A New Way to Fight Acne? Harmless Viruses that Live on Your Skin

Teens rejoice! Researchers have identified a potential new treatment for acne

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It’s a rite of passage for adolescents, and a stubbornly challenging medical problem. Acne affects millions, but the best treatments for it — antibiotics that target the bacteria that cause zits — are losing potency because of increasing drug resistance.

Now scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles, suggest a potential new weapon against problem skin: harmless viruses that are already living in our pores. These viruses, known as phages, naturally kill the bacterium Propionibacterium acnes, which is the primary culprit of acne. By boosting the phages’ power, the researchers say acne could be brought under control.

Under normal circumstances, P. acnes lives happily in the pores of the skin, along with hair follicles and oil glands that produce sebum to keep the skin and hair from drying out. Acne erupts when the oil glands produce too much sebum, clogging the pore. Then bacteria build up, and the immune system decides to react against them, launching an attack that leads to inflammation and production of the pus-like substance that emerges as a pimple.

Puberty is associated with an explosion in the P. acnes population, with some teens harboring as much as 100 times more bacteria than adolescents without acne.

(MORE: The Good Bugs: How the Germs in Your Body Keep You Healthy)

Laura Marinelli, a postdoctoral researcher in dermatology at UCLA, and her colleagues discovered the P. acnes-killing viruses by analyzing deposits from pore strips collected from volunteers. Within each pore, the researchers found, were a number of microbial residents, including P. acnes and its neighbors, such as phages. These are viruses that cannot replicate on their own, but need to attach themselves to another cell in order to hijack its reproductive machinery and generate more copies of itself.

Previous studies had identified certain phages that were associated with P. acnes, but Marinelli’s group used DNA sequencing techniques to better understand the genetic blueprint of the microbial universe in the pores and found a family of 11 phages that were specifically designed to target and kill P. acnes. These phages attach themselves to P. acnes bacterial cells and inject their DNA into the bacteria, turning them into phage factories. Once enough phage progeny are generated, the bacterial cell is destroyed, bursting open to release the phages. Generally, some P. acnes are already dying off this way, but because they outnumber the phages, there remains a higher concentration of pimple-causing microbes in the skin.

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But, says Marinelli, “by potentially using phages, we can control bacteria in people with acne. It there is too much bacteria on the skin, we can bring their numbers down to healthy levels, so they wouldn’t be aggravating the immune system.”

Ideally, the phages would become part of a cream or topical treatment that acne-prone people would apply to the skin. Or, if researchers can isolate the proteins that the phages use to destroy the P. acnes bacteria, the cream could contain a concentrated form of those compounds.

The proper treatment of acne would still have to leave behind the right concentration of P. acnes, however. Marinelli says that because the bacteria also perform healthy functions, such as keeping the skin and body free of infection from other nasty microbes, any acne treatment shouldn’t eliminate P. acnes completely. But keeping its numbers in check could save millions of teens from the pain of pimply skin.

MORE: Rosacea: Caused by Mite Poop in Your Facial Pores?

Alice Park is a writer at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @aliceparkny. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.


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So, when is this kind of product going to be available to the public? Acne is something that plagued me for a long time, and then in a couple of months, it just disappeared. I would love it if the acne could have decided to make it's leave a little sooner. Maybe my kids can get this treatment from http://www.riiviva.com/index.php?/acne-scarring when they get a little older. 


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I still can't believe there is no cure for acne. 

Ruth Raynor
Ruth Raynor

I had perfect porcelain skin as a teenager, and then developed polycystic ovaries as an adult and had to deal with zits for the first time in my life. The biggest thing I found that helped was actually a change in diet- cutting back on sugar, and eliminating wheat and dairy has done way more for my skin than any cream or toner.


Niacinamide (Vit B3) face cleansing pads work better for keeping acne away. Skeptical about putting viruses on my body.

Brad Foley
Brad Foley

To be clear. It is not the case that these phages "are viruses that cannot replicate on their own, but need to attach themselves to another cell... to reproduce." Viruses are not cells. All viruses, including phages, inject themselves into cells, and hijack the machinery of that cell to replicate. This is the definition of a virus.

Belinda Jones
Belinda Jones

Why focus on teens? I know quite a few adults have problems with acne.