Study Highlights Effect of Acne in Adult Women on Quality of Life

Adult women with acne describe significant impacts on their lived experience of acne, including concerns about appearance, mental and emotional health consequences, and disruption to their personal and professional lives, results from a qualitative study demonstrated.

“Nearly 50% of women experience acne in their 20s, and 35% experience acne in their 30s,” the study’s corresponding author, John S. Barbieri, MD, MBA, formerly of the department of dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, told this news organization. “While several qualitative studies have examined acne in adolescence, the lived experience of adult female acne has not been explored in detail and prior studies have included relatively few patients. As a result, we conducted a series of semistructured interviews among adult women with acne to examine the lived experience of adult acne and its treatment.”

For the study, published online July 28, 2021, in JAMA Dermatology, Barbieri and colleagues conducted voluntary, confidential phone interviews with 50 women aged between 18 and 40 years with moderate to severe acne who were recruited from the University of Pennsylvania Health System and from a private dermatology clinic in Cincinnati. They used free listing and open-ended, semistructured interviews to elicit opinions from the women on how acne affected their lives; their experience with acne treatments, dermatologists, and health care systems; as well as their views on treatment success.

The mean age of the participants was 28 years and 48% were white (10% were Black, 8% were Asian, 4% were more than one race, and the rest abstained from answering this question; 10% said they were Hispanic).

More than three-quarters (78%) reported prior treatment with topical retinoids, followed by spironolactone (70%), topical antibiotics (43%), combined oral contraceptives (43%), and isotretinoin (41%). During the free-listing part of interviews, where the women reported the first words that came to their mind when asked about success of treatment and adverse effects, the most important terms expressed related to treatment success were clear skin, no scarring, and no acne. The most important terms related to treatment adverse effects were dryness, redness, and burning.

In the semistructured interview portion of the study, the main themes expressed were acne-related concerns about appearance, including feeling less confident at work; mental and emotional health, including feelings of depression, anxiety, depression, and low self-worth during acne breakouts; and everyday life impact, including the notion that acne affected how other people perceived them.

The other main themes included successful treatment, with clear skin and having a manageable number of lesions being desirable outcomes; and interactions with health care, including varied experiences with dermatologists. The researchers observed that most participants did not think oral antibiotics were appropriate treatments for their acne, specifically because of limited long-term effectiveness.

“Many patients described frustration with finding a dermatologist with whom they were comfortable and with identifying effective treatments for their acne,” the authors wrote. “In contrast, those who thought their dermatologist listened to their concerns and individualized their treatment plan reported higher levels of satisfaction.”

In an interview, Barbieri, who is now with the department of dermatology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, said that he was surprised by how many patients expressed interest in nonantibiotic treatments for acne, “given that oral antibiotics are by far the most commonly prescribed systemic treatment for acne.”

Moreover, he added, “although I have experienced many patients being hesitant about isotretinoin, I was surprised by how strong patients’ concerns were about isotretinoin side effects. Unfortunately, there are many misconceptions about isotretinoin that limit use of this treatment that can be highly effective and safe for the appropriate patient.”

In an accompanying editorial, dermatologists Diane M. Thiboutot, MD and Andrea L. Zaenglein, MD, with Penn State University, Hershey, and Alison M. Layton, MB, ChB, with the Harrogate Foundation Trust, Harrogate, North Yorkshire, England, wrote that the findings from the study “resonate with those recently reported in several international studies that examine the impacts of acne, how patients assess treatment success, and what is important to measure from a patient and health care professional perspective in a clinical trial for acne.”

A large systematic review on the impact of acne on patients, conducted by the Acne Core Outcomes Research Network (ACORN), found that “appearance-related concerns and negative psychosocial effects were found to be a major impact of acne,” they noted. “Surprisingly, only 22 of the 473 studies identified in this review included qualitative data gathered from patient interviews. It is encouraging to see the concordance between the concerns voiced by the participants in the current study and those identified from the literature review, wherein a variety of methods were used to assess acne impacts.”

For his part, Barbieri said that the study findings “justify the importance of having a discussion with patients about their unique lived experience of acne and individualizing treatment to their specific needs. Patient reported outcome measures could be a useful adjunctive tool to capture these impacts on quality of life.”

This study was funded by grant from the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. Barbieri disclosed that he received partial salary support through a Pfizer Fellowship in Dermatology Patient Oriented Research grant to the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania. Thiboutot reported receiving consultant fees from Galderma and Novartis outside the submitted work.

Layton reported receiving unrestricted educational presentation, advisory board, and consultancy fees from Galderma Honoraria; unrestricted educational presentation and advisory board honoraria from Leo; advisory board honoraria from Novartis and Mylan; consultancy honoraria from Procter and Gamble and Meda; grants from Galderma; and consultancy and advisory board honoraria from Origimm outside the submitted work.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.