Acne and sebaceous gland function

Clin Dermatol. 2004 Sep-Oct;22(5):360-6. doi: 10.1016/j.clindermatol.2004.03.004.


The embryologic development of the human sebaceous gland is closely related to the differentiation of the hair follicle and the epidermis. The number of sebaceous glands remains approximately the same throughout life, whereas their size tends to increase with age. The development and function of the sebaceous gland in the fetal and neonatal periods appear to be regulated by maternal androgens and by endogenous steroid synthesis, as well as by other morphogens. The most apparent function of the glands is to excrete sebum. A strong increase in sebum excretion occurs a few hours after birth; this peaks during the first week and slowly subsides thereafter. A new rise takes place at about age 9 years with adrenarche and continues up to age 17 years, when the adult level is reached. The sebaceous gland is an important formation site of active androgens. Androgens are well known for their effects on sebum excretion, whereas terminal sebocyte differentiation is assisted by peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor ligands. Estrogens, glucocorticoids, and prolactin also influence sebaceous gland function. In addition, stress-sensing cutaneous signals lead to the production and release of corticotrophin-releasing hormone from dermal nerves and sebocytes with subsequent dose-dependent regulation of sebaceous nonpolar lipids. Among other lipid fractions, sebaceous glands have been shown to synthesize considerable amounts of free fatty acids without exogenous influence. Sebaceous lipids are responsible for the three-dimensional skin surface lipid organization. Contributing to the integrity of the skin barrier. They also exhibit strong innate antimicrobial activity, transport antioxidants to the skin surface, and express proinflammatory and anti-inflammatory properties. Acne in childhood has been suggested to be strongly associated with the development of severe acne during adolescence. Increased sebum excretion is a major factor in the pathophysiology of acne vulgaris. Other sebaceous gland functions are also associated with the development of acne, including sebaceous proinflammatory lipids; different cytokines produced locally; periglandular peptides and neuropeptides, such as corticotrophin-releasing hormone, which is produced by sebocytes; and substance P, which is expressed in the nerve endings at the vicinity of healthy-looking glands of acne patients. Current data indicate that acne vulgaris may be a primary inflammatory disease. Future drugs developed to treat acne not only should reduce sebum production and Propionibacterium acnes populations, but also should be targeted to reduce proinflammatory lipids in sebum, down-regulate proinflammatory signals in the pilosebaceous unit, and inhibit leukotriene B(4)-induced accumulation of inflammatory cells. They should also influence peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor regulation. Isotretinoin is still the most active available drug for the treatment of severe acne.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acne Vulgaris / physiopathology*
  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Child
  • Cytokines / metabolism
  • Dermatologic Agents / therapeutic use
  • Humans
  • Inflammation Mediators / metabolism
  • Neuropeptides / metabolism
  • Sebaceous Glands / physiopathology*
  • Sebum / metabolism


  • Cytokines
  • Dermatologic Agents
  • Inflammation Mediators
  • Neuropeptides