keratinocytes: human skin cells

Thanks to modern medical science, we know that for some reason, acne follicles tend to overproduce cells, which in turn stick together and cause a clogged pore and ensuing zit. But why does this happen? Scientists have performed very few studies in an attempt to figure this out.

I just got through reading what was only the second study to ever attempt to scientifically understand what happens inside acne follicles vs. control follicles. Researchers from the University of Leeds in England performed the study back in 1994. Unfortunately, I think this control follicles were poorly selected. The researchers took biopsies of acne follicles from the upper back of patients who were an average age of 22. The control follicles were taken from the chest of people who were an average age of 41 during open heart surgery. In my opinion, the vast difference in age and location of biopsy between the acne follicles and control follicles largely discounts this study. Regardless, the researchers did make a couple of interesting points when discussing what might cause acne-prone skin to overproduce cells.

1) When sebum production increases, as it often does in acne-prone individuals, the sebum, as it leaves the follicle, takes with it too many of the cells lining the follicle wall. The follicle then reacts by overproducing cells to counteract this loss.

2) Linoleate (a.k.a. linoleic acid, an essential fatty acid) deficiency in sebum: Researchers have discovered that sebum in acne-prone skin contains less linoleate than normal. One hypothesis is that when sebum increases, linoleate content is diluted, and this decrease in linoleate signals overproduction of cells.

But in reality if you asked these researchers to tell you what cases acne, I think if they’d honestly reply, “well heck, who knows…”

The more you read about the potential cause of skin cell overproduction and clogged pore formation, the more complex it becomes. We have the hormone system to look at, sebum overproduction, the skin’s inflammatory response, systemic vitamin and mineral deficiency, bacteria over-proliferation, or a combination thereof…the possibilites are endless and the list goes on and on.

So, if and when science does finally figure it out, will we uncover a silver bullet? Or is the cause of acne a combination of factors? I’ll keep reading and let you know what I find. Please do the same if you can and let me know what you find out.

10 Responses to “What the heck causes acne? Warning: Research-y stuff”

  • Sharpy

    Whatever it turns out to be I hope there’s at least some upside to it–like acne sufferers less likely to develop cancer or are better lovers or something like that. Wouldn’t it be nice if we got something good out of it?

  • Josh

    Dan, I don’t believe the first point makes sense because it sounds like it does the same thing AHA+ does. So how would it cause a pimple? Right? And basically from everything i’ve read anywhere about acne is that it is caused by overproduction of sebum in some way. If we want to cure acne we need to start with the sebaceous glands. Only a safer alternative than Accutane.

  • April

    A microbiologist I’ve talked to described Propionibacterium acnes’ role in acne to me the other day. While it is largely unknown why some people’s pores block more often than others, the blockage of these pores traps this bacterium, which is always on the skin, in there. It is surrounded by oil and, although it is slightly aerotolerant, gets right to work using anaerobic fermentation to convert oil and nutrients into propionic acid and other byproducts. These acids cause the irritation and inflammation which then triggers an immune response by the skin cells under the dead epithelial level, and then you get a huge honking pimple.

  • G

    I can confirm what April said. I took a pathogenic microbiology class for nursing, and my professor said much of what April did. More research about the causes of acne exist on websites such as Medscape.com–something put out by real medical professionals with real medical training and understanding of pathophysiology.

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