It's nice to know that in these fraught and fractious times we can all come together to agree on one unequivocal truth: spots – from pimples to big angry whiteheads – ruin lives and don't do anyone a bit of good. At least, we could agree on that until a recent study said otherwise.
It turns out that having acne might in fact cause you to perform better at school and, consequently, earn more money in the job market. This is the headline of the findings by Erik Nesson and Hugo Mialon, who published a study in April called "Do Pimples Pay? Acne, Human Capital and the Labour Market" in the Journal of Human Capital. In a blog post, Mialon explains that they found having acne to be positively associated with students' grades and the completion of a college degree. They also found evidence to show that acne is especially associated with higher personal labour market earnings for women, although didn't specifically examine gender disparity so couldn't comment further on this and why it might be.
I spoke to Nesson about the findings. He admits that the results surprised them a little. Is the relationship causal, I wonder – can we actually say that people work harder because they have acne? "We think it is plausible that our results are causal," he says, "and we do a lot in the paper to provide evidence that our results are more than a correlation."
It's a huge spectrum, though, isn't it? Surely some people's spots are so bad that, rather than spending more time studying than socialising, they are simply too depressed to do anything productive? "Yes, we agree," Nesson says. "Our results look at the average of how education and earnings change. There are almost certainly students for whom acne had a deleterious effect on their education and wages, and also those for whom acne had a very large, positive effect."
One of the people whose school life was adversely affected by his acne is 31-year-old Bash Tayou, who lives in Palestine. "When I was in high school I was extremely self-conscious of the way I looked," he says, adding that if he hadn't had acne he would have been able to ask questions in class, work in groups and devote more time to reading and studying.
"I remember that I really liked drama class, but it was a love-hate relationship – I never had the guts to step up and act, because that would put me out there and make my ugly face appear to crowds," says Tayou. If he hadn't had acne, he says, he would have loved to act, "but unfortunately, at that time and age, acne was more dominant and powerful than my own will; it broke me and took control of me and possibly a big chunk of my life."
Sami Blackford, a 35-year-old writer, product formulator and the founder of skincare company Freyaluna, feels the opposite about her spots, now that she is able to see how they may have contributed to her success. At school she was shy and hated the idea of being "seen". She felt as though she was the only person with acne. "Being the centre of attention was my idea of hell," she says. She was dedicated to her studies. "I certainly didn’t feel confident enough in my appearance to go out socialising. I’m not saying I was a loner at school, but I didn’t go to the big parties, etc – which meant I had more time for my school work."
Blackford founded Freyaluna in 2014 specifically because of the issues she'd had with her skin. "In that regard," she says, stating the obvious, "I can certainly thank my acne for my business success."
Tayou, meanwhile, thinks that acne scuppered his aspirations to work in marketing. "After I graduated from college, my face broke out again, worse than ever," he says. "A career in marketing would have required me to be a people person, and there was no way in the seven hells I was going to do that, so again, I avoided it." Accutane cleared up his skin, but he had lost four years "doing nothing but basic jobs to get some pocket money". He doesn't like his current job as an educational administrator, but feels like it may be too late to change course.
Nesson explains that the researchers found severe acne to be related to "higher grades and lower measures of self-esteem and socialisation in the short run", but that, in the long-term, positive outcomes in the labour market (i.e. how likely someone is to earn more) correlate more strongly with occasional acne. "This is consistent with a mechanism where severe acne limits socialisation so much as to affect long-term outcomes that may depend both on studying and on sociability."
So, if you find yourself breaking out every now and again, why worry?
The findings, in other words, are a mixed bag: if you have acne you might be richer because you spent more time alone studying, but your spots could be so bad that you'd struggle to succeed in jobs that require you to engage with people face-to-face. Nesson hopes that the study brings some comfort to people with acne. For Blackford, who still gets spots in her mid-thirties, acne is her body's way of telling her that she needs to look after her health. "For this reason (and a few others)," she says, "I truly love my acne."