Sometimes we tend to think of acne as a modern phenomenon. But quite the contrary, ancient people wrote of acne as soon as they could write at all. Ancient Egyptian writings mention how Pharoahs struggled with the disease. Traces of an essential oil used in the treatment of acne scars were found in King Tut’s tomb.

Fast forward to Ancient Greece, and we find that people were affected at this time as well. In fact, we get the word “acne” from the ancient Greeks.

Ancient scholars have uncovered evidence of sulfur and mineral water treatments in ancient Rome as well. As far as historians can tell, sulfur, despite its questionable efficacy, was the most popular acne treatment used in antiquity, all the way up until the 20th century when a bevy of other treatments started to hit the scene.

Luckily, today we have more options than our ancients friends did. Since the 1930s, we’ve seen the introduction of two incredibly effective treatments–benzoyl peroxide in the early part of the century, and Accutane in the latter part of the century.

This all begs two questions: (1) Was acne around before civilization? We know that as soon as civilization developed and people began writing, there was acne, but what about before civilization, when people were still hunting and gathering? (2) What is it about the human body and/or the effects of human civilization that causes acne? I hope to help figure it out. I think 5,000 years of acne (or more) is quite enough! With modern technology and scientific research methods, perhaps we can end this affliction.

Question to you guys: If you didn’t think about it and just asked your gut…”What causes acne?” what is the answer? Don’t edit yourselves. I want to hear even the craziest of responses :)

52 Responses to “Ancient history of acne”

  • Sue

    I wonder if people with acne might have inherited the lack of some chemical/enzyme/something that helps the body slough off dead skin cells–something that normal skin seems to do automatically.

  • Some Dude

    The only thing I’ve ever read about this is the whole gluten thing.
    Hunter gatherers wouldn’t have eaten as much maybe?

  • Elita @ Blacktating

    I’ve read before that people with healthier immune systems tend to get more acne. What I’m really curious about is why people who live in developing nations don’t seem to get acne? Look at footage of poor folks from around the world in documentaries. Even the teenagers have perfectly clear faces. There is something more going on here. Although acne may have been around since time immemorial (maybe), there are a lot of people on this earth now who aren’t getting it. Why is that?

  • Anonymous

    its funny we live in houses, drive cars, watch TV and have the internet but we still suffer from a basic skin disease that has plagued us from the start of man. i think acne is a result of us losing are body hair. we might have need alot of oil to keep us warm. kinda like a dog.

    • Anonymous

      straighhhhhttt uppp! i am a long time sufferer of acne. I’ve tried multiple treatments(chemical peels, laser, etc.) and many different types of antibiotics, all of which were complete bull. then one magical i decided to sit in the sauna everyday, and work out and BOOM MY FUDGING ACNE WENT AWAY OR STOPPED GROWING YEAHH BITCHHH

  • JonoB

    You’ve got to think, ‘What’s changed since then and now?’
    First thing that comes to my mind – DIET

    Back then people ate basic natural foods, not stuff with excessive amounts of sugar (its like poison in my opinion) contained.

  • Sophie

    Diet. Perhaps stress. I know the Hunter-Gatherer lifestyle involves maybe 18 hours of “work” a week for its people. Civilization increased the work-load of a human being.

  • Kelsey

    well, mine is definitely hormonal, and i know that my pores get clogged really easily (i must not be able to slough off dead skin cells and oils as well as some people).

  • erik

    i think stress and genetics/hormones are the biggest causes. i also think diet can be a factor.

    @steve k- i don’t think it’s lack of exercise. i used to play basketball for 4-5 hrs a day, every single day, for nearly a decade (i had 5% body fat) and i still suffered badly with acne.

  • Maryline

    what always boggles my mind is how come it’s localized mostly to the face? Other parts of my body get way more touching, rubbing, etc…

  • Skybluesky

    A lot of hormones seem to be caused by (directly or indirectly), but not limited to, stress and hormones. Mine are definitely at least partly caused by hormones. When I went on the pill they were almost all gone (about 95% gone). It seems curious to me that girls (I don’t know about males) go through puberty on average, a lot earlier (several years) than 50 years or 100 years ago.

    We as a society are also very very stressed out. We have more than we did 100 years ago but we are more stressed out.

  • yoyo

    Too much sex! Or anything like it. People have been doing it for as long as people been around right? It makes our hormones go crazy!

  • Megan

    Hormones are an obvious factor considering initial onset of most people who are acne prone starts with puberty (as mine did). Fast forward to 24 years when my hormones are changing again and surprise, same outcome. I also believe there has to be something genetic – my mom suffered from adult acne as well however now is 60 years and doesn’t look a day over 35 (oily skin = less wrinkles); some silver lining.

  • Kim

    I think sensitivity, if that makes sense. Our skin needs holistic care, from proper diet (including deterring vitamin deficiency), to exercise (hormone balance among other many amazing body managing benefits), and to topical hydration, moisturizing and and anti-bacterial management. Some people, genetically, are affected by these deficiencies on the skin more than others.

    I know that’s very common sensical, but it helps make my point. Have you ever noticed that those who use ProActiv, and it’s actually successful, tend to have less moderate cases of acne? It’s not a matter of the potency of the product–it’s a matter of the product being able to work its anti-bacterial functions without irritating the skin further. Those with less acne, it can be assumed, have less skin sensitivity. So ProActiv can work. AKA, the worse your skin, the more sensitive it is.

    I hope I’m making my point. I know we all know that everyone is unique and some people have more “resilient” skin. But, just think about it conversely: acne-prone skin means sensitive skin. Symptoms of lack of holistic care, in one of the 3 elements listed about, include acne for sensitive skin types. Much like diabetics may or may not experience fatigue, for it just depends on their genetics and how their diabetes shows, those deficient in basic holistic health may or may not appear with the symptom of acne. It all depends on genetics and how sensitive your skin is to topical treatment, hormonal imbalance and vitamin deficiency.

    I feel like I’m being redundant, and that this is common knowledge. But It led me to the conclusion: acne means sensitivity. It’s a way of saying you’re not being kind enough to your body. So, using ProActiv may dry you out and not help your skin because it’s too sensitive, or an imperfect diet may cause a breakout because your body is so sensitive to the hormonal changes.

    Personally, I used to load my face with products, thinking all the harsh chemicals would eventually clear my acne. I was wrong. Turns out, I needed to find a way to kill bacteria (benzoyl peroxide), and use every other outlet available to me to keep my skin moisturized and reverse the drying effects of the harsh chemical (jojoba oil, manuka honey, AHA). Also, taking vitamins that promotes healthy cell growth ensures the skin coming up will be healthier and more resilient to the impurities in the environment.

    So, I say, tackle acne as such: your skin is sensitive. It’s telling you something. Listen to it, and try to fix the problem. Most importantly, your skin is super, super sensitive. So, if you don’t do anything to help protect your skin’s sensitivity to the harsh chemicals trying to rid of the bacteria in the first place, you will never succeed in clearing acne. Ever.

  • Sharpy

    Me rambling:

    I think it has to do with something internal…probably in the gut. I have dandruff, eczema (under control by using the right cleansers), toe nail fungus, horrible teeth (even though my oral hygiene is impeccable), and achy joints/bones. I got my first pimple in 3rd grade. I’m 31 now. The DKRegimen has pretty much gotten rid of all of it but I still have a few cysts that pop up every month. And I break out when I have a dental problem! I also have back and chest acne that I’m trying to get under control now.

    I’m not sickly other than what I wrote about above–I don’t get colds often, etc. It seems like it has to be related somehow. And I don’t think it’s just due to diet. I’ve drastically altered my diet at different times in my life due to moving to different countries and other circumstances and it has had no effect on my acne whatsoever.

    Candida overgrowth? Something similar? Or maybe just once you have acne you have it for life and it comes out when your body is stressed? Like herpes…even though it’s not a virus. It sure feels like one.
    Immune system on overdrive?

  • D

    GENETICS followed by stress and hormonal imbalance. We need to encourage much more global cooperation of scientific studies into acne. When I was in Sweden and Netherlands, I was surprised by how little acne I saw in people including teenagers. People say that some Asian countries also have little acne in teens or adults. So, my idea for a long term solution is to study the genes of super-models across the world and find that magic gene to perfect skin. Because gene therapy is in very early stages of medical application, we need to work on better short term treatments. The combination of BP, SA, antibiotics and retinoids are old and don’t offer a good solution and pharmaceuticals just keep reinventing the wheel by combining these ingredients.

  • Chikyuu

    This is a great lift off my shoulders. I always thought it was a modern thing.

    If Dan could post a couple sources telling us more about how acne’s been around for thousands of years I’d love to see it. It’s actually interesting to me now.

    Well I do know the agricultural revolution started shortly before civilization did, which is when we started eating grains. Grains really aren’t a natural part of the human diet since we’ve only been eating them for thousands of years as opposed to millions. So that could possibly be a theory.

    I’ve also heard that Demodex microscopic mites that live on the surface of skin cause acne, burrowing into skin and multiplying then dying, causing spots. And that they feed off skin oils, hence why where we produce most oil (face, shoulders, chest) is where acne most occurs. And there was this website selling chinese demodex killing cream. SO, expensive. But it does make a bit of sense when you think about it and research it a little bit. Something to check out.

  • Chikyuu

    I forgot to post this part. But if it’s been around SO LONG… Why isn’t there a 100% effective treatment/cure?! That’s what drives me the most insane.

  • Beth

    I think it is pure genetics. What that gene determines i have no idea, but i think some gene is inherited that cause acne. Since we now know that acne has been around for basically ever, i think that means the cause is not environmental…? (pollution, processed food, etc)

  • SR

    I find it interesting how mainly the rich were plagued with this issue. I agree that most people from rural, developing areas tend to have clearer skin than their “civilized” counterparts (this coming from my parents being from india and my being there several times, even in the rural areas). Which seems to applicable to the fact that pharoahs had this problem….versus the random common folk (although perhaps they did too..) Perhaps having any type of food at their will could have accentuated this problem. This is applicable to us in developed nations and those ancient pharoahs. Not sure, though. Just a theory. I get acne whenever I indulge in oily foods…I blame my dad. We are both very slim people….yet we can eat so much oil and fat without it affecting our body weight…however, it seems as though the oil decides to skip the fat part and just go to our faces…fun. Anyways, I feel pretty ridiculous spreading this “wives tale”…but hey! You asked for most ridiculous answers…It definitely is genetics…however, I don’t think this means you HAVE to have acne, just more tended towards getting it, especially in conjunction with other factors. Some people’s hormones might spike in reaction to sugar, while others may not. Everyone’s different. But outlying factors to have strong effects on how our genetics react, that’s just a fact. After all, you are what you eat. There can’t be a hundred percent cure because acne is a body’s reaction. And everyone’s body is different.

  • hmmm

    *link edited out*
    have you heard about SMT_D002?….It isn’t out, may never be out…but looks interesting enough

  • Chikyuu

    I wiki’d SMT_D002 and it looks really interesting. Dan should definitely try to find out more about this!

  • Pearls

    I used to think that acne was caused by sweat getting into your pores. I also thought it might be contagious.

  • Claudia

    I think acne is hormonal and that some of us are just very very sensitive to hormonal fluctuations. I also think acne has a protein or other similar genetic component that triggers this hormonal sensitivity. I think acne has been with mankind forever but certain cultures (i.e. Asian, Swedish, etc.) have less of it because they have drier skin and therefore are less affected by the hormones.

    I think there’s more people with acne now NOT because there’s more stress or poorer diets but instead because more people with acne can hide it better due to effective meds, and therefore get married, have kids, and unfortunately pass on the acne trait more frequently. I know I did this – my husband met me while I was on Accutane and I had totally clear skin but now it breaks out. He still seems to love me anyway…

    In the past when acne couldn’t be controlled as well, I think those with bad or chronic cases probably didn’t get picked as mates as often and therefore didn’t procreate, thus not passing on the acne trait. So for a long time there was probably less acne around. This principle may still hold true in tribal and less civilized areas where folks with defects are often shunned or don’t get picked as mates as much.

  • Vegan with acne

    You know I’m new to acne.org and what I lOVE LOVE LOVE about the regimen is how closely it follows my instincts regarding this topic.
    I’ve always felt that regardless of the magic bullet cure/cause, irritation made acne worse. The breakout is painful and oily so you zap it up with chemical drying agents, then you’re so dry at the end of the cycle you exfoliate it off, then the breakout begins again, etc, always, forever…..
    Anyway I always hoped there was a magical nutritional cause for acne, or environmental cause for acne, because that is just so right down my ally.
    Bottom line: I’ve always lived in LA, hated pollution, love studying medicine and nutrition/holistic health, ended up being an extremely nutrition-wise vegan living in nature-ville, Michigan, and my acne didn’t respond a single bit. My ten year battle with endometriosis actually ended, no more internal cysts, and my acne was not cured. Go figure. I don’t think its environmental/diet-related in my situation.

  • Amanda

    This is totally crazy and I don’t believe it, but when I was about 19 and my acne got a LITTLE better for a month or two, my mom said it was because my self-esteem was improving, and that it was showing in my skin. UM, PERHAPS, could it be the other way around: that my self-esteem seemed to be improving BECAUSE my skin was temporarily drawing back its claws of ugliness? Good gracious: I am STILL trying to get rid of the thought that my skin is a manifestation of my self-esteem. It makes it really frikkin’ hard to view my skin’s condition in a medical light when I have this mental-connectedness-manifestation still lingering in my subconscious. Thanks, mom.

  • RONALD RUJANO

    I think the cause of acne can be very wide like food, stress, sleep time, lack of exercise, or vices.

  • John

    This is gonna sound crazy……..In the bible it talks about how angels came down from the sky and mated with humans thousands of years ago.LOOK IT UP>ITS THERE. Some people translate this as aliens that visited earth and mated with our humans. Is their a possibility that when this occured their was a defect that was created in the human gene?The people who have acne are remnants of the same gene pool?CRAZY i know but it really makes me wonder somtetimes……

  • BEn

    Gluttony like in fat empire like rich nations of America, Rome, Greece and Egypt makes Candida i think. Poor 3rd world people don’t have as much.

    Gluttony = Candida and fungus overgrowth = Acne

  • Anonymous

    Well honestly I’ve had this going on four 3-4 years now and its gotten worst. I question about acne and it keeps leading me onto curiosity, such as Imbalanced Hormones, Genetics, Stress, Diet, Candida, Oil Glands, Secretion of Sebum, Bacteria, Demodex Micro Mites, Chemicals we use on our face that trigger Acne, Sugar, Blood Sugar Spikes, Gluten, Immune System, Lack of Vitamins or Nutrients, if we all get acne then we aren’t so different there has to be one factor that is causing this and we should eliminate the lists of what I said above everything happens for a reason right? Well theres only one and thats the root problem and once we do find the problem we will see a clear face for the rest of our lives!! It’s amazing how John ^^^ said angels came down here and mated with humans causing a defect in there genes and now there are remnants of humans and for that they have acne thats pretty darn ridiculous but hey thats freakin awesome haha Im agnostic though I still love God and believe any other religion that has sense of knowledge progressed into good! But anyways best wishes for you who have acne also I recommend checking out acne practice on youtube its got like a million views and it looks legit there looks like someone found a cure to acne I’m a bit skeptical though… but its really real a cure?

  • Vicki

    Have you ever seen someone with acne or acne scars in early black and white photographs? i’ve also never heard of it talked about in pre-twentieth century literature. Unfortunately, I don’t have any theories as to cause. But thank you for this forum. I’ll keep thinking.

  • OylPool

    definately genetics. everybody gets a pimple now and then but for those who are ‘acne suffers’ get the pimple regardless of what they eat or it is just harder to keep skin clear, much harder.

    after i wash my face, about 15 minutes later i can see oil creeping out of all my pores on my face. then 2 hours later i look like i want to shit because my face is so sticky looking.
    even if i coat my face with pure moisturizer or anything else, i will still see oil being pushed out of the pores yet again, and then i could slide down the road on my face.

    for some reason, the oil glands are being signaled to produce excess oil than it really needs to, in places of top priority, like the face. now once that begins to happen it causes havok on the entire area changing the surface and making it likely to go into a catasstrophe.

    now all this to do with sugar and all that is probably just 1% of the story. if you could cut the oil out of the solution i bet nothing else would matter. you could eat 2 buckets of quality street chocolate without problems.

    could very well be some gene mutation that occured very long ago and is probably in all of us but some have a tendacy to put that mutation as a recessive gene and not suffer from it.

    and then it might actually be not a direct cause genetically, could be that something siginalling the body falsely, like it isn’t hydrated enough, so the sebum factory runs on overdrive as a result. but you’re drinking good and lots of water.

    i would very much prefer i could divert the oil from my face to my ass, i might finally be able to smile if i put my greasy cheeks behind me.

  • kat

    @oylpool hey get urself dermatologica (brand) mattifying cream.it has 2% of salycilic acid in it and the thing is freekin awesome.it will totally remove that shine off of ur face.works great for me.

  • rumarisin

    I’d say:
    1. antibitoics…buggers up gut flora
    2. gluten….GM, bleached, pesticides, processed, too prominent in Western diets, inflammatory response
    3. sugar…too prominent in Western diets, over-processed
    4. dairy…pasteurised=poison…what happened to raw milk products?
    5. stress…too much
    6. not enough raw foods in out diet…raw is good…we cook everything these days.
    7. hormones…sex sells and is everywhere and is a constant in today’s society
    8. chemicals…pesticides, artificial colours and flavours, pollution etc…

  • Cait

    @rumarisin: YES! Totally. I see how many of you teens just want to rid yourself of acne quickly and don’t necessarily care about the harm BP is doing to your body– I used the BP regimen for 3 years and had pretty good results, but realized (and researched) that acne is 20% EXTERNAL and 80% INTERNAL.

    Stop eating processed foods. Start eating organic veggies. Start LEARNING about the foods you are building your body with. We get so lazy and convenience-oriented that we don’t think about what we put into our bodies– it’s SICK! Let’s find out what’s really going on with our bodies and stop MASKING (ignoring) the problem by smearing fake man-made damaging products on our faces.

  • Vicki

    I was born in 1953 and had acne as a teenager / young adult. My three kids have acne. However, none of my ancestors appears to have had acne. Something in the twentieth century environment or nutrition must be aggravating the genetic tendency for acne. Look at black and white photos of young soldiers before the 1950’s. Do any of them have acne? Not that I’ve ever seen.

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