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Can Whey Protein Trigger Eczema Flares?

Medically reviewed by Lisa Booth, RDN
Posted on September 12, 2023

Some people with sensitive skin find that what they eat plays a significant role in irritation, dryness, and other eczema symptoms. Sussing out diet-related triggers can be challenging, but with freedom from symptoms at stake, it’s worth exploring how your skin reacts to certain ingredients — say, whey protein.

Before adding a dietary supplement or new ingredient like whey protein to your meal plan, it’s important to learn about its potential effects on your eczema. Here’s what you should know about milk, dairy, and whey protein before you purchase a pricey tub of protein powder.

What Is Whey Protein?

Whey protein, which comes from cow’s milk, actually consists of eight milk proteins that can be pasteurized (heated to kill harmful bacteria) and added to food products and dietary supplements. Whey protein is considered a complete protein because it has all the essential amino acids, the building blocks of protein. You can find this ingredient in protein shakes and bars, infant formula, and various processed foods.

Some forms of whey protein include whey protein concentrate, isolate, and hydrolysate. Hydrolysate is broken down the most, so it’s easiest to digest.

People commonly use whey protein to build muscle, gain weight, or heal wounds. However, some individuals experience digestive problems from whey protein. Protein supplements made with whey may be contaminated with heavy metals and other toxins or contain a lot of sugar, artificial sweeteners, or additives that might not be healthy.

It’s generally better to get your protein from whole foods than from supplements. However, if you’re looking for a protein boost and adding new products to your diet, it’s important to watch for skin reactions or digestive issues. Check with your doctor or dietitian to find out if protein powder is a good choice for you.

Whey Protein and Dairy Allergies

Food allergies are commonly associated with atopic dermatitis, the most common subtype of eczema. Along with foods like seafood, peanuts, eggs, and gluten-containing grains, dairy is a potential food allergen that can trigger skin breakouts for some people. Health experts estimate that about 30 percent of people with atopic dermatitis also have a food allergy.

Allergies differ from food sensitivities and intolerances. Lactose intolerance, a common digestive issue associated with dairy, leads to gastrointestinal symptoms like bloating and diarrhea. A dairy allergy, however, can cause rashes and potentially life-threatening allergic reactions that affect breathing. Although some forms of whey protein are safe for people with lactose intolerance, anyone who has a dairy or milk allergy should avoid whey.

Scientific journals have reported some surprising cases of people having an allergic reaction to whey protein but not milk in general. This phenomenon isn’t fully understood, but researchers suspect that it may be related to how whey protein supplements are processed.

Members’ Tips for Protein Sources

Protein isn’t just for bodybuilders. Your muscles, bones, and immune system rely on this nutrient to stay strong and healthy. Several MyEczemaTeam members who have trouble with dairy products, milk, or protein powders have shared how they get more protein:

  • “I tried sardines for extra protein, which seems to work well for me. I’m really careful with dairy.”
  • “I tolerate animal protein well, so I get most of my protein from elk, beef, turkey, chicken, salmon, sardines, cod, and mahi-mahi. I occasionally use protein powder, but not too often, as I react to dairy.”
  • “I’ve limited my dairy products and switched to soy milk. That seems to have helped.”
  • “I have totally given up dairy and only have goat’s milk and goat cheese. Sometimes when I eat foods that contain dairy, my skin goes tight and dry, and I get blisters. Then the eczema flares up.”

You can also combine plant-based and animal-based protein sources to meet your body’s needs. Adults need 5 to 6.5 ounces of protein daily, based on their health status and activity level. You can get protein from a variety of foods, including eggs, beans, lentils, nuts, seafood, chicken, beef, pork, soy, and dairy. Protein powder options beyond whey protein include products made from casein (another type of milk protein), egg, pea protein, hemp, or soy.

Food’s Role in Eczema Flares

Researchers are still investigating the complex relationship between whey protein consumption and eczema flare-ups. Although some people report worsening symptoms after eating or drinking whey protein products, scientists aren’t always sure about the cause of the reaction. Factors such as genetics, overall diet, and individual sensitivities contribute to the range of responses in people with eczema.

While it’s helpful to read about others’ experiences, an individualized approach to eczema management is best. Despite the potential allergens in whey protein products, some researchers have reported that whey protein’s effects on the immune system may benefit people with skin conditions like contact dermatitis.

Not everyone’s eczema is connected to their diet. However, some MyEczemaTeam members have reported improvement in symptoms after finding and eliminating food triggers:

  • “I’m back to being 100 percent gluten- and dairy-free. I currently have no flare-ups.”
  • “After changing my diet, my flare-ups come down to a change of weather or stress or tiredness.”
  • “What works for me is having a fairly clean diet (little processed foods), exercising, using clean products, and making sure I’m not stressed-out.”

If you’re concerned about food’s impact on your skin, you can meet with an allergist to test for common food allergens. A registered dietitian nutritionist can also help you identify your triggers and put together a healthy eating plan that doesn’t make your eczema flare. It’s important to maintain a varied diet that’s nutritionally complete, both to improve your symptoms and for long-term well-being.

If controlling your eczema means eliminating a food group, like dairy, you may need calcium or other dietary supplements to help fill the gaps and prevent a deficiency. Working with your health care providers on your diet and lifestyle is critical for living well with eczema. Practicing good skin care, regularly applying moisturizer, and sticking to a treatment plan led by a dermatologist will also help you improve your skin health.

Talk With Others Who Understand

MyEczemaTeam is the social network for people with eczema and their loved ones. On MyEczemaTeam, more than 49,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with eczema.

Have you noticed skin problems after consuming whey protein? What food sources provide most of your protein? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.

Posted on September 12, 2023
All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.

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Lisa Booth, RDN studied foods and nutrition at San Diego State University, in California and obtained a registered dietitian nutritionist license in 2008. Learn more about her here
Anastasia Climan, RDN, CDN is a dietitian with over 10 years of experience in public health and medical writing. Learn more about her here

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