dairy, soy protein is a highly concentrated version of soy. More research is required before we know it’s sensible to consume soy protein isolate in large volumes.

3. You’re just trying to eat enough protein

Solution: eat whole food sources of protein. Yes, protein powders are convenient, but they’re also processed food. Whole food sources are a much better way to achieve your protein needs.

According to UK guidelines, the average person needs 0.75g protein for each kilogram of body weight to stay healthy [13]. So, say you weigh 70kg, you need to shoot for 52.5g protein daily. It’s pretty easy to hit this with whole-food sources of protein, such as:

– Boiled eggs – 6g protein per egg

– Grilled chicken breast – 32g protein per serving

– Cooked prawns – 22g protein per serving

– Canned fish – around 20g protein per serving, depending on the fish

– A pot of hummus – 6g protein per serving (look for hummus with both chickpeas and tahini for a full amino acid profile)

All of these can be combined into a meal, or prepared ahead for a portable snack. You might even find these options easier than making a whey protein shake.

Takeaway points

Wondering whether you should still use whey protein? Let’s recap what we’ve learnt:

– Whey is one of the main proteins in milk.

– Whey protein is usually found as whey protein concentrate or whey protein isolate. The average daily serving of whey protein equates to drinking 6–12 litres of milk.

– Small-scale studies have shown that whey protein can trigger acne flares in susceptible people. This is because whey protein starts a hormonal cascade that makes your skin more oily and more prone to inflammation.

– Clues that whey protein is triggering your acne include: you started taking whey protein 2–6 months ago, the usual acne treatments aren’t working, and you have acne on your chest and back as well as your face.

– The solution to whey protein acne is to stop using whey protein! Your skin should clear within a few weeks.

– Good whey protein substitutes include pea protein, vegan blends of protein, and whole-food sources of protein.

 

Want to learn more? Get your copy of The Happy Skin Solution.

Nutritional Therapist Fiona Lawson

Fiona Lawson is a former national magazine editor turned registered nutritionist and acne specialist. She holds a BANT-registered qualification in Nutritional Therapy, and she is currently working towards her MSc in Nutritional Medicine.

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