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The Straight Dope 

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My skin has usually been pretty clear, even through my adolescence. But now I'm 25, and recently I've been breaking out a lot. I also have been having a lot of sex for a couple of months straight. Is there some weird kind of hormone thing that's doing this to me? I thought sex was supposed to cure your pimples. --Marty Tyler, New York

What the hey, Jack, you're getting parallel on a regular basis and you're bitching about zits? Some of the cases I hear from are so desperate for love they wouldn't complain if they turned orange. Be that as it may, you're not the only one to wonder about the acne/lust connection. A couple related propositions you'll hear debated in locker rooms include: (1) having sex regularly makes your beard grow faster; and (2) the more "virile" you are, whatever that means, the faster your hair falls out--obviously a notion that appeals to balding relics such as myself.

In the broadest sense no one doubts there's a relationship between male sex hormones and the state of your skin and hair. Eunuchs, after all, don't go bald, don't grow beards, and don't get acne. But whether sexual exercise per se will put hair on your chest (or on your palms, for that matter) nobody really knows, several shelves' worth of research papers notwithstanding.

We don't even know if sex raises the level of sex hormones in your blood. A couple of attempts to answer the seemingly straightforward question, "Does masturbation increase blood testosterone levels?" (hey, it's all for science) have produced disparate results. The apparent problem: not enough participants in the studies to produce a statistically reliable sample. Next time I'd advise the researchers to visit a freshman male dorm.

Even if sex does increase hormone production, nobody's sure if that means it'll crater your face or chrome your dome. The best one recent survey of the field could do was: "We conclude that the relations between sex hormones and characters of hair and skin are very complicated and require further investigation." A committee will soon be formed. In the meantime, enjoy your lively sex life while it lasts. Soon you'll break up or get married, either way getting ample opportunity to do a baseline comparison.

FACTS ABOUT CATS

Regarding your column on the folly of "protecting" people with AIDS by putting them in germproof bubbles [May 22], I'm surprised that you would sacrifice so much accuracy for a nifty turn of phrase by stating that people get toxoplasmosis from "handling kittens."

In fact, modern medicine is hard-pressed to find any cases of direct transmission of Toxoplasma gondii from a cat to a human. While it is true that cats are the primary vector in the spread of toxo, it's contact with cat feces (or anything contaminated by cat feces) that matters. The typical cycle is: toxo-infected mouse eaten by barn cat; cat passes infectious spores to grain in silos; cows eat contaminated grain; humans handle cows' meat and become infected.

People with AIDS are at the most significant risk for contracting toxo from eating a hamburger or planting a garden. Petting a kitten is way down the list. --David Kay, Tree House Animal Foundation, Chicago

What are you talking about? Studies have found that the incidence of toxoplasmosis is much higher in households with cats than in those without. That the medium of infection is the cat's poop, not the cat, is immaterial. Pregnant women, who must also avoid toxo, are told to have somebody else change the litter box and to get the cat out of the house altogether if it's in the contagious stage. At a minimum, people with AIDS would be well-advised to do the same.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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