My Milk Allergy Wants Me to Have Terrible Skin, But I Won't Let It

Would you like your ice cream with a side of hives?
Publish date:
July 20, 2016
dairy, allergies, irritated skin, hives

As a kid, I barely knew what allergies were. I inhaled the pollen-laced air, climbed trees, gleefully pet dogs with dandruff, and was stung my bees and bitten by spiders without incident. Thomas J. I was not.

Then along came puberty, and with it, an immune system that seemed to absorb the plot of the movie Bubble Boy. My eyes and nose would run like a faucet around dust and ragweed. I could no longer sit on grass without a blanket or my legs and back would break out in hives and find me running for the sweet knockout of Benadryl.

In mid-high-school, my skin reactions hit an all-time low when I started to react harshly to certain product additives. Harsh fragrances gave me rashes, certain detergents would give me welts around my waist, and a bandage applied to a blister on my toe inflamed my entire foot with itchy hives that resembled a chemical burn; I had to take a day off school to soak my feet in a bowl of salt water just so I could wear shoes and walk again. This allergy remained the biggest mystery of all, since I wasn't allergic to latex and my skin was OK with other adhesives.

When I finally went for allergy tests, I wasn't too shocked by the results informing me I was allergic to pretty much everything. Most notably: dust, ragweed, cats and dogs, bananas, oranges, apples, and milk.

While I knew to avoid the first two, and since my dog is a hypoallergenic breed, I wasn't all that concerned. But the last few? I love pulpy orange juice and stinky cheese, and I was not ready to give up on those things. I'd never even felt that I'd had particularly terrible internal reactions to them either. Sure, my mouth would get a little itchy when I ate a banana that wasn't fully ripe, and my stomach usually swelled up like a balloon when I ate ice cream, but I wasn't going to let a bit of discomfort keep me from enjoying the foods I like.

As time went on, however, my reaction to dairy started to get worse. I cut it out as much as a cheese lover could and switched to almond milk for my cereals. Now and then, I would slip, and I felt particularly ill anytime I ate the worst offender, ice cream. My throat would tighten, and I would cough and sneeze, my stomach would bloat and ache, and perhaps the most annoying: my chest and jawline would break out in itchy, scratchy hives.

So I did my research, and I looked for solutions. The most surprising thing I found was that the ingredient that I was likely most reacting to was casein, a protein found in milk and a hell of a lot of other things. In fact, it's even used as a binding agent in certain adhesives, like those found in band-aids. "A-ha!" I shouted at my phone, now finding more pieces to my histamine puzzle.

But what was I going to do about it? Give up dairy altogether? Well, no. But I did figure out some ways to keep my reactions at bay.

For one, I do need to significantly reduce my dairy intake to avoid reactions, and that also includes in my skincare. Because my issue with milk isn't lactose intolerance (an issue in the GI tract that inhibits one's ability to digest lactose) but rather an allergy to the protein that manifests in multiple ways, skincare products that claim to be gentle but contain milk ingredients pose more of an immediate risk for me than ingesting, since my most common symptom is painful itching and hives of the skin.

Another example of this is my tree fruit allergy: while eating bananas doesn't particularly bother me internally, I did experience swelling and hives around my eyes recently when I washed my face one night after peeling and eating a banana (whoops), and so I try to make an effort not to use products which contain enzymes from tree fruits. While Tata Harper Refreshing Cleanser is formulated for sensitive skin, its inclusion of fruit enzymes caused me to break out in a rash on my forehead after trying a sample.

So while products with milk or enzyme ingredients might work wonders for others, allergy-cases like me have to be vigilant if we don't want our skin to riot. A milk bath might sound like a soothing retreat for irritated skin to one person, but just typing that sentence made me instinctively scratch my shoulder.

Aside from stocking up on almond milk and being a part-time vegan, I rely on Benadryl to be there for me when I want a bit of brie (and I take it in advance, not after). I also have had great luck over the years with topical cortisone ointments (used in extremely small doses, as hydrocortisone is a steroid intended for infrequent use).

Weirdly enough, I also found sweet relief with a Pepto Bismol face mask last week after stupidly downing a small bowl of Ben & Jerry's. My cheeks, jaw and chest erupted in hives within 20 minutes, and frantic Googling and desperation led me to smear my face with the neon pink goo. Its alkaline properties and inclusion of magnesium calmed my skin and it felt cooling, and some people have had luck with the salicylic acid in it in terms of calming acne flare-ups too. It's obviously not the ultimate treatment, but hey, in a panic, it worked for me.

  • Do you have any allergies that are wreaking havoc on your skin?
  • What ingredients do you make an effort to avoid?
  • Please, find me a non-dairy creamer that doesn't taste like watery garbage!