Zit Zapper: How (Good) Bacteria Could Be the Answer to Clear Skin

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Teenage skin problems

It’s one of the crueler realities of teendom — some kids are plagued with monster zits and problem skin, while others tend to sail through adolescence with nary a blemish.

Researchers may finally be able to explain why. Pimples, as skin experts have long known, are the result of infected and inflamed pores that are aggravated by bacteria. But not all bacteria residing in the skin are created equal, and some are more prone to causing breakouts than others.

In a study published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) explored the world of the skin pore to get a deeper understanding of which species make these niches home and how they’re affected by stress and the environment. Previous studies suggested that one particular species, Propionibacterium acnes, was largely responsible for the pimples that erupt during adolescence; when researchers took samples of zits and cultured the microbial residents, P. acnes proved to be the most numerous. In addition, experiments in animals also showed that introducing P. acnes to the skin could trigger an immune response that resembled a breakout.

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

But when Huiying Li in UCLA’s department of molecular and medical pharmacology and her team compared the bacteria grown from people with problem skin to those grown from clear-skinned individuals, they were disappointed. It turns out that almost everybody harbors populations of P. acnes, and that the bacterium comprises 90% of the microbes that live in the pores. “We started out thinking that something other than the species we previously cultured would show up in clear-skinned people, but we didn’t find that,” says Li. “There was no difference in bacteria between the participants with acne and healthy-skinned people.”

She suspected that there might be differences in the strains of P. acnes habiting the different skin types, and took advantage of recent advances in gene sequencing to map out all the genes of the P. acnes strains isolated from the participants. The analysis revealed two strains of the bacterium that were associated with breakouts and one strain that was more dominant among the clear-skinned individuals. “So we are really excited because potentially there is a good guy that protects the skin from getting acne,” says Li. “That means there could be a simple cream or lotion with the good strain added that can stop pimples from developing before they even start.”

(MORE: Study: Suicide Risk Rises in Patients With Severe Acne)

That would certainly be a welcome development for millions of teens, who often find only temporary relief from acne with current medications or skin treatments. Most of those, says Li, target and kill all P. acnes strains, including the ones that could be co-opted into thwarting breakouts. “Killing all of the strains doesn’t really help. But if you kill the bad ones and keep the good ones, you can hopefully restore the balance and keep skin in a healthy state.”

The results are only the latest that support work in the field of the microbiome, which investigates the hidden world of bacteria, viruses and other pathogens that live within us and play an important role in our health. Promising studies hint that the composition of bugs in our digestive system, for example, may dictate our tendency toward obesity, and that the bacteria in our gut and respiratory systems may influence the risk of allergies and asthma. “There is a lot of excitement about the microbiome,” says Li.

Populations of microbes can differ not only between people but also within a person. Learning to exploit and manipulate these invisible residents could open up new ways of treating chronic diseases — as well as acne.

23 comments
BigCountry1
BigCountry1

If you have suffered the devastating effects of having acne ridden skin, then you know what it is like to try product after product that are ineffective. It's frustrating, time consuming and just adds more stress to your life that is one of the causes of acne in the first place. But what product can you trust? Read Product Reviews

AMARANADNRAJAH
AMARANADNRAJAH

@ErinCNN winds are mild to moderate, can you please help.I want that only, now and forever.

Ivan
Ivan

Good bacteria read the bible 3 times a day...

JaniceMiller
JaniceMiller

In my early 20's I out of the blue I started breaking out and I tried alot of over the counter medication,face wash and such. then maybe three months ago(give or take) I started using dial anti bacterial soap and it has been the best yet,I am not having any breakouts and it is eliminating the dark spots. I've always thought that the soaps I was using was part of the reason for my outbreaks so I'd stopped using my bathing soaps on my face and I don't remember using any anti bacterial soaps in all the years of fighting acne. I'm glad I started using dial anti bacterial soap.

NeuromancerKhatri
NeuromancerKhatri

for mild to moderate symptoms of Acne vulgaris use Benzoyl peroxide cream 2.5%,clindamycin 1% cream or lotion,tretinoin 0.025% cream at night.if severe take azithromycin tablet once daily for three consecutive days for every week upto 2 months.consult dermatologist.

JD Mora
JD Mora

No idiots! Is not the same bacterium, is OTHER bacteria that counteract that one.

NeuromancerKhatri
NeuromancerKhatri

@Potemkin please go to Stockholm to get Nobel prize.if it was so easy so much research would not have been done .

Potemkin
Potemkin

The best treatment for acne is to stop acne before it happens, rather than treating the problem after breakouts appear.  You can eat yogurt which has Acidophilus, or better yet take Acidophilus supplements are sold in the vitamin aisle at any drugstore and grocery, and cost less than a prescription.  One Acidophilus vitamin capsule a day helps your body make its own Chlorophyll (yes, same as in a flower).  That chlorophyll helps keep your pores clean and healthy, and reduces all body odors.  Probiotics work for all ages and yogurt and supplements are inexpensive.

ShopGirl1597
ShopGirl1597

@TIME @TIMEHealthland Probiotics seem to be the new key to good health!

MendyHartsook
MendyHartsook

@NeuromancerKhatri

Not if you are in child-bearing years or benzoyl peroxide burns your skin.