Whey protein powder and protein shakes are popular dietary supplements for athletes and body builders. Whey is milk serum, the liquid left over from curdling milk to make cheese. Milk ingestion is known to be linked to acne vulgaris (aka cystic acne or just acne), a skin disease that presents with papules, pustules, scarring, and red irritations. This study suggests whey has similar acne-inducing effects.
Dr. NB Silverberg from the Department of Dermatology of St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York published case reports on 5 male 14-18 year old patients using at least 6 brands of protein supplementation, shakes and reconstituted powders, for gain body weight. All 5 patients exhibited acne flares shortly after starting protein supplementation. All responded poorly to acne treatment methods, including oral antibiotics, topical retinoids, and benzoyl peroxide.
Four patients cleared acne symptoms after discontinuing protein supplementation. One patient presented with acne flares once again after supplementing using whey protein. Dr. Silverberg notes:
Whey protein may be the fraction of dairy products that promote acne formation. Larger studies are needed to determine the mechanism of comedogenesis.