Figuring out fats in zits

Published August 08 2016

Researchers analyzed some of the fat molecules in acne. AMERICAN ACADEMY OF DERMATOLOGY

One of the many insults of adolescence is pimple-speckled skin. Sebum, an oily skin secretion, plays a major role in causing zits. But “the knowledge of what exactly in sebum is responsible for the occurrence of acne is rather limited,” says Emanuela Camera at the San Gallicano Dermatologic Institute in Italy.

In a paper recently published in the Journal of Lipid Research, Camera and colleagues describe their analysis of the lipids in sebum and report a clue as to how sebum composition might correlate with the severity of acne.

The lipids in sebum “are highly complex and unique,” notes Camera. The lipids in human sebum are so diverse that some aren’t found in other oily substances in the body or even in other species. The complexity of sebum lipids make them hard to analyze. Researchers are unsure of what they are and how they contribute to skin disorders, such as acne.

For their study, Camera and colleagues, with the help of dermatologists, recruited 61 teenagers. They grouped adolescents, who were almost evenly split between male and female, into those who had acne and those who didn’t. The acne group was further subdivided into mild, moderate and severe groups. They asked all the teenagers to stick a special tape onto their foreheads to absorb sebum.

Camera and colleagues then took those tapes and analyzed them by mass spectrometry to see which lipids collected on them. To avoid going on a fishing expedition, the investigators focused on the neutral lipids in sebum. Their data suggested that diacylglycerols were the predominant species among the lipids in acne sebum. There also were fatty acyls, sterols and prenols. Notably, the investigators discovered that higher amounts of diacylglycerols correlated with the more acute cases of acne.

Given that more severe forms of acne can be disfiguring, it’s important to understand what causes the skin disorder. Acne can look different from person to person, such as in “white and black heads, papules, pustules, or as a miscellany of them,” says Camera, adding that the different ways acne can manifest itself and its varying severity require “a personalized approach. Thus, biomarkers of acne and acne severity can be instrumental in the definition of acne pathogenic mechanisms and indicate novel drug targets.”

Rajendrani Mukhopadhyay Rajendrani Mukhopadhyay is the chief science correspondent for the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. Follow her on Twitter.