It might be cold comfort for those of you struggling with bad skin right now, but a new study has found that people with acne tend to have younger-looking skin as they grow older.
Comparing genetic information from women with and without acne, the study found that acne-prone women had significantly longer telomeres (or chromosome caps) than their clear-skinned counterparts, which means their cells were better protected from the deterioration that usually comes with age.
"For many years, dermatologists have identified that the skin of acne sufferers appears to age more slowly than in those who have not experienced any acne in their lifetime. Whilst this has been observed in clinical settings, the cause of this was previously unclear," said lead researcher Simone Ribero, a dermatologist at King's College London.
"Our findings suggest that the cause could be linked to the length of telomeres which appears to be different in acne sufferers and means their cells may be protected against ageing."
Telomeres are DNA-protecting structures at the ends of our chromosomes. Think of them like those little plastic caps that sit on the ends of your shoelaces to keep them from fraying.
Each time a cell divides, its telomeres get shorter, to the point where the cell can't replicate anymore.
A cell that can’t replicate anymore either dies or becomes senescent, which means it can no longer grow or function properly. This telomere shortening process has been associated with ageing, cancer, and a higher risk of death.
Those who produce higher levels of an enzyme called telomerase will experience slower cell death and senescence, because it helps rebuild the length of telomeres after cell division. That means they’ll show less outwardly visible signs of progressive cell death, such as wrinkles and thinning skin.
If that telomerase sounds like something we should be bottling and bathing in, don’t worry, scientists are working on it.
The problem with trying to bottle telomerase is that one of life’s big mysteries is why only certain cells produce the enzyme, and why certain people tend to produce more of it than others.
It’s been shown that things like smoking and obesity can rapidly accelerate the telomere shortening process, which is why smokers or those who are heavily overweight tend to look older than they actually are.
But what about people who look younger than they actually are?
As the UK National Health Services explains, for years, dermatologists have been noticing that people who have had acne show signs of ageing later than those who have never had the skin condition.
To figure out why this is, Ribero and her team measured the length of white blood cell telomeres in 1,205 twins - all female. A quarter of the twins reported having experienced acne in their lifetime.
They did the same in a separate study, where they age-matched 195 sets of twins without acne to 39 sets of twins with acne.
Telomeres are measured in kilobases, which means the number of six base-pair sequences of DNA found each one.
The team found that, on average, women who'd experienced acne before had noticeably longer telomeres (mean 7.17 kilobases) than women who’d never had acne (mean 6.92 kb) - after factors such as age, weight, and height were taken into account.
They also examined gene expression in skin biopsies from the twins to figure out if there were any specific gene pathways that could be linked to lower or higher acne risk.
They ended up only finding one gene pathway that was more commonly expressed in women without acne than women who'd had acne: ZNF420, which happens to be a pathway that regulates programmed cell death.
There are a couple of limitations here, the biggest being that the researchers have only been able to establish a link between shorter telomere length, people with acne, and slower ageing, but have yet to show any biological cause to explain why people prone to acne might be more likely to experience slower telomere shortening.
It could be that the ZNF420 pathway is less active in people with acne - and therefore the process of cell death is slowed down - but this has yet to be proven. The study also replied on self-reporting with regards to the severity of acne, and only focussed on women, so we have to take those factors into account too.
But for those having a tough time with their skin right now, it's nice to know that you might end up having the last laugh.
The results have been published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology.