There was a time, way back in the first Clinton administration, when I didn’t have acne. I wish I’d appreciated it.
Because, in time, puberty roared in to amp up my oil glands, kicking off a decades-long battle between me and my face. And when I say acne, I don’t mean a dainty clogged pore on the tip of the nose, or a monthly bump on the chin. Nope, I’m talking the nasty, hard-to-kick stuff: deep cysts painful to the touch, seven huge zits bubbling up overnight, inexplicable little bumps that appear out of nowhere and take months to erase.
I am a beauty editor who’s been lucky enough to try the best treatments and innovative products, but it took me TWENTY YEARS to figure out what was causing this complexion hell. Two decades of feeling embarrassed to show my face, of wondering what I was doing “wrong,” of putting faith in acne treatments, and feeling hopeless when nothing kept my skin clear for good.
Over the years, I had tried everything to treat my acne. Dermatologists had prescribed a host of topical and oral treatments: Retin-A Micro, Differin, Ziana, Avita, Tazorac, Aczone, Atralin, tetracycline, minocycline. I tried Proactiv and dropped cash on fancy miracle cures. I spent a lot of money on facials and the occasional peel. While I’d always see some improvement, inevitably, the acne would come back.
It was stubborn and severe enough that finally, my exasperated dermatologist said that Accutane was our last hope. (I didn’t want to try it. Birth defects freak me out.)
So, after all of those years of trial and error, the solution was so insanely simple that I’m almost embarrassed to admit it. And yet, if you talk with most dermatologists, they’ll shrug and say there’s no evidence. (More on this later.) I am all about results, research, and reality -- and if not for witnessing a radical shift in my complexion, I wouldn’t have believed this myself.
Stop eating dairy. No cheese, no milk, no ice cream, no joke.
I am truly bummed to tell you that dairy is the complexion devil, because I have a deep and abiding love of cheese. It’s this cheese-lust, actually, that led to my dairy-acne revelation. A couple of summers ago, I met a man, and he was incredibly dreamy. We went on picnics together, bringing a bit of wine, a loaf of crusty bread, and a generous portion of Brillat-Savarin cheese.
Have you ever eaten Brillat-Savarin cheese? It is the Mae West of fromage, a decadent triple-cream Brie that is unapologetically full and rich and creamy (and a little salty, too). It is one of the best things I have ever eaten, and in those first weeks of dating, we were practically consuming a small wheel of the stuff each week.
That’s when my acne reached an all-time high. Or is it an all-time low? Either way, I had developed a new “acne beard” along my jawline, with red and painful bumps running from my ear down to my chin. Next to my nose, deep cysts began forming; I’d feel them throb at night. Then it hit me: Either the new dude or the cheese was behind this sebaceous sorcery. And since I didn’t want to give up the dude, I decided to stop eating cheese for a while. Just to see.
This is the part of the story where I’m supposed to tell you that immediately, I saw a difference! That dairy was indeed the culprit, and I have never had a single breakout again! Except that’s not how it happened.
If you have acne, you know that it can take months for a bad zit to go away. For the first month or so, I didn’t see a big difference in my acne. It wasn’t getting more inflamed, which was a progress of sorts, but it wasn’t like I was the poster child for clear skin or anything.
“I don’t know if this cheese strike is making any difference,” I told myself a few months later while eying the cheese case at Bi-Rite Market. “And a life without cheese is not worth living.” That night, I took Brillat-Savarin to my beau’s apartment, and it was so good.
The next morning, I felt a tickly sort of dull pain next to my nose. By noon, the swelling had started. By bedtime, I could feel a giant, deep-in-the-skin, this-sucker’s-gonna-be-bad papule growing. So I stayed off the cheese for a few more months, until I gave into temptation at Thanksgiving. Brillat-Savarin for everybody!
And then, almost immediately, awful pimples for me. Just to be completely sure, I gorged on some more around the holidays. There are no pictures of me from that Christmas, because I was so blemished that I hid from cameras.
So I cut out Brillat-Savarin, along with other dairy. Bless-bless, Icelandic yogurt. Au revoir, brie. Ciao, parmesan. It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t fun, but it was either that or Accutane. Within a couple of weeks, the redness in my skin started to subside. The inflamed, buried-under-the-skin cysts began to calm down. Slowly, I was clearing up.
With the correlation well-established, I made an appointment with my dermatologist. But when I excitedly told him about my cheese-and-acne theory, he wasn’t buying it.
“There aren’t any studies, aside from a couple back in the 70s, that suggest it,” he said. He’s right, actually. Up until this decade, clinical research was pretty close to nada; of the recent research out there, none is strong enough to convince most dermatologists. (Which I begrudgingly respect, because don’t you want your doctor to listen to peer-reviewed research?)
Even now, the American Academy of Dermatology only says there's a "weak, but possible" association between dairy and acne.
But you know what’s funny? While I’ve yet to meet a dermatologist who’s on the no-dairy bandwagon, almost every single esthetician has the exact opposite opinion. When it comes to acne, I tend to put more stock in the opinion of estheticians. Since they can’t prescribe drugs for acne, they have to look at the problem holistically.
Time and time again, estheticians tell me that dairy is terrible for the complexion, that milk hormones can affect ours and trigger acne and inflammation, and that they avoid dairy themselves. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve shared my “Cheese causes pimples!” theory with estheticians, and they’re pretty much like, “Well, yes. Duh. Where have you been?” And then we discuss our bewilderment as to why more people don’t know about this connection.
Some of you are probably thinking, “Well, I eat macaroni and cheese every day, and I guzzle it down with a fresh glass of milk, and then I rub yogurt on my face -- and I have the skin of an angel.” If this is you, I am very happy for you, and incredibly envious.
I’m not saying that dairy is the root cause of all acne, or that every person who eats it will break out. What I am saying is that what we eat affects our skin. (For some, the acne trigger might be soy; for others, coffee. YMMV.) After trying every treatment save for Accutane, the only thing that radically transformed my skin was ditching dairy. Almond milk, olive oil, and sorbet have replaced their dairy brethren, and my complexion is, well, not flawless, but good enough that I don’t wear foundation on most days.
Of course I miss eating cheese and ice cream from time to time, but honestly, I feel so much happier and more confident with mostly clear skin. Every now and then I’ll get cocky and think, “Oh, a TINY bit of cheese won’t hurt. It’s been ages!”
Real talk: I had dairy three times last year, and each occasion led to a whopper of a zit next to my nose. (I’m still waiting for one to completely sink down, thanks to some clotted cream I had in London in September.) So, for me, dairy is just not worth the skin drama.
If you’re someone who has tried everything to get rid of her acne, I encourage you to cut out dairy for a month. (You can’t just cut it here and there -- it needs to be complete and total.) This makes me sound like a vegan proselytizer, I know. But when you’re convinced that your tombstone will read PIZZA FACE, and nothing else has worked, you may as well try this.