Can Whey Protein Contribute to Acne?

It’s most common among teenagers, but it can affect people of all ages.

Many factors contribute to acne development, including genetics, stress, and fluctuating hormone levels.

Dietary triggers, especially dairy products, have also been implicated in acne development, although this link remains controversial.

Still, given that whey is one of the primary proteins found in dairy products, you may wonder whether there’s any link between taking whey protein supplements and acne.

This article examines the current evidence to answer whether whey protein causes acne.

The link between dairy and acne

Diet can play a significant role in acne development, with dairy products often cited as a key contributor.

Indeed, a review of 14 studies found a significant link between milk and acne development and severity in both teenagers and adults (1).

However, these studies were observational, meaning they cannot prove a cause- and-effect relationship.

The studies in this review also relied on self-reported dairy intake and acne development, which may not have been fully accurate.

In either case, consuming milk and dairy products has been shown to raise a hormone implicated in acne development called insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) (2).

Still, not all dairy products have been linked to acne development, namely yogurt and cheese (1).

While some research links dairy consumption to acne development, this research remains weak, and not all dairy products are associated with acne development.

Whey protein and acne

Whey protein is one of the two primary proteins found in milk — the other being casein (3).

Whey protein is the liquid part of milk that separates during cheese production. To be turned into whey protein powder, the whey undergoes a multistep filtering and drying process.

Given that whey is a milk protein, as well as the link between dairy and acne, many people believe whey protein supplements cause acne.

Aside from a few case reports of acne associated with whey protein supplementation in bodybuilders, no strong evidence exists to support the claim that whey protein causes acne, although this may partly be due to limited research on the topic (4, 5, 6).

Unlike a randomized controlled trial, case reports lack a control group and have a very limited potential to establish causal effects (7).

However, due to genetic factors (81% of those with acne have a family history), some people may be more prone to developing acne or breaking out if they eat certain foods, including whey protein (8).

Furthermore, oily skin, humid environments, hormonal disruptions, poor sleep, obesity, and high fat and high sugar diets are all associated with an increased risk of acne (8).

Several case reports have suggested there may be a link between whey protein supplements and acne development, but there’s no strong evidence to suggest whey protein causes acne.

How to choose a quality whey protein supplement

Whey protein supplements remain popular for supporting muscle growth and fat loss.

Unfortunately, substances known to cause acne, such as anabolic steroids or anabolic steroid precursors (also known as prohormones), have been detected in dietary supplements, especially those marketed to bodybuilders (9, 10, 11).

While illegal, the adulteration of dietary supplements with controlled substances or ingredients not listed on the label commonly occurs.

Therefore, it’s essential to be an educated consumer when it comes to whey protein and other dietary supplements.

There are generally two types of whey protein supplements available on the market — whey protein concentrate and whey protein isolate.

Compared with whey protein concentrate, whey protein isolate undergoes more processing, which results in a higher protein content, lower calorie count, and less lactose and fat.

For this reason, whey protein isolate is more expensive than whey protein concentrate.

However, unless you’re lactose intolerant or closely watch your calories, a whey protein concentrate works well for most people.

To ensure you’re purchasing a quality product, look for those that have been third-party tested for identity, potency, and purity by an organization like NSF, USP, or Informed-Sport.

Supplement manufacturers do not require third-party testing, but many voluntarily choose to undergo testing to demonstrate their commitment to safety and quality.

A product that’s certified by one of these companies will have a stamp, usually on the front of the product label.

Whether you’re looking for a whey protein concentrate or isolate, choose a product that has been third-party tested to ensure you’re purchasing a high quality product.

The bottom line

Acne is an inflammatory condition that causes pimples, most often on the face, back, shoulders, and chest.

While some weak evidence suggests that certain dairy products are associated with acne development, no strong evidence supports the claim that whey protein causes acne.

If you’re in the market for a whey protein supplement, look for products that have been third-party certified for quality.

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