Like learning to drive a car or sharing a first kiss, acne is a rite of passage for many American teenagers. While factors such as diet and lifestyle may explain some instances, the disease is primarily attributable to genes—a hereditary trait that often arises because of puberty-induced hormones. For most teens, acne is temporary and goes away as they get older. Still, pimpled adolescents, who are at a time in their lives when a heightened sense of self-awareness makes them highly preoccupied with how others perceive them, seldom come to terms with the fact that the condition is both common and short-lived. Acne can significantly undermine a teen’s self-image and is associated with feeling ugly and ostracized. It’s no wonder that Americans spend about $3 billion a year on acne treatments.
Why hasn’t science solved acne yet?
This psychological impact is serious and shouldn’t be brushed off as frivolous. But it does help explain the researchers’ findings. Self-esteem effects, they theorize, make teens who have acne more likely to prioritize studying over socializing than those who don’t, and that leads to their higher grades and better educational outcomes down the line. But the relationship between acne and athletics is the opposite: Teens with pimple problems are less likely to participate in sports teams —and more likely to participate in other types of school clubs—which could indicate, the authors write, “a possible shift from physical to intellectual pursuits.”
Specifically, the correlations were stronger for girls, especially those who identified as white or Asian. That matches past research showing that girls are more prone to developing a poor self-image because of their acne than are boys. And in a phone call, Nesson told me that the racial differences might be attributed to the fact that white and Asian teens generally have lighter complexions than, say, their African American peers, which makes their acne more visible.
That doesn’t mean ambitious high-school students should be clamoring for more pimples on their face: The study, of course, comes with lots of caveats. For one, the factors that influence academic motivation and achievement are incredibly complex. To state the obvious, plenty of people who don’t have pimples excel at school, and the reverse is true for kids with bad skin. For another, the self-esteem challenges faced by teens with acne could negate the potential academic benefits—social and emotional health, after all, is a very strong predictor of academic success.
Still, this study is a useful reminder that even seemingly mundane aspects of life for teens can play a role in their educational outcome. What’s especially valuable about the focus on acne is that, unlike many other components of appearance—for example, weight, fashion, or having braces—it generally occurs independent of class. Economic inequality tends to complicate research on the connection between just about all traits and students’ educational outcomes, yet acne is virtually income-blind. (To avoid complicating their findings, the researchers decided not to factor in high-schoolers’ use of acne treatments like Accutane, as access to such medications likely correlates with class.)
The data should still deliver a small but valuable nugget of good news for teenagers suffering from acne. The “silver lining,” Nesson says, “is that the acne is not only likely to go away by the time you reach early adulthood; it’s also likely to have some positive side effects that are going to last for much, much longer.”