Whey protein, like all dairy, has a reputation for causing breakouts. Is there any merit to that claim, though? We asked Beverly Hills dermatologist Dr. Harold Lancer, who services clients (including JLo and Victoria Beckham) to tell us more about whether or not whey protein can increase the occurrence of acne.
When it comes to diet-related breakouts, few whole foods have a worse reputation for inciting acne than dairy does. The American Academy of Dermatology says that women who drink two glasses of skim milk daily are 44 percent more likely to have acne than women who don’t, and that cow’s milk has been directly related to an increase in the likelihood of having acne across numerous demographics. Knowing this, it only makes sense that the bad-skin rep of milk tags right along to that of whey protein. But there's more to it then that. Ahead, discover everything you need to know about the link between whey protein and breakouts, according to a dermatologist.
What Is Whey Protein?
Whey protein is one of the two types of protein in dairy milk, with the other being casein protein. Fresh milk protein content breaks down into about 20 percent whey protein and 80 percent casein. Both types of protein are made into protein powders, and though they are both popular with athletes and bodybuilders, whey protein is more commonly consumed. That’s because while casein is a slow digesting protein, whey digests quickly, making it a more efficient source of quick fuel for exercise. Both whey and casein are rich in branched chain amino acids (BCAAs), which are perceived to aid muscle growth, making them the main sources of many workout-focused protein blends.
Does Whey Protein Cause Breakouts?
However efficient whey protein may be for building muscle, you may or may not want to balance those benefits against an increased chance for breakouts. When asked whether whey protein causes breakouts, Dr. Lancer told me that “yes, whey protein can cause breakouts.” Why is that? He says it’s because whey protein “influences testosterone spike production, and testosterone can cause blemishes.”
What does “testosterone spike production” mean? Simply put, whey protein may make your body increase the amount of testosterone—one of the hormones produced by our endocrine systems—that your body makes. Testosterone has some great functions, such as keeping our bones strong, but too much of it will increase sebum production. (Sebum is the waxy oil produced by our sebaceous glands, and too much of it tends to lead to clogged pores and acne.)
Who Is Susceptible to Breakouts From Whey Protein?
Though your first guess may be that only people who are sensitive to dairy can break out from whey protein, that’s actually not the case. Dr. Lancer says, “just about anyone that consumes whey proteins can develop testosterone spikes that can lead to blemishes,” and that whey induced breakouts “can impact adults, teenagers, men, women, and people across all different ancestries.” Because the testosterone production issue of whey can also occur with casein, if whey protein makes you break out then casein protein presumably will too.
If you notice that you have acne more often when you consume whey protein than when you don’t, the simplest solution is to stop eating or drinking it. Dr Lancer suggests that “limiting your dairy intake can be helpful in reducing the testosterone spikes that can cause breakouts.” It’s worth noting that not all dairy products are associated with acne, though. The American Academy of Dermatology says that “while cow's milk may increase the risk of developing acne, no studies have found that products made from milk, such as yogurt or cheese, lead to more breakouts.” So, feel free to hold on to your cheddar, but try putting down your whey protein shake if your breakouts bother you (and opt for one of the below protein alternatives, instead.)
Alternatives to Whey Protein
Anyone who notices that whey protein causes them to break out will be best off choosing a different type of protein powder. Thankfully, the options are manifold when it comes to protein powders. Here are some top choices.
Bone Broth Protein
Fear not, bone broth protein tastes nothing like bone broth. This protein offers the health benefits of bone broth, such as collagen and amino acids, in a convenient form. It comes in regular flavors like chocolate and vanilla, and has no smell or taste of actual bone broth.
Egg White Protein
Egg white protein is second only to whey in leucine, the branched chain amino acid that plays an important role in muscle building. Depending on the brand, egg protein can be neutral in flavor or may have an eggy quality.
If you’ve ever had a vegan snack or drink enhanced with protein, you’ve likely had pea protein. It’s a popular plant based protein because it’s texture is smoother than other vegan proteins, and its taste is milder. Pea protein doesn’t taste like peas, and is made from yellow peas, not green, so it’s lighter in color than you might be picturing.
Brown Rice Protein
Before pea protein took over the market, most protein fortified plant-based snacks and drinks were made with brown rice protein powder. It’s neutral in flavor, allergen free, and is often available sprouted (which increases nutrient bioavailability).
Other plant based protein sources—which may be less ideal in texture and flavor—include hemp, sunflower, soy, chia, and quinoa. Plant based proteins are often available in mixed blends as well.
The idea of dairy causing breakouts is not a myth. Cow's milk can increase testosterone production, which in turn can cause your sebaceous glands to overproduce and give you acne. Milk has two types of protein: whey and casein. Both of them can cause breakouts in the same way as milk can.
If you experience breakouts when you consume whey protein, try a different type of protein powder instead. Options are many, and include bone broth, egg, pea, and brown rice. There are also many protein powder blends available. Whey protein is considered beneficial for building muscle, but there are other options with comparable nutritional quality (that will also help your skin stay clearer).
Wolfe RR. Branched-chain amino acids and muscle protein synthesis in humans: myth or reality? J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017;14:30. doi:10.1186/s12970-017-0184-9