Acne won't extend your life, but might delay signs of ageing

4 October 2016

acne

'Spotty teenagers may have the last laugh over their peers with perfect skin after research found that those who suffer from acne are likely to live longer,' says The Telegraph online.

But the report misunderstands the research findings, which were related to cell ageing, not length of life.

The researchers state dermatologists have for many years noticed that people who have had acne show signs of ageing later than those who have never had the skin condition.

Signs of ageing are cited as the appearance of wrinkles and thinning of the skin. This new study looked at why that might be. 

The researchers found, by analysing white blood cells, that women who said they'd had acne had longer telomeres, the 'caps' at the end of chromosomes.

Cells replicate repeatedly, and telomeres are thought to protect them from deterioration as a result of this process. The Telegraph likened these caps to the hard tips on shoelaces that prevent fraying.

While this study doesn't show that telomere length is a cause of acne, it shows there may be a link between the two.

However, the study didn't look at whether the women with longer telomeres had fewer signs of skin ageing, or whether they lived longer. The suggestion that acne could affect how long you live is therefore unfounded.

Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from King's College London and New Jersey Medical School, and was funded by the Wellcome Trust, the Medical Research Council, the European Union and the National Institute for Health Research. 

The study was published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Investigative Dermatology.

Mail Online, ITV News, The Daily Telegraph and BBC newsbeat got the thrust of the story right: that acne is linked to longer telomeres, which may explain why some people who've had acne have younger-looking skin as they get older.

Only The Telegraph online suggested acne could help you live longer. This idea is not mentioned in the study or in the press release from the authors.

What kind of research was this?

This study used two methods: a cohort study and a case control study

Researchers took a group of women, identified those who reported having acne at some point in their lives, and compared the length of telomeres taken from their white blood cells with telomeres from women who said they'd never had acne.

They also carried out a case control study comparing gene expression in women who'd had acne with women the same age who had not reported having ever had the skin condition.

This type of research can start to identify links between factors such as telomere length and acne, but can't prove that one causes the other.

What did the research involve?

Researchers recruited 1,205 volunteers from TwinsUK, a registry of 12,000 twins used to study the genetic and environmental causes of age-related traits and diseases. The registry involves mainly women, so men were excluded from the study.

Researchers who are interested in the genetic basis of conditions often work with twins, as it helps identify which factors are down to environment and which are down to a shared genetic profile.

Researchers asked the participants if they had ever had acne. Participants provided samples of white blood cells, which were then analysed for telomere length.

After adjusting their figures for age, twin relationships, weight and height, the researchers compared average telomere length between the two groups.

Separately from the telomere study, researchers age-matched 195 twins without acne to 39 twins with acne, took skin biopsies, and used their whole genome data to compare gene expression – whether a gene is 'switched on' or not – between the groups.

What were the basic results?

Women who'd had acne had, on average, longer telomeres (mean 7.17 +/- 0.64 kilobases [kb]) than women who'd not had acne (mean 6.92+/- 0.02kb) after the figures had been adjusted for the women's age, weight and height.

Telomere lengths are calculated in kilobases, referring to the number of six base-pair sequences of DNA found in telomeres.

Only one gene (ZNF420) was more commonly expressed in women without acne than women who'd had acne.

How did the researchers interpret the results?

The researchers say longer telomeres in women who've had acne suggest that 'delayed skin ageing may be due to reduced senescence' – in other words, skin ageing may be delayed because the longer telomeres in the cells protect them from deterioration.

They go on to say the reduced expression of the regulatory gene ZNF420 in people with acne suggests these people may produce more of a particular protein linked to that gene.

Conclusion

Acne can be very distressing for teenagers and those who get it later in life. It may be some comfort to know that people with acne tend to show fewer signs of skin ageing, such as wrinkles and thin skin, when they get older.

The link between telomere length and acne is interesting for researchers, but doesn't mean that much for the rest of us.

It may be part of the explanation for slower skin ageing in people who've had acne. And it adds weight to the theory that there's a genetic component to acne.

But the study doesn't tell us whether people who'd had acne and had longer telomeres actually had younger-looking skin.

The article was published as a letter to the editor and is much shorter than most research articles, so does not give us a lot of information about how the study was carried out.

The study only included women, so we don't know if it would also apply to men. And it also relied on women saying they'd had acne, rather than on a medical diagnosis, so there may be some variation in whether women thought they'd had acne or not.

If you're concerned about acne, there are plenty of self-help methods you can try, or you can talk to a pharmacist for advice on over-the-counter treatments.

If it's making you very unhappy and these methods aren't working, talk to your GP.

Find out more about acne and how to treat it.

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