Whey to go?

“In Italy we used to bathe babies in this,” said my mother, carrying a large pot of watery yellow whey towards the kitchen sink. She had just made a little bowl of fresh, stiff ricotta cheese (very easy — bring a couple of pints of milk to a simmer, add some lemon juice / vinegar, a bit of salt, wait for the magical curdle, then scoop it out with a sieve — here’s a ‘proper’ recipe).

I asked her why.

“Good for itchy skin and rashes,” she shrugged. “That’s what the old women used to say.”

Given that many now suspect that sensitisation towards food allergens occurs through the skin in many cases — especially ‘broken’ skin in eczema — this really stuck with me. We take ‘old wives’ wisdom’ to be generally spot-on — but could bathing babies with problem skin conditions in whey possibly have been good for them?

There are, of course, other examples of bathing in milk in other cultures. Cleopatra, we all know about; but Elizabeth I was apparently keen too. It was ass’s milk in Cleopatra’s case, of course, and this interesting post by the brilliant Lorraine Dallmaier at Herb & Hedgerow explains that the benefits appear to stem from milk’s lactic acid — an alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) — which penetrates the top layers of skin to slough off dead skin cells. Online, it’s not difficult to find anecdotal reports of the benefits of milk to irritated or eczematous or sunburned skin. Vitamins and amino acids are reputed to help soothe.

But what of the many allergens in milk? Both casein and whey contain key milk allergens, but interestingly, the casein allergens are heat stable and the whey allergens are heat-unstable, meaning they can be denatured and rendered non — or at least less — allergenic. Was that almost-boiled whey left over from the ricotta-making process ‘allergen-reduced’ enough to not have been a potential threat to those Italian infants, whose skins only benefited from the nutrients left behind? Might the presence of salt also added a little sterilisation to problematic skins and further mineral benefits too?

All speculation, of course. And I don’t want to give the impression that milk is the eczema or dermatitis panacea here — not least because, in those days, my great-grandmothers and their peers all used unpasteurised milks, taken from their own cows, freshly milked, and likely to have been rich in natural probiotics too — which may well have imparted their own incredible benefits. It’s important to remember too that goats’ milk — while suddenly popular (and indeed very appealing) in skincare, as the sheer volume of goaty entries to our FreeFrom Skincare Awards in 2014 testified — can be a key allergen in skincare as well, with reports of consumers experiencing problems and becoming sensitised on record. We are certainly not recommending you dip your child experimentally into several dozen pints of Daisy’s finest udder juice!

But nevertheless, it did make me think. Between all the wonderful potions concocted from natural herbs and plants that many of our ‘Problem Skin’ category Award entrants formulate, and the generally rather grim petrochemical-heavy pots of emollient supplied by the NHS to eczema patients, perhaps there’s an argument also to be made for a simpler animal-sourced product in skincare that we have, to all intents and purposes, pretty much forgotten about in the modern world.

And as my mother poured away the whey, it felt to both of us a bit of a waste. The ricotta, though, was delicious …

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