Role of Testosterone and Other Androgens in the Body
The word “androgen” comes from two Greek words, which can be roughly translated as “male maker” because in males, testosterone and other androgens begin influencing a male baby’s development before he is born and continue to regulate his body throughout his life. They also control the development and activity of the male sex organs as well as the development of secondary male characteristics, such as facial hair and the Adam’s apple.
But androgens are not only “male makers.” In both males and females, testosterone also regulates muscle growth, bone formation, and sex drive.1
Where in the Body Are Testosterone and Other Androgens Produced?
In both males and females, androgens are produced in the:
- Sex organs—testes in males and ovaries in females
- Adrenal glands—two glands found just above the kidneys2
The pituitary gland, which is found at the base of the brain, controls the production of androgens. When it sends a signal to the sex organs and/or adrenal glands, they begin producing androgens and releasing them into the blood.2
Types of Androgens
Androgens found in both males and females include (listed from least potent to most potent):
- Dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEA-S)
- Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA)
- Dihydrotestosterone (DHT)2,3
Testosterone is the primary and best-known androgen. It is called a “steroid” hormone because of its chemical structure, which is closely related to the anabolic—which some people take in order to build muscle mass. The image below shows the complex chemical structure of testosterone.1
All androgens are similar in chemical structure, and because of this the body can convert one type of androgen into another. Together, the sex organs and adrenal glands produce only three androgens: DHEA-S, androstenedione, and testosterone. Cells in other parts of the body, including cells in the skin, can convert them into the remaining two androgens, DHEA and DHT.2
Although all the androgens exhibit similar functions, some are more potent than others. The more potent a hormone is, the greater the effect that even a small amount can have on the body. The two most potent androgens are DHT and testosterone, and adult men retain a much larger amount of these androgens in their blood when compared to adult women.3 On the other hand, the weaker androgens DHEA-S, DHEA, and androstenedione are found in approximately equal amounts in the blood of men and women.3,4
Interestingly, DHEA-S—the weakest of all the androgens—is the one most directly correlated with acne, meaning that people with acne are more likely to have elevated levels of DHEA-S than any other androgen.3
Androgens Increase Acne
Several clinical studies have clearly shown that increased levels of androgens, including testosterone, are linked to an increase in acne in both males and females.
One study, which was published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology in 2004, looked at eunuchs—men who had been castrated and whose bodies therefore no longer produced testosterone. The adrenal glands of these men still produced other androgens, but in much smaller amounts than in healthy males. The researchers noted that the castrated men produced less skin oil than healthy men and did not have acne. On the other hand, when the castrated men were given testosterone, they became acne-prone again.5
Another study, which was published in the journal Clinical and Experimental Dermatology in 1986, examined 17 males and 42 females with acne. The researchers obtained blood samples from each participant and measured the levels of free testosterone and other androgens.6 Most of the testosterone in a person’s blood is inactive because it is bound to proteins: only 1–2% is free, meaning that it floats around by itself in the blood and is active.3 The scientists found that, on average--compared to people without acne--there was:
- 22.4% more free testosterone in the blood of both males and females with any severity of acne
- 23.5% more DHT in the blood of both males and females with severe acne6
A third study, published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism in 1994, set out to investigate the effects of giving healthy men high doses of testosterone. Nineteen healthy men participated in this study. At the beginning of the study, the average amount of total testosterone in their blood was 16.4nmol/l, which is approximately in the middle of the normal range for healthy men. During the experiment, this amount more than doubled—to 34.5nmol/l—which is at the upper limit of the normal range. Considering that testosterone is a potent androgen, this was a drastic increase. The researchers found that half of the men in the study developed acne as a side effect of the testosterone, and that the acne cleared up after the testosterone treatment ended. The authors of the study wrote, “Half the men…noted mild acne, which resolved during the posttreatment period. The men who developed acne tended to be younger or had a history of severe acne during adolescence.”7
The last study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1996, also looked at the effects of giving testosterone to healthy men. The experiment was conducted on 43 healthy men, 21 of whom received testosterone injections every week for 10 weeks, while the other 22 received a placebo (an identical-looking injection without any testosterone). The men did not know which injections they were receiving. By the end of the 10 weeks, the amount of testosterone in the blood of the 21 men who were receiving testosterone injections was several times greater than normal. Three of these men developed acne as a side effect. Strangely, one man who was receiving placebo injections also developed acne during the experiment. The authors speculated that the men who developed acne may have expected this side effect, suggesting that there was a psychological factor in the development of the acne.7 The researchers wrote, “Three men receiving testosterone and one man receiving placebo had [acne]; these men may have assumed themselves to be receiving testosterone.”8
How Do Androgens Cause Acne?
Testosterone and other androgens trigger acne primarily by increasing the production of skin oil. More skin oil usually means more acne. Once skin oil is over-produced, a domino effect results--leading to the beginning of acne.
Acne typically begins at puberty, which is when androgen levels rise in both males and females. Not coincidentally, this is also when sebum begins to be produced in a greater amount.
Free testosterone and other androgens from the blood can enter the cells of the skin oil glands, which are highly sensitive to androgens. Inside these cells, called sebocytes, the androgens head for the nucleus, which is the so-called “control center” of each cell. The nucleus contains the cell’s genes, which comprise the biological information instructing the cell what to do and how to grow. When androgens like testosterone enter the nucleus of a sebocyte, they “turn on” genes that “tell” the cell to start synthesizing more sebum.
Although all androgens can cause increased sebum production, DHEA-S—which is the weakest androgen—actually seems to correlate most strongly with acne. Sebum-producing glands in acne patients contain more DHEA-S than any other androgen,3 and research suggests that an increase in DHEA-S tends to go hand-in-hand with the early stages of acne. The reasons for this are currently not well understood.2
Is Acne Always Caused by Androgens?
As we have seen, research suggests that testosterone correlates positively with acne. However, more acne does not always mean there is increased testosterone. Instead, some people may simply be more sensitive to testosterone.
According to an article published in the German scientific journal Journal der Deutschen Dermatologischen Gesellschaft in 2007, most patients whose skin produces too much sebum actually have normal levels of androgens in their blood. The scientists speculate that some people’s sebum-producing glands may be unusually sensitive to androgens, so that even normal amounts of testosterone can trigger acne.3
In Females: Androgen Receptor Blockers as a Treatment for Acne
Androgen receptor blockers, also called “antiandrogens,” are a type of hormonal therapy that can treat acne in females. They are not used for treating acne in males because they produce unwanted side effects, such as gynecomastia (enlarged breasts) and sexual dysfunction.
Androgen receptor blockers work to treat acne by preventing the activity of androgens: specifically, testosterone and DHT. Three androgen receptor blockers have been approved for treating acne patients: cyproterone acetate (CPA), spironolactone, and flutamide. Cyproterone acetate is normally a part of oral contraceptives (birth control pills), and spironolactone and flutamide are normally standalone medications. However, each of these drugs potentially comes with severe side effects.9
The Bottom Line
In both males and females, more testosterone and other androgens tend to lead to more skin oil production and more acne. In males, there is not much that can be done about this. However, properly treating acne is normally strong enough to keep acne at bay even during times of increased androgen production, such as during adolescence.
Females can also normally keep acne at bay with proper treatment even if they encounter brief times of increased androgen production. However, if androgen levels stays chronically high in females, this can be the sign of disease, such as poly-cystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), and in this case, acne can be treated with androgen receptor blockers, but this comes with side effects.