Last Updated on January 6th, 2020
Tens of millions of teenagers have been admonished not to indulge in masturbation because sexual self-gratification will cause their faces to break out. Since 80% of teenagers get acne and 80% of teenagers masturbate, there might be a ring of truth to this age-old advice. But is there really any relationship at all between masturbation or any other sexual activity and acne?
One of the most influential health experts in American history was John Harvey Kellogg, who was born in 1852 and died in 1943. A missionary, a physician, and the co-inventor of corn flakes breakfast cereal (with his brother William Keith Kellogg, found of the Kellogg’s cereal company), Dr. Kellogg was an early advocate of vegetarianism, enemas, and sexual abstinence as the three keys of good health.
Kellogg was trained in medicine at the Michigan State Normal School (now Eastern Michigan State University) and New York University and the famous Bellevue Hospital, now best known as a psychiatric facility. He was an advocate of strict separation of the races and isolation of immigrants who were not from northern Europe, although he adopted several Black children. He was a devout Seventh Day Adventist and a skilled surgeon, often offering his services to the public for free, especially circumcisions to prevent male masturbation.
Dr. Kellogg was also a true believer in sexual abstinence, writing his anti-masturbation book Plain Facts on his honeymoon. Kellogg tried to convince millions of Americans that “neither the plague, nor war, nor small-pox, nor similar diseases, have produced results so disastrous to humanity as the pernicious habit of “onanism” (masturbation, referring to the Biblical story of Onan who withdrew during sexual intercourse rather than impregnate his sister’s widow). He also taught that female masturbation caused diseases of the uterus.
Kellogg also had innovative ideas on how to prevent masturbation. He advocated clitorectomy, the removal of the clitoris, the same act as female circumcision practiced in Africa, although under sterile surgical conditions. After performing circumcisions, he would stretch the remaining foreskin around the boy’s penis so that only a tiny opening remained for urination, and he also patented genital cages for little girls. He had some patients confined to cages so they could not masturbate, and he also advocated the application of pure carbolic acid to the clitoris to discourage women who wanted to indulge in solo sex. Dr. Kellogg recommended “cool” enemas for what he considered to be nymphomania, to discourage sexual activity, especially in women. And his cereal formulas were designed for cleaning out the colon so that there would less to remind people of what was “down there.”
Fortunately for us in the twenty-first century, about all that remains of Dr. Kellogg’s teaching is the idea that somehow masturbation causes acne. The idea is the punch line for many jokes, although some parents and teens still take it seriously. No one in the medical establishment accepts the relationship between masturbation and acne as causal, but that doesn’t mean there is no relationship at all.
One of several triggers of acne is increased testosterone levels. Testosterone, the hormone most associated with male sexual characteristics, occurs in relatively large amounts in men’s bodies and relatively small amounts in women’s bodies. Increases in testosterone levels in both males and females cause increased production of sebum in the skin. The increase in skin oil production does not cause acne unless there is also hyperkeratinization (overgrowth) of skin cells in the lining of pores that traps the oil inside, but when both events occur, blemishes are more prominent. And testosterone has to be transformed into the related chemical 5-alpha-dihydrotestosterone before it activates sebum production.
In men, there is no doubt that visual sexual signals (such as viewing erotic photos or DVDs while masturbating) raises testosterone levels. Researchers at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas (a somehow appropriate research institution for this study) accompanied male strip club patrons to midnight sex shows to measure changes in their testosterone levels. The researcher’s own testosterone levels rose 14% during the sex show. The test subjects’ testosterone levels rose 72%. The study volunteers did not actually engage in masturbation during the study (or at least this was not mentioned in the paper) but these findings suggest that masturbation with imagery would increase testosterone levels in men. The study found that older and younger men alike had higher testosterone levels at the club.
In women, sexual arousal of any kind, including masturbation, increases bloodstream levels of testosterone and also prolactin and luteinizing hormone. Researchers at the University Clinic Essen in Germany determined this by asking women to watch a pornographic film and then masturbate to organsm. Ironically, these changes in hormone levels after sexual arousal make women slightly less fertile.
There is really a scientific evidence that masturbation can cause increased testosterone levels, and that increased testosterone levels are one factor in acne breakouts. The fact that one has acne, however, neither proves nor disproves the proposition that they indulge in masturbation.
In the rare, unfortunate individuals who masturbate so compulsively that they do not attend to basic hygiene, acne may occur—but it would hardly be the most significant health or life issue. In individuals who masturbate several times daily, there may be temporary increases in testosterone levels that may lead to temporary increases in 5-alpha-dihydrotestosterone levels that lead to increased oil production—but this probably is not enough to cause acne. If skin oil production goes up for a few hours, the excess oil is not necessarily trapped in pores. Shiny skin would seem to be a more likely indicator of sexual self-gratification than acne—but there are also multiple factors that cause shiny skin.
If you have acne, stopping masturbation won’t cure it. If you masturbate, your auto-erotic activities won’t cause masturbation. Masturbation and acne are only tenuously related, and your decisions about either masturbation or acne don’t have to be related to each other.