This story was originally featured on Allure.com on April 3, 2017. It was updated on August 31, 2018 to reflect new findings.
Sometimes it feels like all we do is talk about acne — it's mental health side effects, weird treatments dermatologists swear by for making it disappear, inspirational people embracing it. But that makes sense considering so many people deal with acne. In the April 2017 issue of Allure, we reported that about 50 million Americans are diagnosed with acne every year. That’s more than the entire population of Australia or Canada. Seriously.
You know what's even more surprising? "The incidence of adult female acne is increasing every year," says Joshua Zeichner, an acne specialist and director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. (Case in point: Our former executive editor, Danielle Pergament, going on Accutane for the first time at 41.) "And no one really knows why. It's like having a complacent personality versus an argumentative one — histrionic skin fights back against bacteria we're all covered in and breaks out."
The fact that scientists don't know the exact cause of acne explains why there’s no real cure for a skin condition that so many of us have. (That 50 million number, by the way, includes anyone who’s seeking help for chronic acne, or who gets one pimple a month.)
But there is good news: an acne vaccination that would change the way we approach skin care forever is in the works. Imagine an entire generation that doesn’t know what it’s like to touch up concealer before meetings, pray that a new medication will finally clear up their skin, or wake up to scars from past breakouts?
Acne is caused, in part, by P. acnes bacteria that are with you your whole life.
Inside a lab at the University of California, San Diego, a group of scientists is working to eradicate acne for good. But developing a vaccine for acne has unique complications. "Acne is caused, in part, by P. acnes bacteria that are with you your whole life — and we couldn't create a vaccine for the bacteria because, in some ways, P. acnes are good for you," Eric C. Huang, the project’s lead researcher, told Allure last year at the start of the project.
P. Acnes is part of our skin's natural microbiome, Zeichner explains. Some strains of the bacteria promote acne-causing inflammation, but since it's not 100 percent to blame for your breakouts, "completely eliminating the bacteria will not likely fully treat acne and may interfere with our bodies healthy microbiome," Zeichner says.
So, instead of targeting the bacteria itself, this vaccine actually targets the inflammatory messenger that the bacteria produce. "We found an antibody to a toxic protein that P. acnes bacteria secrete on skin — the protein is associated with the inflammation that leads to acne." That means a vaccine could theoretically block the negative, acne-causing effects of P. acnes bacteria without killing the bacteria themselves.
In findings published this week in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology, Huang and his team finally released the results of their early studies of the vaccine, which so far has been tested in mice and in skin cells from patients with acne. "Mice are used to test the efficacy of preventive acne vaccines," Huang told Allure this week. He and his team injected mice with an antigen to target P. acnes and found that it did, in fact, produce antibodies to the acne-causing bacteria.
Until positive results are seen in humans, the fate of this treatment is still unknown.
The skin cells from patients with acne are used to "test the effectiveness of therapeutic acne vaccines, which can cure patients who already have acne," Huang explains. They found that their vaccine markedly reduced inflammation in the human skin samples.
While the results are promising, we're still a ways away from seeing an acne vaccine on the market. "Until positive results are seen in humans, the fate of this treatment is still unknown," Zeichner explains. "I am hopeful that this therapy is successful as it can help millions suffering from acne here in the United States and across the world."
Next up, the researchers are currently preparing for a clinical trial in humans. "We are actively seeking a company who can work with us to conduct a clinical trial immediately," Huang says.
A version of this article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of Allure.
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