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Could Your Acne Actually Be Melanoma?

By Megan Griffith

Reviewed for medical accuracy by Dr. Jaggi Rao,
MD, FRCPC Double board-certified dermatologist

Acne itself is a pretty innocent skin condition, but that doesn’t mean it’s entirely harmless. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, the way our society views acne can have serious negative effects on people’s psychological health1. Those with acne are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, and other serious mental health conditions. But what if your acne is not acne at all? What if your acne could actually develop into a completely different kind of health threat, such as melanoma?

Monitoring of your moles and other markings found on your skin is important to avoid risk of your health.

Acne, Hormones, and Skin Cancer

Most of us have battled pimples at some point in our lives. In fact, only about 15 percent of teenagers remain unaffected by zits2. There has thus been extensive research done on acne and its causes – suggestions of the reasons behind it vary between genetics, your diet, your daily habits, etc3. However, one predominantly cited reason for acne is your hormones4.

The hormones that are thought to affect your skin are generally insulin, estrogen, androgen, growth hormones, melanocortins, and adrenocorticotropic hormone5. Unfortunately, certain cancers are also thought to be related to hormones6. One of these is melanoma7. Indeed, scientists have suggested that if you have a certain kind of acne, that may very well be serving as a sign that you might be in danger of developing cancer, as well8.

The Connection Between Early, Severe Acne and Melanoma

This all sounds sinister, so let’s back it up with some scientific data. A Harvard experiment was devised to explore the connection between acne and melanoma. This was a long-term experiment, lasting from 1989 until 2009 and it studied the risk of more than 99,000 women getting eight types of the disease8. All test subjects had suffered from extreme acne during their youth. The experiment concluded that there was a much higher risk of women with a history of acne to acquire moles, as well as melanoma in later years.

The explanation they posited was that androgens may have a significant effect on telomeres. Telomeric proteins and their complex stability were found to be affected by androgen receptors. Longer telomeres were found to go into senescence at later stages and this stimulated the production of nevi.  Melanocytes would thus become more like to mutate into benign growths, such as moles, and ultimately, cancerous tumors.

The scientists thus determined that acne in the early stages of youth could signify larger amounts of androgen within an individual’s system. This could hence eventually lead to this kind of development, regardless of what other elements were affecting the tested subjects. A major significance of this research is that it could help doctors pinpoint persons in danger of developing melanoma at a later point in life.

What to Do If You Suspect Melanoma

What does this mean for you? If you find yourself getting a pimple that appears to be unusually stiff, it may actually not be an acne-related zit, but nodular melanoma7. The firmness of this kind of growths is based on the quick, descending development of nodular melanoma growths.

How can you detect whether or not your new pimple may be cancerous? Initially, it will appear as a sort of clear bubble which slightly increases over several weeks. Indeed, it will eventually harden and become quite firm. It will generally look different than the pus-filled pimples you are used to.

To be sure, it is more probable that nodular melanoma appears as a fresh, recent skin growth in the form of a zit or a mere change of color of an older bulge9. However, you may also get it from a mole, so this could manifest itself as an old mole that happens to grow quickly over a short period of time.

One thing that is important to note is that a melanoma-related mole will gradually change and develop, instead of growing and merely remain the same for a long period of time. You would find that a cancerous mole will usually keep growing bigger, instead of changing in a varied way10. That is why you should be paying attention to your body and ensure to examine your skin every few days. Always pay special attention to moles! Even if you are certain that a certain growth is not cancerous, you lose nothing from a brief check-up with your dermatologist.

What is more, even if you happen to pride yourself with wonderfully smooth and blemish-less skin, you might find that as you age, you develop certain bumps here and there. For that reason, you should make sure to become acquainted with the general signs of certain cancers such as melanoma. Additionally, in relation to the Harvard experiment – if you happen to have been a victim of persistent, severe acne during your teenage years, you should definitely get to know the risks and possible health hazards of skin conditions. If you are especially acne-prone, make sure that you always take great care of your skin and to protect yourself from excessive sunlight. Better to be safe than sorry!


  1. Acne can affect more than your skin. American Academy of Dermatology. Accessed 2019.
  2. White GM. Recent findings in the epidemiologic evidence, classification, and subtypes of acne vulgaris. J Am Acad Dermatol. 1998;39(2 Pt 3):S34-7.
  3. Thiboutot D, Layton AM, Berson D, Perez M, Kang S. Large-scale international study enhances understanding of an emerging acne population : adult females. 2014. doi:10.1111/jdv.12757
  4. Bhat et al. Update on etiopathogenesis and treatment of Acne. Indian J Dermatology, Venereol Leprol. 2017;83(3):298-306. doi:10.4103/0378-6323.199581
  5. Stevenson S, Thornton J. Effect of estrogens on skin aging and the potential role of SERMs. 2007;2(3):283-297.
  6. Wang K, Li F, Chen L, Lai Y, Zhang X, Li H. Change in risk of breast cancer after receiving hormone replacement therapy by considering effect-modifiers : a systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective studies. 2017;8(46):81109-81124.
  7. Liu Y, Sheikh MS. Melanoma: Molecular Pathogenesis and Therapeutic Management. Mol Cell Pharmacol. 2015;6(3):228.
  8. Wei Q, Wang L, Sc M, Eliassen AH. Teenage acne and cancer risk in U.S. women: A prospective cohort study. Cancer. 2016;121(10):1681-1687. doi:10.1002/cncr.29216.Teenage
  9. Ward WH, Farma JM E. Cutaneous Melanoma: Etiology and Therapy. Brisbane (AU): Codon Publications; 2017.
  10. Walter FM, Humphrys E, Tso S, Johnson M, Cohn S. Patient understanding of moles and skin cancer, and factors influencing presentation in primary care: a qualitative study. BMC Fam Pract. 2010;11:62. doi:10.1186/1471-2296-11-62
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