Male and female skin differ in ways that affect the development and treatment of acne. The main cause of these differences is a group of male hormones called androgens. Testosterone is the most well-known androgen. Everyone has both male and female hormones, but males have much higher levels of androgens than females do.
Androgens are responsible for many of the physical changes that happen during puberty. But they also affect other parts of the body, including the skin. Because of the effects of androgens, the skin of males and females is different.
- A thicker epidermis (top layer of skin)
- Higher levels of sebum (skin oil)
- Less skin elasticity
- Higher skin blood content
- More facial pores
- Thinner subcutaneous tissues (the internal tissues directly under the skin)
More acidic skin
Female skin is the opposite:
Since males tend to have higher levels of sebum, and higher levels of sebum tend to go hand in hand with more acne, this is an important reason why males tend to develop more acne than females. Females on the other hand have less acidic skin, which may provide a more ideal breeding ground for acne bacteria.
A 2006 study in the Journal of Dermatological Science backs up these points. The authors found that:
- Higher amounts of sebum, which generally occurs in males, appears to increase the likelihood of developing acne.
Skin that is less acidic appears to encourage the growth of a type of bacteria, P. acnes, which increases the chances of developing inflammatory acne.2 This is an interesting observation because even though females have less acidic skin, acne actually affects males more often than females. This would indicate that less acidic skin, which occurs in females, has less impact than sebum levels on the development of acne.
Male Hormones Play a Major Role in the Development of Acne
When it comes to acne, the role of androgen hormones (male hormones present in both males and females) should not be underestimated. In fact, humans do not develop acne unless they have testosterone in their blood. A 2005 study in Experimental Dermatology drives this point home:
According to the authors of the study, “Several clinical observations point to a major role of androgens in the [development] of acne...[A]cne begins to develop [at the onset of puberty] when the adrenal gland starts to produce large quantities of…a precursor for testosterone.”3
These observations explain why acne tends to develop during puberty in both males and females, when production of testosterone increases, and why males, who end up producing much higher levels of testosterone, are more prone both to acne in general and to more severe acne.
In addition to the normal increase in androgens that comes with puberty and the differences in androgen levels between males and females, sometimes people of either gender can have abnormally high levels of androgens. Excessively high androgen levels are associated with:
- Increased secretion of sebum (skin oil)
- The development of severe acne in both males and females3
Generally speaking, it appears that both males and females with severe, persistent acne typically have higher blood levels of androgens than those without acne. They also have higher levels of androgens compared with people who have less severe acne.4,5
Hormonal Treatments - Usually For Females Only
When acne is caused by abnormally high androgen production, estrogens and anti-androgens can help counteract the effects of these androgens. Doctors prescribe these two options far more often for female patients, since they can cause feminization in males, such as the growth of breast tissue.
Estrogens are female sex hormones. They work by reducing both the size of the glands that produce sebum and the amount of sebum that these glands produce.4 Estrogens are prescribed to only females in the form of oral contraceptives (birth control pills), and are effective in reducing androgen levels. For mild-to-moderate acne, contraceptives that contain mostly estrogen usually reduce acne, on average, by 60%. For more severe acne, or if there is no improvement with contraceptives containing mostly estrogen, switching to contraceptives that contain a type of hormone called progestogen may improve response. For acne that doesn’t improve with contraceptives alone, adding an anti-androgen medication is usually effective.6
Anti-androgens, such as spironolactone, are medications that block the effects of androgens, thus reducing the production of sebum. They are usually prescribed only to females, but their power to reduce acne has been shown in both females and males in clinical trials.3,7
According to a 1983 study in The New England Journal of Medicine, males and females with therapeutically resistant, severe, persistent acne, known as “cystic acne,” typically have abnormally high androgen levels and benefit from estrogen and/or anti-androgen treatment. In this study, males were given anti-androgens and females were given oral contraceptives and/or additional anti-androgens. The authors noted, “Of the patients treated for six months, 97 percent of the women and 81 percent of the men had resolution or marked improvement in their acne.”8
Some Acne Treatments May Work Better in Females
Doctors can prescribe non-hormonal treatments to males and females without any risk of feminizing males. However, even non-hormonal treatments appear to work differently sometimes in males compared with females.
For instance, two studies that treated acne with a combination clindamycin phosphate/benzoyl peroxide gel found that this medication may be more effective in females:
A 2015 study in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology found that the “change from baseline in inflammatory and noninflammatory lesion counts was greater among females than males,” and that the clindamycin phosphate/benzoyl peroxide “appears to be more effective in female patients.”9
A 2012 study involving adolescent patients, also in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology, found that the same clindamycin phosphate/benzoyl peroxide gel was more effective in females than in males, but that the difference was small and only slightly significant.10
Another study looked at a topical anti-inflammatory acne medication called dapsone and found that it too worked better in females:
Another 2012 study in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology, in which patients were treated with dapsone gel for 12 weeks, found that females responded better to the dapsone than males. Females:
- Had greater reduction in various types of acne lesions.
- Had a higher clinical success rate.11
A final study looked at the oral medication isotretinoin and showed no difference:
A 2014 study in the Journal of Clinical & Experimental Dermatology Research, in which patients were treated with isotretinoin, a medication that is typically reserved for the most severe forms of acne, found no differences between male and female response to treatment. However, the authors noted that the females in this study had other conditions such as polycystic ovary syndrome, as well as less severe acne at the beginning of the study, which might have affected the study results.12
Facial Hair - It's Important to Shave Every Day If Applying Topical Medications
Males develop facial hair and facial hair can make it harder to apply topical acne medications. Even just a bit of stubble can make it difficult to apply medication evenly across the skin. The longer facial hair becomes, the more it grabs on to topical treatments and prevents those treatments from penetrating into the skin where they are needed. For this reason, it is best for males who are regularly applying topical acne treatments to shave every day.
Another important reason to shave every day is to prevent irritation. The longer facial hair becomes, the more difficult it is to shave, which can lead to more irritation when shaving. Since irritation aggravates acne, this is another reason for males who are using topical treatments to shave every day.
The make-up of male and female skin differs, and each type responds differently to treatment. Hormonal treatments are far more commonly used for females than for males, and some non-hormonal treatments seem to work slightly better on female when compared to male skin. The exception being isotretinoin, which may treat both skin types equally.