Sunday, October 17, 2010

Evolution of Acne

I had a bunch of ideas that I wanted to blog about this week.  Guess which one I picked?  The one that had the word 'evolution' in the title!!  teehee.  I just love thinking about the evolutionary origins of all the things that we take for, acne!

So, here's the question: what's the evolutionary explanation for acne?  What, if any, selective advantage did acne (or something that causes acne) bestow to its possessors?

I've compiled a short list of possibilities that I'd like for you to help me expand.

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The Sexual Repellent Hypothesis: some have said, although I'm skeptical, that acne keeps you gross enough during puberty that others will wait to mate with you until you're old enough adequately deal with the child. I can see a couple of problems with this.   First, acne happens more frequently in males, since a large trigger is testosterone which increases the sebum production (pore blocker and lubricant).  Males, evolutionarily, although they can have selective advantage in investing in offspring have little selective disadvantage in not trying to produce offspring.  So, our explanation of acne has to address the male problem and this one doesn't seem to adequately.

"It's Because I'm White, Isn't It?" Explanation:  Whites have more acne than non-whites.  So, how come?  Well, I've thought about this for a bit since a close friend of mine suffers from Rosacea (a reddening condition of usually the face).  Whites are white to absorb solar radiation to synthesis stuff like Vitamin D.  We feed off the sun.  The farther north one gets and the more clothing you wear means the whiter we need to get to make enough Vitamin D.  There's another strategy evolution can use, though - don't just make the skin whiter, fill it with more blood.  Is it possible that whites get more acne because our facial skin is flusher because it's trying to get enough blood to the surface to make Vitamin D?  Maybe.  It's a thought.

Dirt Don't Hurt Hypothesis: maybe we wash our face too much.  I don't know this to be true and I don't want to be the one to test it either, but it's a worthwhile thought.  We didn't regularly bath for most of our evolutionary history and maybe constantly removing the surface oil from our face (which is desperately trying to keep the face supple and emolliented to stay young looking) causes the production to go haywire.  Maybe.

The Lucky Loser Hypothesis:  some evolutionary biologists have proposed that maybe we go pizza face because it prevents us from getting murdered.  The argument simplistically goes like this, if you look good, you're a threat to other males' harems and therefore you get killed.  On the other hand, if your face looks like the surface of the moon then you probably aren't a threat for their mate to cheat on with.  Or, so they think!  This argument receives anecdotal support by a good number of monkey species that have beta and omega males producing more offspring than alpha males.  Zits are the perfect cover to sneak a mate with or to survive until your fully grown.

You Eat Yourself Pimpley Hypothesis: this argument says that it isn't an adaptation at all, it's a side effect of the fact that our diet has changed so drastically, so recently in our evolutionary history.  What are the two most recent additions to our diet?  Agriculture (by which I really mean grains) and dairy.  Both of which have been linked to increased levels of acne.  The study in the linked article talks about tribal Canadians and Japanese that broke out after being introduced to dairy.  It also talks about aboriginal people from Paraguay and Papua New Guinea that ate hardly any complex carbs and likewise had no occurrences of acne.  Now, I should say diet and acne is a highly debated subject, but one I think we should listen to.


  1. I had a bit of experience with the dirt hypothesis while I was in Kenya. I washed my face every morning but by the time I got to school (a 45 min walk) I was covered in sweat and dirt that sat on my face all day until I got home to shower. And yet, my face was better than ever!

    I think not having access to scrubs and exfoliating face soaps that we love so much here actually helped! And I believe in sweating! I think it helps clean out the pores regardless of the dirt that's on the service.

    To tie in the diet debate, I didn't eat as much sugar. Since getting back I've seen a correlation between birthdays and other sugary occasions and breaking out. So, I think, diet could also be a factor even for skinny people who break out if they eat a lot of empty sugar.

    Which all-together makes it seem like our evolution and "advancements" in skin-care, air conditioning, laziness, and food have encouraged acne. Maybe our skin-care products are still trying to evolve to take the place of sweating and a good diet...

  2. Alright! In the field testing!!! That's great feedback, Erin!

  3. Supposedly the peacocks tail had more to do with indicating the presence of diarrhea (poor health) to a potential mate thus delaying mating until the nutritional problem is solved. My teen son breaks out every time he eats sugar candy or especially soda. Skin conditions (and hair and other appearances) are strong indicators of nutrition, deficiency and health. Healthy offspring occur during times of Nutritional abundance. Most hair skin and nail problems are affiliated with deficiency (vitamins d and b12) or poor/poisoned food supply (IE. High fructose corn syrup). Thus acne is just another useful health indicator.

  4. I think it's to protect the skin from bacteria and diseases that could be life threatening and in the process inhibit reproductive success. Acne might also deter the attractive mates by indicating that the individual has some sort of disease that could a
    also harm them. But I think it's to protect the individual, specifically. I don't think it's to make the individual "ugly" to protect them from aggressive individuals but rather it protects them from diseases. Plus acne goes away after some time usually around the reproductive ages...where sexual activity is at it's highest. By the time people reach maturity, acne seems to be less of an issue and bares little to no problems in terms of establishing intimate relationships or pursuing sexual activity.

  5. I believe it's about blood. if you are outside working out you will move blood through out your body right? I did this test where I purposely got high because everyone knows your blood is more thin when you are high. The test works every time. when's the last time you've seen a gym guy break out. I don't suggest you do drugs

  6. Acne is the result of sebum clogging pores. The subum/oil is created in order to absorb vitamin D from the sun when we go outside. If you get enough sun the acne goes away. If you don't, your skin will continue to over produce oil to absorb vitamin d which is actually a hormone that increases testosterone and burns visceral fat as well. Fish oil and zinc also protect against acne. Oysters have high concentrations of both. We first evolved on the south cape of Africa where thousands of fossilized piles of shellfish lay right where our ancestors left them. We walked along the shore in the sun eating seafood. Our feet are soft because they were meant for sand. Our skin wrinkles when wet to gain a grip on slippery surfaces. There is a lot more I know, but this comment is getting long.

    1. Thought provoking. Any citation I can check out?


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