By Christian Allaire, Vogue
My quest for clear skin has been an arduous journey. As a longtime sufferer of acne since my teens—not to mention adult acne now, which is basically Satan’s work—I’ve tried just about every serum and moisturizer and toner and mask in existence. I’ve tried changing my pillow sheets every other night. I’ve tried aggressive exfoliating, or only washing my face with gentle rosewater, like the faux Parisian I am. I’ve tried chugging copious amounts of water throughout the day (12 trips to the restroom: a real time suck, but not bad for getting your steps in). Nothing ever seemed to rid the under-the-skin cystic bumps—think acne, but bigger and more painful—that were permanently positioned on my forehead and chin area.
Upon turning 26, the year I officially gave up hope my skin problems would eventually just go away, I paid a visit to my family doctor. After hearing out my symptoms, he suggested I look into Isotretinoin, previously known as Accutane, a prescription drug with some seriously harsh side effects such as dry lips and eyes, nosebleeds, joint pain, and even depression in some cases; or, perhaps, try tweaking my diet. And while I’ve always thought of myself as healthy—I exercise regularly and eat mainly whole foods—I decided to opt for the latter. After all, there was one aspect to my regimen I knew didn’t paint the perfect picture of “clean living”: my love of dairy. See, I grew up in Northern Ontario, Canada, where dairy farms are as common as corner stores, so my indulgence in creamy lattes, cheesy salads, and nightly ice creams never felt out of the ordinary. Unfortunately, my doctor didn’t agree.
Following the appointment, I embarked on a strict two-week diet, during which I only ate vegetables the first week and steadily reintroduced other foods, such as fruit, animal proteins, and gluten, the second. By the end of it, my skin, which was suffering a particularly horrific outbreak that spring month, slowly began to clear. Those large cystic bumps on the highest points of my face? They had shrunk in size, from mountainous hills that no concealer in the world could cover up to more manageable, regular-size breakouts—but still! I decided to extend the dairy-free diet to three weeks and by day 22, the monstrous bumps were virtually deflated. My skin had completely cleared up—completely.
Dennis Gross, a celebrity dermatologist to stars such as Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and Zoë Kravitz, said though studies cannot conclude there is a link between the two, he has seen patients whose skin have improved after scaling back dairy consumption. “There is no clinical data that shows that consuming dairy has any negative impact on the skin,” said Gross. “However, anecdotally in my career, I’ve heard people say that skin-care issues such as eczema have improved after limiting dairy consumption.”
New York–based dermatologist Ellen Marmur’s patients have also seen the benefits of cutting out dairy. “Food sensitivities are intimately connected to your skin,” she said. “Swelling and inflammation of the GI tract and its surrounding interstitial fluid can cause acne and other rashes like rosacea.” The connection between internal organs and your skin has also been raised in traditional Chinese medicine; the face-mapping technique outlines what could be wrong with your body based on where breakouts are located on the face. Unsurprisingly, my two problem areas, the forehead and chin, are both linked to digestion and the stomach.
While quitting dairy may help end stubborn breakouts, it may not prove an effective cure-all for everyone. Marmur suggests tracking food intake and monitoring how the skin reacts, a process that can shine light on the real root of the problem. Gluten and even fruits or lettuce can also be dietary triggers for acne, she said. “You might see acne flares one to two days after you ingest a trigger food like dairy,” Marmur said. “If you detect a repeated pattern of milk consumption with acne developing shortly after, and you notice a pattern of clear skin when you avoid dairy, then you’ve answered your question.” She also said food sensitivities can change or develop as the body changes, especially after pregnancy, therefore it’s best to monitor when and how acne flare-ups occur.
However, if your skin’s main issue is with dairy, like myself, how it reacts also varies from person to person. Gross said it depends on how much—and what kind—of dairy each person is consuming. “Dairy consumption does, in my experience, affect a certain, selective number of people, but not everybody,” Gross said. “I think it might make a difference if someone is consuming organic milk versus milk where the animals are fed hormones. It’s possible those added ingredients can make it into the blood stream of my patients and induce acne.” In general, fresher cheeses contain more lactose than aged cheeses, which means cheeses like feta and ricotta, my old favorites, are higher in lactose, and now my enemy.
Today, even though my skin is still far from perfect—occasional flare-ups still occur!—I at least know what the main culprit is. Since embarking on my dairy-free quest, my skin has managed to stay relatively calm. I’ve learned dairy is actually hidden in a lot of foods—like in an innocent hummus or salad dressing, for instance. Sometimes, it’s completely unavoidable, even in a vegan-friendly place like New York City. (My skin is still recovering from a parmesan fiasco a few weeks ago—and it was barely a dusting!) And though I have yet to be officially tested for dairy intolerance, which can be determined via a hydrogen breath test or blood sugar test, my skin’s violent reaction to it continues to be a good enough diagnosis for me.
No matter how trying it may be, making a conscious choice to forgo that much-beloved whole milk latte every morning is a small price to pay for a clearer complexion. Almond milk is my new best friend. And if I ever feel the need to sneak in a bite of cake or, god forbid, cheese? I at least know what that slipup will be getting my skin into—and that’s something I can finally live with.
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