Written by Carina Fabia
Last updated on: Sep 18, 2022
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Protein powder has become an integral part of many diets. It is full of amino acids vital for building and repairing tiny muscle tears after exercise. However, diet plays a significant role in acne development, recognizing dairy products as a critical contributor. However, is protein powder the equivalent of a spoon full of acne?
Dairy-based protein powder can cause acne due to the overproduction of the IGF-1 hormone and androgens that overstimulate sebum production and oil glands. These two factors clog pores, possibly leading to breakouts and acne. Plant-based and beef-based protein powder are safe alternatives.
Protein powder is an easily accessible meal booster that is commonplace in many individuals’ diets. However, most individuals rely on dairy-based protein powder; dairy products are typical dietary triggers that affect acne development. So, this article will examine whether animal-and-dairy-based protein powder causes acne.
Acne is the most widespread skin condition in the United States, affecting up to 50 million individuals each year (1). Acne typically occurs when dead skin cells and bacteria clog the pores, forming blackheads, whiteheads, cysts, or pustules (2). The pimples are most common on the face, chest, back, and shoulders.
Along with the rise in acne rates, the consumption of dairy products, including protein powder, is sky-rocketing. Protein powder is processed and dried protein primarily extracted from dairy. However, these powders are also derived from egg, soy, hemp, beef, pea, etc.
Although many factors like age, skin type, obesity, sugary and processed diets, hormonal disruptions, and stress contribute to acne (4), there is evidence that supports that dairy products can exacerbate acne for many individuals (5).
Therefore, we conclude that dairy-based protein powders can trigger acne as whey and casein, both derived from milk, are the primary proteins found in protein powder (3). Although both types of protein are popular among athletes and bodybuilders, whey is more popular due to its fast digestion, making it an efficient fuel source for exercise.
Studies show that whey protein powder can cause acne.
However, most plant-based protein powders are safe to use without the adverse risks of acne development.
Moreover, many protein powder brands contain additional substances like anabolic steroids, a prohormone that can also cause acne (6). While illegal, it’s common for dietary supplements not to list all the ingredients on the label (7).
Due to FDA leaving it up to the manufacturers to evaluate the labeling of the products, manufacturers can disguise or dismiss supplemental ingredients, making it hard to believe what they claim (8).
The Clean Label Project released a report stating that they found toxins such as lead, BPA, arsenic, and cadmium found in many of these products (8). Toxins are also prone to cause acne outbreaks.
Therefore, it’s vital to become an educated consumer when choosing a suitable protein powder or dietary supplement. Although fortunately, not all protein powders tested had elevated toxin levels, you can find the results here https://cleanlabelproject.org/.
Lastly, protein powders can include other ingredients, including added sugars and artificial flavoring. The additional sugars can cause acne development.
According to a study, several individuals experienced an onset of acne shortly after using whey protein supplements. Whey protein can be the fraction of dairy products that typically promote acne formation (9).
Dairy proteins, like whey, provide rich amounts of leucine, an essential amino acid that helps repair and build muscles. Leucine does not only contribute to the composition of muscle proteins, but it converts into lipids.
Then, the sebaceous glands absorb leucine and convert it into sebum (10). Sebum is a waxy oil that tends to clog pores from overproduction, thus increasing the likelihood of activating acne.
Additionally, whey protein increases testosterone amounts by the elevation in the production of IGF-1, an insulin-like growth factor-1 hormone (11).
A testosterone and insulin spike also inflammation and increases sebum productions associated with the development of acne. More so, it can trigger the production of androgens, a steroid hormone that is crucial for reproductive function. Excess androgen tends to overstimulate oil glands that then clog pores, possibly leading to breakouts and acne.
A quick and practical way to rule out acne from dairy-based protein powder is to opt for a plant-based protein.
It all comes down to the IGF-1 hormone with a similar molecular structure to insulin, resulting in inflammation, hormonal fluctuations (testosterone spike), increased oil production, and the stimulation of the male hormone androgen. These are all contributions to dreaded acne breakouts.
Plant-based protein powders are all free from the IGF-1 hormone, and they break down easier in our digestive systems, making them a better alternative to individuals prone to acne.
Popular plant-based protein powders include peas, hemp seed, rice, and soy protein powder (12). However, it’s vital to opt for a sugar-free or low-sugar option.
Pea protein is especially rich in eight amino acids essential for building and restoring muscle tissue (13).
Beef-based protein powder is a relatively new player among the various protein powders. Beef-based protein powders mimic bone broth with similar nutrients, collagen benefits, and amino acids, specifically proline and glycine.
Overall, beef-based protein powder contains supplements that support skin health, fat loss, and increase muscle mass (14). Additionally, beef-based protein powder has an equal balance of essential amino acids to those present in the human skeletal muscle (15), making it an impressive amino acid and protein source.
Additionally, beef-based protein powder acts as an anti-inflammatory and contains amino acids that help promote healthy digestion and a healthy gut. Glutamine found in beef-based protein powder heals the intestinal barrier (16) and tightens up a leaky gut, promoting healthy skin and reducing the probability of acne.
Note that it’s best to opt for a sugar-free, grass-fed, and lactose-free beef-based protein powder to ensure that you receive the most benefits and avoid acne development.
The idea of protein powder causing breakouts is not a complete myth. Protein powders made from dairy products contain a large amount of leucine that converts into sebum, a waxy oil that tends to clog pores once over-produced; therefore, increasing the likelihood of acne development. Additionally, dairy-based protein increases testosterone and the production of IGF-1, an insulin-like growth factor-1 hormone that both contribute to acne. However, plant-based protein powder and beef-based protein powder are safe alternatives without the burden of occurring acne.