My battle with acne started in middle school. It’s better than it used to be, and I’m much better at concealing it, but breakouts still happen even in my late 20s. While I’ve tried a lot of products aimed at zapping my zits, and some have worked more successfully than others (salicylic acid face wash, I love you), I’ve never tried to overhaul my diet for better skin.
There’s reason to believe that it would help, especially when it comes to dairy. Let me back up for a second. There’s no ironclad consensus among dermatologists that eliminating dairy will magically give you the complexion of a skincare spokesmodel. Some studies have found that skim milk, specifically, might be an acne contributor. (The exact mechanism isn’t clear, but it could be that skim milk increases a hormone that then ramps up oil production in your skin). Other, less conclusive research has found links between acne and any type of milk. Dermatologists who do advise blemish-prone patients to eliminate milk say you should go all in, getting rid of any dairy in your diet. For me, if there was even a chance that it would diminish my acne, I was willing to try.
Except, “challenging” doesn’t quite cover how difficult this was going to be. In college, string cheese was basically a food group for me, and though I’ve cut back (the didn’t you just buy that pack two days ago?looks from roommates, and now, my fiancé, forced me to re-examine my snack choices), I’m still a frequent cheese, ice cream and sour-cream eater. (My last meal would probably be mozzarella sticks.)
For the sake of my skin, though, I went cold-turkey off dairy for three weeks. Here’s how that went.
T-Minus 1 Day
First, one last pint of cookies and cream ice cream. Then, some research. I have a decent knowledge of nutrition—I can name surprising foods that are full of sugar, and tell you what to eat if you want to add more fiber to your diet. But I’m surprised to see what foods may contain dairy. Salad dressings, granola bars, crackers, bread, deli meats?! I look up no-dairy diet rules online and see butter on some no-no lists, while others say it’s okay. Small amounts of butter are a cooking staple in my apartment, so I decide to allow it (sorry not sorry).
My normally delicious cups of tea in the morning are not so delicious without milk. New resolution for tomorrow: Remember to bring something, anything, nondairy to put in my tea. I also realize the no-dairy thing will make it difficult to dine out or eat anything that I don’t prepare or witness being prepared. I normally buy my breakfast in my office building’s cafeteria, and while I’d never wondered if my daily oatmeal was made with milk instead of water, I’m definitely wondering now. I want to ask one of the cafeteria staff, but I also don’t want to be that person who’s asking whether food complies with their totally non-life-threatening, completely self-imposed dietary restrictions. So I don’t ask. Later, I look up the food-service company that runs our cafeteria to see if I can find nutritional information on their website—no such luck.
I forget the almond milk again. So, I switch to icing my tea, which tastes slightly better than hot milk-free tea. I decide that instead of trying to swap normal dairy sources for nondairy versions (i.e., vegan cheese. I don’t know what it’s made of and I don’t want to find out), I’ll just change my diet accordingly. Milk-free tea? Okay. Pasta without Parmesan cheese grated on top? No fun, but fine.
My fiancé is breading chicken for dinner and I say yes when he asks if he can put just a splash of milk in the egg wash to thin it out. This brings me to one of the complicating factors in this whole restrictive diet thing: My fiancé and I cook and eat dinner together pretty much every night, and this is a guy who never turns down cheese and makes himself a chocolate milk for dessert more nights than not. When I told him that I was doing this story, and that I would understand if he didn’t want to do dairy-free dinners for three weeks with me, I was thrilled when he said he was totally on board. That lasted until about day three, when he decided that he’d support me, but he was done with his own experiment.
Today was a long day and when I get home, the last thing I want to do is cook. On nights like this, I’d normally talk my fiancé into ordering pizza (we don’t eat pizza that often! It’s not that bad! Peer pressure!). Since that’s not an option now, I begrudgingly agree that we should make something. I’m happy about the choice—chicken piccata and roasted potatoes—once the food is in my stomach.
Let’s talk about my skin: It looks great! Any dermatologist, including Rachel Nazarian, MD, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai in New York, who I asked to weigh in on whether three dairy-free weeks could really change my complexion, will tell you that it’s not enough time for your diet to affect your skin, especially when it comes to acne. For that, you need about three months (can you say, no thanks?). But I swear I’m noticing differences—fewer new zits, and the one or two I have now are small whiteheads, not the large, deep, cystic kind I usually get. I asked Nazarian what could explain what I’m seeing in the mirror, and she pointed to all of the ice cream I used to eat, for starters. Most ice cream is made with whole milk, so the dairy in it probably isn’t an issue, but ice cream is loaded with sugar, and foods that spike your blood sugar (known as high-glycemic-index foods) are definite contributors to acne. I wonder whether this means that I can never eat ice cream again while admiring the fact that I’m using a lot less concealer in the morning than I was a week and a half ago.
My skin still looks awesome but I miss dairy so much. We had Mexican food for dinner last night, and a cheese-less quesadilla is just sad. I’m pretty proud of the fact that I’m relying on healthier foods for snacks, though. Before, I would reach for a bowl of ranch-flavored chips (which contain dairy, by the way) after dinner; now, it’s toasted whole wheat pita with hummus, berries or—gasp—popcorn that I actually made myself on the stove and did not add cheese to. This could also be a reason why I’m noticing skin changes so quickly, said Nazarian. Lots of processed snacks are high on the GI index in addition to containing dairy. I cut them out because of the dairy, but in the process, also got rid of their blood-sugar-spiking effects.
I have family coming into town and we always go out for Italian together. I selfishly don’t want to sit there while everyone else enjoys cheesy dishes, so I make reservations at non-Italian restaurants (the benefit of being the one who makes the reservations!). We’re also having them over to watch football at our apartment, and I know they’re going to want me to make our family’s famous buffalo-chicken dip that’s topped with tons of blue cheese. Send me strength.
Not only do I not eat the dip, I don’t eat the fried-cheese curds we order from a bar up the street, either. I’ve never been so proud of myself.
Word to the wise: If you haven’t eaten dairy in a while, your stomach may stage a full-on rebellion the first time you have some again. It happened to me after dinner last night. As I’ve noticed over these past two-and-a-half weeks, it’s really hard to dine out when you’re dairy free. Even if you think you’re ordering a dairy-free dish, you can’t be sure unless you ask. I ordered a side of crispy Brussels sprouts at dinner. Seemed like a safe bet. They came with a bit of creamy, garlicky sauce on them, even though the menu description said no such thing. I didn’t want to let them go to waste so I had just a few. They were crazy delicious, but about an hour later, even that tiny amount of cream made my stomach revolt on me.
Sweet Freedom! I’m so close to being done that I can actually taste the mushroom and pepperoni pizza I’m going to order immediately afterward. But I can’t ignore the fact that my acne is better than it was three weeks ago, particularly now, at a time of the month when my jawline would normally be dotted with breakouts (thanks, hormones). I’m getting married in the fall and based on the results I saw after three weeks, I’m considering going dairy-free for the three months leading up to the main event. I don’t think I’ll stay 100 percent dairy-free in the meantime, though—it makes it really hard to dine out, and even though I don’t eat out that often, I don’t need it to be a stressful process when I do—but I am going to stick with my dairy-free, healthier snacks. And yes, I’ll even cut back on the ice cream.