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It’s a weird moment in history for milk. Once regarded as a nectar of the gods (depending on your belief system, it was arguably the first human food), its reputation as a symbol of abundance has somewhat waned in recent times, at least where consumption is concerned. Once only eschewed by those with intolerances or vegan politics (well, mostly), cow’s milk is slowly losing supermarket shelf space to plant-based “mylks”. Times have certainly changed. The iconic “Got Milk?” ad campaign is now 25 years old, and that legendary Annie Leibowitz photograph of Whoopi Goldberg submerged in a tub full of the stuff has largely been relegated to the same place all pop culture goes to be forgotten. It’s 2019, and milk means different things to different people—just ask your barista.
Yet when it comes to beauty, milk seems to be eternally fashionable. Why? It’s a surprisingly powerful—and versatile—ingredient. It can do everything from exfoliate (think: Cleopatra’s legendary skin-smoothing donkey milk baths) to nourish. In its different iterations (lactic acid, milk proteins, probiotics, oh my!) there’s no denying it offers a multitude of benefits. But in a world where vegan Magnums have been called “a problem for the dairy industry”, and What the Health has many of us switching to Bonsoy, are milk-derived ingredients in danger of disappearing from product lists? And can plant-powered “mylks” deliver on the same promises? Let’s discuss.
When people talk about the beauty benefits of milk they often get stuck on lactic acid. The proven skin-softener is pretty magic (it gently removes dead skin cells without causing dryness or irritation), but it’s not the only thing milk has to offer. (Fun fact: most forms used in skincare are synthetic, meaning if you’re vegan you should double-check before automatically writing off a product.) An alpha hydroxy acid, lactic acid exfoliates by gently breaking down the stuff that holds dead cells together. It’s also hydrating. Gallinée’s Body Milk is rich in the stuff but also delivers probiotics (the good bacteria found in foods like yoghurt) to soften scaly patches and boost moisture levels to boot. The science on topical probiotics is complex (and just getting started), but there is promising research to support the idea that specific strains can assist with conditions like acne and rosacea.
Tammy Fender’s lavender-scented Cleansing Milk is another probiotic-packed beauty buy. Made with lactobacillus, a probiotic believed to be uniquely useful in keeping your skin’s microflora in check, it whisks away grime without stripping. Origins Mega-Mushroom Relief & Resilience Advanced Face Serum contains a probiotic ferment which helps to make active nutrients more easily absorbed. Meanwhile, Cosmetics 27’s brightening Complex 27 C Bio-Perfecting Correcting Serum uses lactococcus (a variety of lactic acid), which has been shown to increase natural oil production within the skin—perfect for protecting against irritation caused by actives like Vitamin C.
Next, let’s talk milk proteins. It’s not always clear exactly what you’re getting when you spot this on a label (generally, they are a mixture of proteins derived from cow’s milk). What we do know overall is that milk proteins are conditioning agents, and for that reason you’ll find them in everything from serum to shampoo. In Korres’ nourishing Milk Proteins Cleansing Wipes, you won’t be left with that uncomfortable tight feeling makeup removing cloths can sometimes cause. Elemis’ Papaya Enzyme Peel also utilises milk proteins for its reparative qualities, allowing the exfoliant’s potent formula (rich in fruit enzymes) to do its job without causing inflammation.
If you can handle a bit more science, let’s go even deeper. Milk peptides (specific combinations of amino acids, also known as the building blocks of proteins like collagen and elastin) are widely used in skin care thanks to their ability to trigger cells to repair diminished tone and texture. Ren’s EverCalm Anti-Redness Serum relies on a milk polypeptide (this just means there are a large number of bits of amino acids bonded together in a chain) to tackle dehydration in sensitive types. According to the brand it also reduces inflammation, redness and irritation while strengthening the skin’s protective barrier.
Goat milk is believed to hold even more healing qualities for delicate skin than cow milk. Kate Somerville’s new Moisturizing Cleanser joins the brand’s cult Goat Milk line, geared towards those who find other products too strong. (It’s been clinically shown to be safe for reactive types.) Laced with soothing lactose, milk polypeptides and Manuka honey (another all-natural healer), it’s a crowd-pleaser. The range’s De-Puffing Eye Balm is a winner too, providing instant relief for tired eyes. Angela Caglia’s Souffle Moisturiser) is a decadent departure from mass-produced natural skincare. Designed by the facialist herself, it features goat milk powder and is supercharged with meadowfoam seed oil to tackle sensitivity and target fine lines and wrinkles.
As far as plant “milks” in skin care go, coconut is a standout. Made from the flesh of the tropical fruit, it’s high in brightening vitamin C, collagen-boosting copper and antimicrobial lauric acid, and is lighter in feel than its trendy mate coconut oil. In Lanolips’ Coconutter Body Milk the ingredient is cocktailed with lanolin, and shea and cocoa butters for a super-rich (and suntan-scented) treat. Patchology’s Milk Peel 5 Minute FlashMasque Sheet Mask combines coconut milk with calming soy milk and lactic acid for a triple-threat that leaves skin soft and plump.
“Milk” can also refer solely to the texture of a product, encompassing everything from not-quite-cream cleansers to lightened up body lotions. (If you’re unsure, check the label.) Often these products look milky, even where they’re completely dairy- (and even nut milk-) free. Josie Maran’s Pure Argan Milk Treatment is a glorious example of this quasi-category, where the brand has taken a traditionally heavy oil and magicked it into an ultra-light and silky hydrating treatment. The options are endless but one thing’s for sure, it pays to be a dairy (or non-dairy!) queen.
Words by Lisa PatulnyMarch 2019
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