Acne and Whey Protein Supplementation Among Bodybuilders

Written by Ben Bunting: BA(Hons), PGCert. Sport & Exercise Nutrition. British Army Physical Training Instructor.  


Acne is a common skin problem that affects many people. It can be caused by several factors, including skin-care habits, medications, and dietary habits.

The milk protein whey is thought to increase insulin levels and hormones like insulin growth factor 1. These can aggravate acne and trigger breakouts.

The Importance of Protein For Muscle Protein Synthesis

Protein is a key factor in muscle growth and hypertrophy. Increasing protein intake is one of the most effective ways to maximize your gains from resistance training.

Muscle protein synthesis (MPS) is an anabolic (growth-promoting) process that occurs in response to amino acids taken up by muscles.

It can be stimulated by a variety of factors, including the type of amino acid, dietary protein source, and other metabolites present in the diet.

Ingestion of protein immediately post-exercise has been shown to increase muscle protein synthesis to a greater extent than ingestion at different time points following resistance exercise.

This suggests that skeletal muscle is more sensitive to the ingestion of protein during the immediate post-exercise period rather than throughout the day or the day after.

This effect is referred to as the muscle full effect. Moreover, the duration of the increase in MPS from the meal itself is transient and returns to basal levels after 2-3 hours.

Hydrolyzed whey protein

Whey protein is a popular supplement among bodybuilders and has a number of benefits.

It provides the body with high quality proteins which can boost muscle growth, repair damaged tissue and help burn fat.

Different types of whey protein exist including whey concentrate, whey isolate and hydrolyzed whey. Each type is derived from different sources and offers varying benefits.

Hydrolyzed whey protein is produced by exposing a portion of the whey protein to heat, acid or enzymes that break down the bonds that hold amino acids together.

This process is commonly referred to as "pre-digesting" the whey protein which helps increase its bioavailability.

This process also makes the whey protein more digestible and easier on the digestive system.

This may benefit those who experience bloating, cramping and diarrhea from traditional whey protein products due to the lactose content.

It contains less carbs and fat than whey concentrate which is important for those who may be on a low carb or ketogenic diet.

The benefits of consuming hydrolyzed whey protein include faster delivery of the proteins into the muscles which may lead to enhanced recovery after a workout.

If you want to use whey protein in your diet, the best way to go about it is to consume it in small doses throughout the day.

This will keep your blood levels of amino acids high and provide you with the energy needed to get through a tough workout. Doses or amounts of protein are generally specific to a person's activity levels.

Many athletes also choose to consume whey protein before exercise because it can stimulate the release of insulin to help transport glucose from the blood into your muscles, and then into glycogen.

It also increases the amount of amino acids that your body can store as muscle mass, so you’re able to recover quicker post-workout.

Lastly, hydrolyzed whey protein has also been shown to have an effect on the metabolism of fats.

A study found that subjects who consumed whey protein that had been hydrolyzed lost more body fat than those that did not, even after eating the same amount of calories.

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Milk sourced whey protein

Whey protein is a great way to increase your intake of protein without adding calories from fat or carbohydrates.

It is especially useful for bodybuilders, as it contains all the essential amino acids needed for muscle growth and recovery after exercise.

It also has a high concentration of branched-chain amino acids, which are the most important for muscle development.

Besides providing a source of protein, whey protein is also rich in vitamins and minerals.

In fact, whey is an excellent source of calcium, potassium, sodium, phosphorus and folic acid. It is also high in arginine and lysine, which are amino acids that support immune function.

It is also an effective way to reduce the risk of developing cancer and other diseases caused by oxidative stress.

It increases the production of glutathione, a powerful antioxidant that fights free radical damage to your cells.

In addition, whey helps reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure.

A study published in the International Dairy Journal found that people who consumed a beverage supplemented with whey protein were less likely to develop heart disease or have a stroke than those who did not.

The branched-chain amino acids in whey are also highly beneficial to your health, as they promote the synthesis of collagen and improve the integrity of connective tissue.

They also boost the immune system and improve bone mineral density.

A small amount of whey protein has also been shown to be effective in the treatment of asthma and hypertension in children.

One study involving 11 children showed that consuming 10 grams of whey protein twice daily for one month reduced their asthma symptoms and their blood pressure.

The biggest concern about whey protein is that it can cause kidney problems in some people. This is not true for healthy individuals, as the body adapts to higher protein intake by increasing glomerular filtration rates.


A moderate intake of 0.31 g/kg of protein is adequate to maximally stimulate rates of myofibrillar protein synthesis in most individuals, regardless of age or chronic energy status.

These findings may explain why weightlifters have been found to be able to consume 1.2-2.0 g/kg of protein per day (in comparison to the recommended dietary allowance of 0.8 g/kg of body mass), which is above the optimum range for non-weightlifters.

Hormones in whey protein

All milk, including whey protein, contains small amounts of hormones. These hormones are naturally occurring in cows and are not harmful to humans.

Whey is derived from cow milk and is used by bodybuilders, athletes, and health enthusiasts for decades due to its high bio-availability, strong amino acid profile, and health boosting benefits.

However, many people are concerned about the hormones found in whey proteins because of reports that they can cause acne in some people.

Some whey protein products contain growth hormones, antibiotics and steroid hormones.

Organic grass fed whey is marketed as being free of these hormones and is supposedly a healthier option than regular whey powder.

BST in Milk (a synthetic steroid hormone)

Some dairy farmers inject their cows with a growth hormone called bovine somatotropin, which is used to increase milk production.

Fortunately, the amount of bST in milk is very low and only detectable in minute quantities.

Amino acids peak later and remain elevated longer after whey-protein ingestion in older men

A 2018 study investigated the effect of intraduodenally infused whey protein on plasma insulin, glucagon, gastric inhibitory peptide (GIP), glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1), ghrelin, and amino acids concentrations in healthy younger (19-29 years) and older (68-81 years) men.

Compared to younger men, the older men had a slower increase in plasma leucine, isoleucine, and lysine concentrations after the whey-protein infusions.

The older men also had a greater increase in plasma GIP concentrations during the infusions.

Acne explained

In general, acne is a skin disorder that occurs when oil glands and hair follicles (pores) become clogged. This is a common problem for people of all races and ages, but it most commonly happens during puberty.

During this time, male hormones called androgens cause the sebaceous glands to produce more oil. This causes clogged pores and may trigger pimples or even cysts.

Pores are small openings on your skin that let oil, dirt, and dead skin cells out to keep your skin soft and healthy.

When these pores get clogged with oil, dirt and dead skin cells, it can lead to a buildup of bacteria.

The resulting infection can create whiteheads, blackheads or red, inflamed pus-filled bumps that are called papules or pustules. These blemishes are typically swollen and can be painful.

When these blemishes break open, they contain a mixture of skin, oil and bacteria that irritate your skin. The inflammation can cause a red bump that is tender when touched.

Treatment for acne depends on the severity of the breakouts. For milder breakouts, over-the-counter medicines and skin washes can help clear the pimples up. For more severe acne, your doctor may prescribe stronger medications.

Diet doesn't cause acne, but some foods that cause blood sugar levels to rise quickly can make it worse. High glycemic load foods include bread, cornflakes, and chips.

Stress can also increase your risk of developing breakouts. However, stress does not cause acne, but it can make it worse if you already have it.

Whey and acne

This study published in 2013 found a link between a higher incidence of acne among young adult users of protein supplements in Brazil.

The recommendations of the study were to discourage the use of protein supplements.

This is due to the high amount of casein that whey protein contains. It also stimulates the production of IGF-1, which can cause your sebum glands to produce more oil, which then leads to blemishes.

A 2012 study of 5 male bodybuilders found that dairy products used to improve muscle development aggravated acne which correlates with available biochemical and epidemiological data.

There is some evidence that whey can actually reduce the production of estrogen in your body. However, there is still some confusion about the exact impact this will have on your body.

On the other hand, there has been a study that showed whey protein blunted cortisol which can have a positive benefit on testosterone, whereas soy protein supplementation over 14 days seemed to partially reduce testosterone. 

According to the research, whey protein and milk can aggravate the development of acne because it causes an increase in insulin like growth factor-1 (IGF-1).

IGF-II stimulates production of more comedogenic hormones. This can cause inflammation in the sebaceous glands and clog pores.

However, there are limited studies and the available studies often comprise of small numbers of participants and of a similar dempgraphic.


Many athletes, bodybuilders and fitness enthusiasts take whey protein supplements to build muscle.

They are a great source of essential amino acids that support muscle growth and recovery. They also help in weight management.

But it is important to note that whey proteins can trigger acne.

They increase your testosterone and IGF-1 levels which may result in an imbalance of hormones, which is what causes acne breakouts.

In fact, a study published in the Journal of Dermatology found that bodybuilders who used whey protein supplements had an increased number of acne pustules, papules and comedones than those who didn’t use whey.

However, the number of acne lesions diminished once the whey protein was stopped.

If you are taking whey protein and experiencing an acne outbreak, try changing your diet to avoid dairy or switching to a plant-based protein powder instead.

If these changes don’t resolve the issue, then you should consult with your doctor to rule out other possible factors that could be contributing to the problem.

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