It is generally accepted that the onset of sebum secretion occurs before puberty in boys and girls as a result of increasing androgen output during the adrenarche. Propionibacteria are part of the commensal skin flora and, in adults, are found in highest numbers in sebum-rich areas of skin such as the face and upper trunk. Previous studies investigating the association between sebum output and propionibacterial population densities have been cross-sectional and have been carried out mainly in adults.
The purpose of this study was to examine the association between the onset of sebum secretion and expansion of the propionibacterial flora in a population of early adolescent children aged between 5.5 and 12 years, and to evaluate the temporal relation between the two factors longitudinally. In addition, the study aimed to evaluate the change with age in sebaceous gland activity and propionibacterial colonization on the skin and in the nares between children who developed acne and those who did not.
Biannual examinations of volunteers included age, pubertal (Tanner) stage, weight and height, lesion counting on the face, propionibacterial colonization on the skin surface and in the nares and sebum secretion. A longitudinal analysis based on all observations of each subject throughout the study was applied to examine the change of sebaceous gland activity and propionibacterial colonization with age and pubertal stage. A generalized estimating equation was used with a 0.05 level of significance.
The commencement of sebum production was asynchronous, with only a small number of follicles initially starting to secrete sebum onto the skin surface. The number of secreting follicles and the area of sebum increased with age and pubertal stage (P < 0.0001, P < 0.05, respectively). Numbers of propionibacteria on the skin tended to increase after the age of 9 years, but not significantly so. In contrast, numbers of propionibacteria in the nares increased significantly with age (P < 0.0001) but not with pubertal maturation. Children who developed acne had higher sebum output and propionibacterial densities with increasing age than children who did not develop acne. This effect was significant for the increase of total sebum area with age in pubertal children (P = 0.0023), the increase in number of secreting follicles with age (P = 0.020) in prepubertal children, and the increase in propionibacteria densities in the nares with age (P = 0.0005) in pubertal children. Sebaceous gland activity and propionibacterial numbers on the skin surface remained unchanged with increasing age in children who did not develop acne. Propionibacterial population densities in the nares increased with age regardless of the development of acne.
Onset of sebum secretion and consequently expansion of the propionibacterial skin flora occur earlier in children who develop acne than in children of the same age and pubertal status who do not develop acne. These observations suggest that postponing the onset of sebum production or the expansion of the propionibacterial skin flora until after puberty may represent ways of preventing the disease or minimizing its severity. Determinants of propionibacterial colonization on the skin and in the nares may be different.