How I Finally Got Clear Skin

Photo: Starre Vartan.

I've long been a pretty healthy eater: I never ate junk food or fast food growing up, so never developed a taste for it; I love fruits and vegetables and eat plenty of them; I keep hydrated as I work out often; every once in awhile I record what I eat for a few days and check my intake of vitamins, fats, protein, and other nutrients. I'm usually quite balanced. But my skin didn't look it.

Throughout my 20s I was dogged by persistent cystic acne. It was not only incredibly unattractive (and meant that I wore makeup even though I don't like to), it would hurt for days before and after an eruption. Mine hung around my mouth and was especially bad on my chin and under my nose. Usually I'd have just one at a time, but sometimes I had two (one on its way out and another one just cropping up) and it drove me crazy. I experimented with all kinds of natural cleansers and moisturizers with little success, though my non-inflamed skin looked nice. I got angry and tried conventional products filled with chemicals—those made the rest of my skin very unhappy and didn't work. I tracked it and my acne was not on a monthly cycle. What could it be?

And then, at my friend Cara's suggestion (she's a massage therapist and alternative healer), I started looking at my diet. Cara suggested doing elimination diets, where I would take one potential cause of acne out of my diet at a time. The key was, she told me, that I had to eliminate whatever it was—wheat, dairy, and soy are all common acne triggers—for longer than I would think to find out if they were causing the problem. She suggested 6 weeks, which seemed like an eternity to me. Thinking that it would be a good idea to try out this diet anyway—maybe I'd drop a few pounds, or maybe wheat was making me feel crummy and I didn't know it—I embarked on a six-month-long survey of my diet.

I tried cutting wheat first; everyone was touting the benefits of gluten-free and it was easy to find substitute products, and I went almost two months without consuming wheat (and I'm a regular sandwich-eater). No change—not in my skin, not in my weight, not in my energy levels or anything else. Which was, frankly, a relief, because I'm not in love with gluten-free breads and cookies, and my partner is a really good baker.

Next, I tried ditching soy—I occasionally eat processed soy, but not much, and would drink soymilk in my cappuccinos when there was no organic milk available. I ate tofu stirfries with lots of veggies at least once a week. After 5 weeks, I gave up, since I wasn't noticing any difference. I was beginning to think my experiment was a failure, but I still had one food left to eliminate.

Cutting dairy wasn't that big of a deal; I'm vegetarian, and eat cheese and eggs, but not much, and 3-4 times a week I had a cappuccino or macchiato made with milk. I ate yogurt or sour cream once a week at most. And I've never had trouble digesting dairy—not as a kid and not as an adult. I definitely have the lactose-digesting gene. And for the first week, I didn't notice anything; same for the second week. Around the third week (just when I was seriously contemplating some local, organic ice cream, but reached for the sorbet instead), I thought I maybe saw my skin clearing up. By week four, my skin overall looked great, and my last breakouts were disappearing. And then I went for two more weeks—then three—and my most recent acne scars healed up and started disappearing.

My experiment worked; as long as I stayed away from dairy, my skin stayed clear. I tried working in some hard, aged cheeses, and that was fine. But as soon as I drank a milky latte, or a cup of yogurt (always organic), I would break out 5-7 days later; I experimented several times, and each time it took a few days, but I would develop a horrible giant cystic zit.

When I mentioned my successful experiment on Twitter, several of my followers said they were going to see if they could solve their own acne problems via eliminating dairy.

Follower @LavNandall, who is based in South Africa, responded to my Tweet a few days later: "Update on leaving dairy for acne. A week later, my skin tone is more even & pores smaller."

She followed up weeks later with: "Update on leaving dairy: It's been 3 weeks today and no new acne spots despite the heat wave!"

And finally: "Update: Been more than a month. No acne visible! This is magic!"

Proof that I'm not the only one who has found clear skin through dietary changes. Why would dairy be connected to acne? Doctor Oz breaks it down on his site:

“Much of the milk that we drink is produced by pregnant cows and contains high levels of hormones that can send oil glands into overdrive,” explains Omaha dermatologist Dr. Joel Schlessinger. Progesterone, insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) as well as compounds that the human body turns into dehydrotestosterone (DHT) are passed on to the milk, which can aggravate acne. Unfortunately, you don’t get a pass for buying organic milk from cows that haven’t been treated with Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH). “The hormones are just as bad,” he insists. If dairy triggers your breakouts, “You simply have to avoid milk.” Schlessinger advises his patients switch to almond milk, and cut down on cheese and other dairy products.

So if you struggle with acne, try eliminating milk products from your diet; and give it at least a month to see if it works for you.