Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen
Additions/comments by Urologist Steven N. Gange, MD
Since the Internet offers more masturbation material than Hugh Hefner’s wildest fantasies, it’s ironic that search engine results link the practice to acne. Google offers over half a million results making this connection. While most sites dispute the link, more than a few pages connect acne outbreaks to “alone time.”
Masturbation gets the blame for everything from poor vision to poor socialization. The difference is that the link between pimples and self-pleasure is loosely based on science. And if there’s one thing the Internet offers in even greater quantity than adult content, it’s loosely supported science. What’s the truth?
Babies masturbate. Self stimulation, sexual or otherwise, is a common anxiety reliever for children (and for older people as well). For many, it’s a benign boredom reliever. Unfortunately, because masturbation is often accompanied by sweating, muscle spasms, or even the appearance of mild seizures, it is frequently mistaken for epilepsy.
Masturbation generally becomes more intentional and focused as girls and boys become teenagers. At a time when hormones are already provoking mood swings and anxiety, acts of private pleasure can bring a fair amount of shame. Even if teens weren’t raised in an environment where it is considered sinful, the jokes of peers or online misinformation can undo even the most enlightened parent’s efforts. Fortunately, studies suggest that teens today are more enlightened and comfortable with the subject.
Acne and masturbatory activities both increase in adolescence. Yet correlation isn’t causation. Hormonal levels rise during puberty––a time when outbreaks are usually at their worst. Sexual activity increases testosterone for men and progesterone for women. Yet masturbation only increases the level of these hormones for a few minutes. Afterward, the body resets. In fact, prolonged periods of complete abstinence can elevate testosterone levels––which could also cause breakouts.
In both adults and adolescents, acne has a host of causes. Glands beneath your skin produce an oily substance called sebum. When they are blocked, bacteria accumulates and breakouts often occur. This can be caused by everything from certain medications and cosmetics to hormonal changes. Genetics also plays a role as clear-skinned parents are more likely to have clear-skinned offspring.
Surprising skin treatment
Doctors have been discrediting the link between acne and masturbation for decades. For most people, acne can be treated with products that contain some combination of benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid. If those don’t help, a doctor might prescribe an antibiotic like clindamycin or erythromycin. Blocked pores from a skipped shower or a new prescription are often likely culprits. There is no link to self exploration and breakouts. Instead, it actually brings a host of benefits. As it turns out, you may not be masturbating enough.
Sexual activity reduces the level of cortisol––often called the “stress hormone.” This helps reduce inflammation which can be blamed not only for acne but wrinkles as well. Clinical and forensic sexologist Eric Marlow Garrison claims he can tell the clients who masturbate more frequently just by looking at their face. Those who do so four to nine times per week have better skin with fewer lines and blemishes. While all sexual activity reduces cortisol levels, new partners often create anxiety. So for many, solo activity is more beneficial. It can also promote better sleep and overall relaxation. Unfortunately a concurrent source of shame is the need during masturbation for “visual stimuli”––a fancy word for porn. This is one reason some advocate transforming the solitary ritual into a more focused meditation. Of course, while much of the world has been socially distancing, it may be more necessary than ever. You’re probably thinking about it right now. Don’t worry, we’ll wait. Just know that it won’t give you acne.
- Gratification disorder (“infantile masturbation”): a review.
- Masturbation, Sexuality, and Adaptation: Normalization in Adolescence.
- A Study of Masturbatory Knowledge and Attitudes and Related Factors Among Taiwan Adolescents.
- Endocrine response to masturbation-induced orgasm in healthy men following a 3-week sexual abstinence.
John Bankston is a published author of over 150 nonfiction books for children and young adults including biographies of Jonas Salk, Gerhard Domak, and Frederick Banting.
Steven N. Gange, MD
Founding Medical Partner
Dr. Gange is a board certified urologist and Director of Education at Summit Urology Group. Dr. Gange is a Founding Medical Partner and Medical Director of the Men's Health Channel at Doctorpedia.