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Whey protein and Acne: Is your fitness goal taking its toll on your skin?

What we eat and drink affects our skin condition. In the fitness world, whey protein is a basic commodity for increased muscle mass and fat loss. Whey protein is recommended for athletes aiming to accelerate muscle development and repair. However, there are recent studies  investigating the relationship of whey protein in development and aggravation of acne. If that’s the case, Is your fitness goal taking its toll on your skin?


Woman supplementing whey protein

Athlete Juli Ponder Supplementing on Whey Protein

Whey protein comes from a liquid remaining after milk is curdled and strained during cheese production. The process is followed by drying to remove liquid and obtain powder. While milk is essentially fats, carbohydrates and protein, most of the fat and carbohydrates goes to the cheese which leaves whey a protein-dense food.

Whey Protein Production

Whey Protein Production



Acne lesions

Acne lesions

The study by Pontes et al (2013) found out that the total number of acne lesions for both male and female aged 18 to 40 years old increased within two months study.

Correlation of Whey Protein and Acne

Pontes TC et al (2013): Incidence of acne vulgaris in young adult users of protein-calorie supplements in the city of João Pessoa

It is important to note though that the study by Pontes et al (2013) is among the limited publications that investigate on the effect of whey protein in acne development. However, there are several studies about the acne triggering effect of milk, where whey protein is derived from. [2,3,4].

How high glycemic diet and high dairy diet increases likelihood of developing acne

How high glycemic diet and high dairy diet increases likelihood of developing acne

Milk and its derivatives can increase Insulin-Like Growth Factors or IGF-1. IGF-1 in human body  naturally increases during puberty. Increased IGF-1 in the body promotes cell growth and division, production of androgen and consequently, sebum production which influence acne development. Therefore, milk based whey protein maybe related to acne by elevation of IGF-1.



It is important to note that in the study performed by Pontes (2013), 46.7% of the subjects have past acne problem and are suffering acne during the course of the study.  The study has not eliminated confounding factors of onset or exacerbation of acne like genetics and diet. Hence, if you do not have past or existing acne problems and do not have it in your genes, you are less likely to have problems with whey protein.

The study have also shown that there was no significant increase in number of acne lesions in individuals who are undergoing acne treatments during the course of the study. Hence individuals using anti-acne products may lessen the likelihood of developing or aggrevating acne during whey protein supplementation.



In starting your fitness journey, there may have been several changes with respect to diet and daily routine that may be contributing to acne breakouts.

  1. Too much stress

    Too much Stress in Athletes can increase cortisol levels

    Too much Stress in Athletes can increase cortisol levels

Exercise does more harm than good when done excessively. Stress is not necessarily bad because it  increases energy levels and improves physical performance. But prolonged stress cause by too much exercise and inadequate rest can increase cortisol in our bodies. High levels of cortisol are observed in individuals with acne problems. [5,6]


  1. Not enough “good fats”

    Whey protein and acne: good fats

It’s easy to associate fat loss with low fat diet. However, omega 3 and 6 from fats improves skin functions and decreases the likelihood of developing acne. So it’s not a good idea to completely remove fats from diet. To get adequate amounts of omega 3 and 6, include sufficient amount of “good fats” in your diet like fish oil, olive oil, avocadoes, and nuts.


  1. Diet with high Glycemic Index

    Most Pastries have high glycemic index


When we burn calories, our bodies require carbohydrates. Not all Carbohydrates are the same and are classified according to their Glycemic index. The Glycemic Index (GI) is a relative ranking of carbohydrate in foods according to how they affect blood glucose levels. Carbohydrates with a low GIvalue are more slowly digested, absorbed and metabolized and cause a lower and slower rise in blood glucose and, therefore insulin levels.

Diets high in glycemic content  also influence the on set and aggrevation of acne. High glycemic load decreases the proteins that binds with IGF-1 making IGF-1 more available in the body. Foods with high glycemic index like rice, potatoes, chips and bread should be eaten with moderation.  Consider food with low glycemic index as alternate source of carbohydrates like fruits and vegetables.


  1. Hygiene

    whey protein and acne: hygiene

Remember that bacteria can be a culprit of inflammatory acne. Is your gym towel clean? When was the last time you washed your pillow case? Do you always skip washing your face before bed?


  1. Not enough vitamins minerals and antioxidant

    Antioxidants from food

Exercise  increases your body’s requirement for vitamins and minerals to make up for the increased biological functions in your system. Make sure you replenish them in your diet. Low vitamin C, E , Zinc and selenium contribute to acne.



Where possible, source your protein requirements from food like lean meats and plant based protein like soy , beans, cauliflower, spinach, mushrooms etc. If supplementation is necessary but your skin can’t tolerate whey protein, you can use protein supplements that are not milk based.

Plant Protein: Super Force

Super Force Plant Protein

Where to buy: The superfood grocer



Raw Fusion Plant Based Protein

Raw Fusion Plant Based Protein

Where to buy: Whey king Supplements 

Carnivor Beef Protein

Carnivor Beef Protein

Where to buy: WiseChoice Cebu



Before jumping in to conclusions, it’s helpful to perform experiment on yourself. Try eliminating possible causes of acne, one at a time, within two to four weeks period or until you are able to arrive with conclusive results. As I said, whey protein will not cause acne breakouts to everyone. It will be a waste to miss its beneficial effects without knowing for sure that whey protein, is in fact the culprit for your acne


[1]Pontes TC et al (2013) Incidence of acne vulgaris in young adult users of protein-calorie supplements in the city of João Pessoa – PB*, Aais Brasileiros de dermatologia, Nov-Dec; 88(6): 907–912

[2] Adebamowo CA, Spiegelman D, Danby FW, Frazier AL, Willett WC, Holmes MD. High school dietary dairy intake and teenage acne. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2005;52:207–214.912.

[3] Melnik BC. Evidence for acne-promoting effects of milk and other insulinotropic dairy products. Nestle Nutr Workshop Ser Pediatr Program. 2011;67:131–145. [PubMed]

[4] Pappas A (2009) The relationship of diet and acne, Dermato Endocrinology, Sep-Oct; 1(5): 262–267.

[5] Yosipovitch G et al (2007) Study of psychological stress, sebum production and acne vulgaris in adolescents, Acta Derm Venereol. 2007;87(2):135-9.

[6]Ying C & Lyga L (2014) Brain-Skin Connection: Stress, Inflammation and Skin Aging, Inflamm Allergy Drug Targets. 2014 Jun; 13(3): 177–190.


Article written by:

Anne Porter

Hi! I’m Anne. I am a chemical engineer from Cebu, Philippines. I created Zarins Beautylab because of my love for cosmetics, skin care products and all other stuff that makes me (and you) look and feel beautiful. My semesters of chemistry courses come in handy as I explain the science behind different beauty products: which works and how it works. Well, Sometimes its science and sometimes its just good ol’ common sense.

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