Why Whole Milk is Better for Your Skin than Skim Milk – and 2 More Surprising Milk Facts

Nutrition, Personal/Inspirational
Milk and cooky
Our research has found whole fat, hormone-free milk may be best for your appearance – but your genes and cultural background also play a strong role in how well your skin and body overall tolerate milk. (Photo credit: Salim Virji)

Ask any mother, grandmother, nutritionist, or physician, and they’ll all tell you their honest opinion about milk.  From full-fat to skim, hormone-free to vitamin D enriched, there is a variety of milk to appease everyone’s desires.  But what does science actually say is best for your health, skin, and overall appearance?  Our Contributing Writer and Editor Natalie K. Bell takes a look at the fascinating research:

1.  Drink whole milk.

On the glycemic index chart, skim milk has a level of about 32 and whole milk has a low level at about 27. Skim milk, because it is high on the glycemic index, has a more profound impact on blood sugar. It breaks down more quickly than its whole milk counterpart.  The high placement on the glycemic index makes skim milk cause acne and prematurely aged collagen.

chocolate milk chocolate milk chocolate milk
Whole milk has a lower glycemic index than skim, meaning that it has less of a “spiking” effect on blood sugar. Chocolate milk, on the other hand, is higher on the glycemic index than both! (Photo credit: pheezy)

A number of studies, including this study, suggest there are significant acne-clearing effects of a low-glycemic diet.

Over time, elevated blood sugar from a high-glycemic causes you to form more advanced glycation endproducts (AGEs), which in turn form glucosepane, the hardened, rough state of collagen in old age.  (For instance, when you push in a baby’s check and it pushes back, this is due in part to increased amounts of collagen and softer collagen.  When you touch an elderly person’s face and it is more delicate, this is due to the fact there is less collagen and what is there is more fragile and less resilient).  As a result, you may want to start drinking whole milk over skim milk.  Even better:  fat can be satiating, so you’ll stay fuller longer.

2.)  Drink hormone-free milk.

English: milk bottle showing cream at the top
Hormone free milk may be an excellent option for the acne-prone, as IGF-1 in milk has been shown to stimulate oil production and hence acne (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Scientists have made links between milk and acne, like in this study done by F. William Danby at the Harvard School of Public Health. Danby’s study also found that skim milk in particular negatively impacted acne due to its placement on the glycemic index.  However, Danby concluded that all milk with the hormone DHT (androgens) caused the skin to secrete more oil, leading to acne.

3.)   Your genetics may very well determine how well your skin – and your body overall – tolerates milk.

Asian bride
Genetics and culture play a role in milk tolerance in the body. For instance, a high percentage of people of Asian or African descent are lactose intolerant. How this relates to skin – if at all – remains yet to be determined.

Many critiques of milk drinking beg the question: Is it natural? It might surprise some to know that the answer might not yes or no, but rather: Does it matter?

Suggesting that biology and nature are the crucial deciding factors of “right” and “wrong” oversimplifies the complex role of culture, as explained in Why Some Like it Hot by Gary Paul Nahban. In a conversation with a food psychologist, he comes to contemplate whether culture can have an effect on biology.

His findings were perplexing:  For example, people generally become lactose intolerant between ages 5 and 8, when they no longer need their mother’s milk. But not everyone does and mounting evidence suggests the genes for this came after their ancestors became pastoralists. Their diet improved with the presence of milk products and the evolutionary pressure lead to a gene change.

This idea complicates the idea of “natural” and makes us think more about “advantageous.” There isn’t a universal answer for whether people should drink milk into adulthood. But there’s still the question of what positive or negative affects it might have on skin health. That’s not an easily answered question.

Bottom Line

Most children become lactose intolerant between the ages of 5 and 8, evolutionarily a stage when mother’s milk would no longer be available. (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)

This kind of information often leads people to debate whether a Western diet that includes dairy is healthy.  There are causal factors like hormones given to dairy cows to increase milk production, levels of iodine, and sugar. As Danby suggests in this essay, we have a lot more investigating to do before we uncover the exact cause of acne and why dairy can make it worse. With so many factors, while we recommend drinking hormone-free full-fat milk for now, don’t pour out any your milk just yet – the data is still coming in.

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  • trish

    Cows have natural hormones that may also be the problem. Does steaming/boiling milk deactivate the hormones? I think East Indians do that to create their butter (ghee) and Italians think the steamed milk for lattes is healthier. What other dairy products have active hormones?

  • trish

    I get the organic whole milk in the glass bottle that has the cream on the top…is this okay for skin?

    • Most likely, yes! The less added sugar, antibiotics, and hormones the better!

  • Lynn

    love this article…i get sick and tired of reading beauty articles but I have a soft spot for science (love science and how it breaks down mysteries.) and this article keeps me reading.

  • Rae

    I can’t drink milk coz I’m one of those who by age 5, couldn’t tolerate it anymore.

  • Loved this! Great that you take up the intricate relationship between the skin and our diet, as I think it’s becoming more and more important in this day and age.

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