Science of Love, Sex, and Babies

Why do teens get zits?

Posted in news by jenapincott on February 24, 2009

acne If there’s any proof that youth is overrated, it’s zits — red oozing pustules of them, whiteheads and blackheads, all over the face and neck, from ages twelve up to twenty.

Acne vulgaris came up during my interview about BLONDES on Michio Kaku’s show, Science Fantastic. Does acne play a role in sexual selection? My hunch is that it does, and today I found some support while skimming the annals of Medical Hypotheses.

The evolutionary theory behind acne, according to the article by Dale Bloom, is that it plays a role in mate selection. Fact is, pimples are as repulsive as they are conspicuous. They suggest disease and trigger a “disgust” reflex. At the expense off a teen’s self-esteem, they signal “stay away from me sexually.” Those big red spots are stop signs.

The reason ? To delay pregnancy. Think about it: Pubescent people don’t make the best parents. Women who recently got their first period have bodies and brains unprepared for pregnancy and childbirth. Even in ancestral times, pregnancy put very young women at an extreme disadvantage, compromising their health and that of their babies. With the baby diverting precious gluteofemoral fat, adolescent mothers may inadvertently arrest their own physical and mental development. And it goes without saying that teen boys are unfit fathers — in fact, the prefrontal cortex doesn’t even fully develop until a guy’s early twenties. Case in point is Alfie, the tiny, squeaky, grim-looking Gameboy-playing 13-year-old British boy who became a dad earlier this month. (Curiously, Alfie appears too young to have pimples yet, and his girlfriend’s face is as smooth as porcelain.)

Are pimples Nature’s way of steering away potential mates until a young person has reached true reproductive maturity? Bloom thinks so, calling them a “high-order psychoneuroimmune interaction,” the body protecting itself by becoming temporarily unattractive when it is most vulnerable. It’s an interesting idea. I, for one, had so many pimples in junior high that I wasn’t at risk for even a kiss. So do teen pregnancy rates coincide with Stridex sales? Do flawless girls get knocked up more often than pimply ones? If so, perhaps dermatologists should start prescribing birth control.

6 Responses

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  1. Huxely said, on February 27, 2009 at 12:25 am

    This is highly doubtful. It is clear that evolution is very precise in defining child bearing age across lots of different species. And it doesn’t do it with pimples, it does it by holding back sexual maturity until the right moment. It is clear that a sexual maturity of 12-15 was selected for, because thats when most girls can begin to have babies. If there was significant evolutionary pressure pushing for this particular age, which there obviously was according to the resulting age of sexual maturity, why would a gene for pimples push for an age 5 years down the road?

    And your argument that the “good” child bearing years are in your 20’s is ludicrous from an evolutionary standpoint. A female can safely give birth before 16 in most cases. For millions of years of primate evolution that is our history, an individual would be lucky to live past 25, so if she wanted to be a successful reproducer, she better start in her teens.

    • jenapincott said, on February 27, 2009 at 2:06 am

      It’s interesting to speculate about. In response, I’d say that having a first period doesn’t necessarily mean a woman has reached full sexual maturity. In the first year or two, a girl’s menstrual cycle is inconsistent — she probably doesn’t ovulate every month. Many young women have periods that “skip” — they’ll get it one month and then get it again several months later — and it takes a couple years before their cycles normalize. The fact that a teenage girl experiences a sub-fertile phase suggests that sexual maturity is gradual and it’s advantageous not to have children right away. If acne further discourages pregnancy until she reaches full maturity — which in an ancestral environment could well have been later in her teens — then it’s to her advantage….Again, this is all speculation, but fun to think about.

  2. Amy said, on March 17, 2009 at 10:01 pm

    So that’s why I can’t get a date… My acne is pretty severe right now, and I am 18 years old. I live in a dorm and alot of the time I don’t even want to leave my room because of all the prep it takes, and most of the time it really doesn’t hide it well. Severe acne runs in my family. My father had it, and his grandfather (on his mother’s side) had it. I’m seeing a dermatologist that I have been seeing for at least 2 years now. I was on accutane, then my skin cleared up, but now I have to go back on it. Let me tell you, the process is not simple. The government is involved because the medicine causes severe birth defects. So I am on birth control as well. All just to be pretty. I sometimes wonder if it is worth it, then I see all the times I’ve used my acne as an excuse, and yea I think it is worth it.

    I read an interesting book called The Body Project by Joan Jacobs Brumberg. It’s really good and it talks about how a girl’s body is like a project and she is constantly modifiying it. It went into how girls from the past viewed their body, and why the view has changed. It even said that along time ago, it was thought that acne was caused by masterbation. I just that that was an interesting, but false, concept.

  3. Totally Adult said, on June 19, 2009 at 2:02 am

    You guys are awesome🙂 keep up the good work.

  4. Beatrice said, on October 7, 2010 at 8:14 pm

    A really interesting article. Huxley your argument doesn’t really explain the fact sexual maturity used to be a lot later for most of our recorded history. For example in 18th century England it was around 16-18. It’s only with the enormous nutritional leap forward we’ve made in the last few hundred years that the age of sexual maturity has fallen. Recent studies suggest we may now be inadvertently speeding up that process (at least in girls) by filling our environment with estrogen mimicking hormones and damaging male fertility.

    There is also widespread evidence that teenage pregnancies cause more complications both during term and at actual birth. Especially if the mother is poorly nourished, as is still a significant problem in many poorer countries. If that’s the case genes would select the other way surely? You can’t pass them on if you or your baby dies.

  5. WomanNYC said, on February 24, 2011 at 12:55 am

    I have been using the Dr Max Powers Scar Serum as a face treatment since I was 33, I am now 41 with the skin of a 25 year old. No wrinkles, no acne, and am told I don’t look my age. Some of this is good genes, but I attribute much of it to my daily routine with the Dr Max Powers Scar Serum. Anti-wrinkle, anti blemish. My pores are barely visible.


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