Teen girls with acne get better grades and earn higher salaries as adults

Even acne has a silver lining.
Even acne has a silver lining.
Image: AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
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It’s hard to think of many upsides to having acne. (Good if you like … surprises? The color red? Doing science experiments on your skin to make zits go away?) But experiencing breakouts as a teenager may have its advantages in the long term.

According to a new study published in the Journal of Human Capital, American teenagers who said they dealt with acne—whether occasionally, often, or everyday—ultimately had higher grades in high school and were 3.8 percentage points more likely to complete their bachelor’s degrees.

The evidence of a connection between acne and better academic results was strongest for white people, and for women. And for both white and non-white women, the trials and tribulations of adolescent acne came with a literal payoff: Those who’d battled with breakouts in their younger years earned more money down the line.

Hugo Mialon, an associate professor of economics at Emory University, and Erik Nesson, an associate professor of economics at Ball State University, arrived at their findings using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, run by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The study began in 1994-1995 with a sample of 90,000 students in grades 7 through 12, following up periodically with about 15,000 of the students all the way through 2007-2008.

The researchers have a poignant theory as to why pimple-prone teens (about 50% of the students in the initial survey) do better in school. Students who had acne were also more likely to feel less attractive and more socially isolated, according to the questions in the initial survey—a finding that’s in keeping with a substantial body of research showing that young people with acne have a higher risk of depression and often deal with low self-esteem. The researchers hypothesize that teens’ feelings of social exclusion may have prompted them to prioritize hitting the books over spending time with others, boosting their grades in the process.

That’s not to say that teens with zits are spending all their time doing calculus alone in their rooms. Mialon and Nesson also found that while adolescents with skin problems were less likely to play sports, they were more likely to participate in extracurricular activities that had nothing to do with eye-hand coordination or one’s willingness to hurl oneself at a fast-moving ball. Both inside and outside the classroom, the experience of acne seems to encourage young people to put an emphasis on intellectual pursuits.

In general, the link between acne and better educational outcomes was stronger for women than for men, and the association between acne and higher earnings applied exclusively to women. The researchers say the gender pattern is in keeping with previous research showing that acne has a bigger psychological impact on women. Perhaps that’s because women’s social value continues to lie in their perceived level of physical attractiveness. In a culture that encourages women to locate their self-worth in their ability to meet a narrow set of beauty standards, including clear skin, it makes sense that teen girls who struggle with zits might decide to focus on excelling in a different arena.

It’s also worth noting that the relationship between higher earnings and teenage acne was strongest for people who had experienced occasional zits, as opposed to severe skin problems. The researchers speculate that people who deal with major breakouts may withdraw to a greater degree as teenagers. That may ultimately limit their earnings prospects, since workers with better social skills tend to make more money.

The study establishes correlation, not causation, and the researchers note that interpretation of their findings depends in part on the causes of acne. While more research is needed on that front, their findings suggest that teenage acne can be linked to factors like age and race, but not to students’ socioeconomic status or their parents’ level of education. That offers support for the idea that acne itself may drive students to study hard, as opposed to the possibility that pimples are just a symptom of an underlying family background that makes people more likely to achieve academic success.

The researchers hope their findings will bring some comfort to teenagers who are unhappy with the state of their skin, offering them hope for a future that can be hard to envision when you’re surrounded by peers who place a high premium on flawless selfies. “While acne in adolescence is likely to subside,” they write, “the benefits of higher educational attainment associated with having had acne may persist.”