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Does whey protein cause acne?

Whey protein builds muscle. It may also lead to acne—but the evidence isn’t conclusive.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Jul 7, 2023 • 5 min read
Medically reviewed by Donna McIntyre, NP-BC
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Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Jul 7, 2023 • 5 min read
Medically reviewed by Donna McIntyre, NP-BC
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

Nothing is worse than doing something good for your body, only for it to contribute to a breakout. Whey protein has a lot of benefits, but it’s not without a possible catch—acne.

Whey protein is widely used to increase muscle growth and reduce weight. However, it’s a byproduct of milk, so does whey protein cause acne? Short answer: Possibly, but the evidence isn’t conclusive. 

Here we’ll explain what whey protein is, its potential benefits, a few of its pitfalls, and what you can do to stop whey protein breakouts. 

What is whey protein, and where does it come from?

Whey protein is a type of protein found in dairy products. It’s the liquid part that’s left over in the cheese-making process. The liquid is filtered and dried—taking on its protein powder form sold at grocery stores. Whey protein is a natural byproduct full of essential amino acids (building blocks of protein). It’s common in nutritional supplements for its many benefits, including improving muscle mass and repairing muscle strength following exercise.¹  

Whey protein is easily digestible and comes in many forms and flavors. It’s easily mixed with milk, nut milk, or water.

Hand with chocolate whey protein powder

Types of whey protein

Once the liquid is extracted, whey protein is available as whey protein concentrates, whey protein isolates, and whey hydrolysate. Here’s what you need to know about the different types of whey protein:² 

  • Whey protein concentrate is the most concentrated form of this protein (between 34% and 89%). It’s high in calories and contains all the macro- and micro-nutrients from the manufacturing process. 

  • Whey protein hydrolysate is processed from concentrates or isolates. This is a pre-digested form of whey protein that’s easier for the body to assimilate. 

  • Whey protein isolate is the highest in protein (more than 90%). It undergoes a purification step to remove carbohydrates and fats. 

5 benefits of whey protein

Tossing a scoop of whey protein into your morning smoothie can have a host of benefits owing to its high nutritional value. Here are just a few: 

  1. Excellent source of high-quality protein. Whey is a byproduct of cheese manufacturing. It contains all the essential amino acids the body does not produce on its own. Amino acids play a vital role in protein synthesis. Whey protein is also readily digested in the body.³

  2. It can promote muscle growth. Muscle mass can decline as we age. Adding high-quality protein to your meals may help prevent age-related muscle loss.⁴ 

  3. It can promote muscle repair. Consuming whey protein may enhance recovery following intense resistance exercise.⁵ This suggests that whey protein may boost muscle repair following strenuous physical activity. 

  4. It may reduce inflammation. Chronic inflammation is a risk factor for many diseases. It can also be symptomatic of underlying health issues. A study found that consuming more than 20 grams/day or more of whey protein can reduce inflammatory markers in the body.⁶

  5. Keeps you feeling fuller, longer. Whey protein is filling, which can help decrease cravings for more food. Consuming whey can be helpful if you’re looking to lose a few pounds. Protein is essential to any weight loss program because it reduces your appetite,⁷ boosts metabolism, and improves muscle mass.⁸ The satiating effects of whey protein make it superior to other forms of protein, like casein or soy.⁹

The potential downside of whey protein

For most people, the benefits of whey protein outnumber its downsides. Even so, whey is a dairy product, and dairy is a potential allergen for some people. Additionally, there are some other potential side effects of whey protein that can have a negative impact on the skin: 

  • Increased sebum production. Whey protein increases insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1), which plays a role in sebaceous gland stimulation.¹⁰ Additionally, IGF-1 increases inflammatory markers in the body. The combined effects of IGF-1 can contribute to acne breakouts in some people.¹¹ 

  • Acne breakouts. Pimples start to form when dead skin cells and sebum clog pores. Increased sebum production is a major contributor to acne. Whey protein powder can stimulate sebaceous gland activity, increasing sebum production, which can trigger acne. One small study found that whey-protein lead to body acne (rather than on the face).¹² However, the study showing these results was conducted with a small number of healthy men who regularly worked out, so one explanation for increased breakouts on the torso could be friction from gym clothing. (Here are some tips to beat acne and still get a workout!)

There may be other downsides to whey, so talk to your medical provider or a nutritionist if you’d like to make dietary changes to your lifestyle.

Does whey protein cause skin problems?

It’s important to remember: Whey protein is a dairy product and dairy intake has been shown to contribute to acne, along with some other foods. Couple that with increased sebum production, and you have a recipe for pimples.

The link is not totally clear because the research is limited, but people with acne-prone skin or a family history of acne are more likely to break out after consuming certain foods, which can include whey.¹³

How to prevent acne from whey protein 

I was made for you box

Aside from trying plant-based proteins or other protein sources, one of the best ways to prevent acne is to adopt a consistent skincare routine with products designed for your skin concerns and goals. Excess sebum can be helped by cleansing every morning and night and using a treatment cream with clinically proven ingredients that are effective against breakouts—such as Curology’s personalized prescription formula—at night. Simple yet effective skin care is what we’re all about.

Curology takes the guesswork out of your skincare routine. Licensed dermatology providers work with you to examine your skin, assess your skincare goals, and provide custom treatment options.* Curology uses proven ingredients, such as tretinoin and clindamycin, in some of its acne treatment formulas. We’ll also recommend other products to try, such as the Acne Body Wash or Emergency Spot Patches. The best part? Your products are delivered right to your door. 

• • •

P.S. We did the homework so you don’t have to:

  1. Minj S, Anand S. Whey Proteins and Its Derivatives: Bioactivity, Functionality, and Current Applications. Dairy. (2020).

  2. Minj S, Anand S. Whey Proteins and Its Derivatives: Bioactivity, Functionality, and Current Applications. Ibid.

  3. Minj S, Anand S. Whey Proteins and Its Derivatives: Bioactivity, Functionality, and Current Applications. Ibid.

  4. Paddon-Jones, D. and Rasmussen, B.B. Dietary protein recommendations and the prevention of sarcopenia.Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care. (January 2009). 

  5. West, D.W.D., et al. Whey protein supplementation enhances whole body protein metabolism and performance recovery after resistance exercise: A double-blind crossover study.Nutrients. (2017)

  6. Zhou, L.M., et al. Effect of whey supplementation on circulating C-reactive protein: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials.Nutrients. (2015 February 9). 

  7. Paddon-Jones, D., et al. Protein, weight management, and satiety.American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. (May 2008).

  8. Minj S, Anand S. Whey Proteins and Its Derivatives: Bioactivity, Functionality, and Current Applications. Ibid.

  9. Veldhorst, M.A.B., et al. Dose-dependent satiating effect of why relative to casein or soy.Physiology & Behavior. (2009 March 23).

  10. Meixiong, J, et al. Diet and acne: A systematic review.JAAD International. (2022 June 1).

  11. Kim, H., et al. Insulin-like growth factor-1 increases the expression of inflammatory biomarkers and sebum production in cultured sebocytes.Annals of Dermatology. (February 2017).

  12. Cengiz, F.P., e al. Acne located on the trunk, whey protein supplementation: Is there an association?Health Promotion Perspectives. (2017).

  13. Yang, J,. et al. A review of advancement on influencing factors of acne: An emphasis on environment characteristics.Frontiers in Public Health. (2020).

Donna McIntyre is a board-certified nurse practitioner at Curology. She obtained her Master of Science in Nursing at MGH Institute of Health Professions in Boston, MA.

• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Donna McIntyre, NP-BC

Donna McIntyre, NP-BC

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