Elevated DHEA and Acne

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Elevated DHEA levels will lead to acne in some people. A few conditions will naturally elevate levels, but many people take supplements to purposefully increase DHEA in the body, sometimes in an attempt to spur muscle growth. The mechanisms by which DHEA works in the body are not fully understood, but many of its effects have been identified. Research into this natural hormone and its possible use to treat a host of conditions is ongoing.


DHEA stands for dehydroepiandrosterone. This hormone is secreted by the adrenal glands and is a precursor to both male and female sex hormones, or androgens as well as estrogens, according to the Mayo Clinic. It is one of more than 150 hormones made by the adrenals, but is the most abundant hormone these glands make. After it’s made, it goes into a person’s bloodstream. It travels throughout the body, going into cells, where it is converted into androgens and estrogens.


A person may have high levels of DHEA due to Cushing's syndrome, a condition of the adrenal system. Women with polycystic ovary syndrome also may have high DHEA levels. Some people boost their DHEA levels with supplements, which are available over-the-counter.


A number of studies have established a link between increased DHEA levels and acne, including one published in the July 2009 Journal of Sexual Medicine. The group of study participants who took DHEA in an attempt to boost libido experienced androgenic effects of acne as well as increased hair growth, noted study author M. Panjari. Acne often begins with the up-regulation of adrenal synthesis of DHEA, which can convert to testosterone in the body, notes C.C. Zouboulis in his article, "Acne Vulgaris: The Role of Hormones," which appeared in the February 2010 edition of the German dermatological publication Der Hautarzt. Testosterone leads to increased sebaceous gland production, or higher levels of the skin’s natural oil. Zouboulis notes that anti-androgen skin treatment targets the sebaceous glands, causing sebostasis, or reduced oil production.


Men's bodies are believed to make 10 to 15 mg of DHEA daily. Women make about 10 to 20 percent less. While the physiological role of DHEA has been studied for decades, it still eludes final clarification, aside from the knowledge that the adrenals secrete it and it converts into male and female hormones. While production of many hormones, including estrogen, progesterone and cortisol, is regulated in the body by a "feedback loop," which means the body automatically makes less when a certain hormone level gets too high or more when hormone levels are too low, DHEA appears to be an exception to this rule. That means DHEA supplements are unlikely to stop your body's own production of DHEA, according to nationally known physician and medical writer Ray Sahelian, M.D., of Los Angeles, Calif., author of “Mind Boosters.”

Expert Insight

The Mayo Clinic advises that no studies on the long-term effects of supplementing with DHEA exist. Because DHEA can increase androgen and estrogen levels in the body, it theoretically might increase the risk of cancers that are hormone-sensitive, including breast and prostate. While it can be purchased over-the-counter, the clinic recommends avoiding regular use of DHEA unless you are being supervised by a licensed health professional.

History and Potential

Scientists have known about DHEA since 1934. In 1995, DHEA became widely available to the public without a prescription. The easy availability of DHEA supplements and the popular use of DHEA is prompting research by the scientific community. Scientists are examining potential uses of this once-neglected natural hormone. The National Institutes of Health report that there is sufficient evidence to support using DHEA to treat adrenal insufficiency, labor induction, depression and systemic lupus erythematosus. There is unclear evidence for conditions including Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular disease, infertility, psoriasis and skin aging. There is fair evidence against fibromyalgia, memory boosting and increasing muscular strength.