The secret to zapping irritating acne may have been on our faces all along. Scientists at UCLA and the University of Pittsburgh have discovered that a common, benign skin virus naturally preys on a type of bacterium that causes nasty zits to form. Now experts think it could lead to groundbreaking acne-fighting treatments, and should prove welcome news for pimple-plagued teens everywhere. A guide to the discovery, and what it means for your face:
How do zits form?
Acne forms when tiny hair follicles become clogged with oil and dead skin, says Michelle Castillo at CBS News. When pores get backed up, bacteria like Propionibacterium acnes can cause infections that inflame the skin and result in zits. It's estimated that 85 percent of all people will experience acne at some point in their lives.
Why is acne worse for teens?
During puberty, a teenager's hair follicle glands begin growing larger. To help lubricate the skin, these glands produce an oily substance called sebum, and bacteria like P. acnes live inside the fatty acids of the oil. That's why teens are so susceptible to breakouts and why as many as 40 percent of them end up suffering from acne or acne scarring.
What did researchers learn about battling zits?
The report, published in the journal mBio, examines a type of virus called a bacteriophage that lives harmlessly on our skin. These bacteriophages, or phages for short, seek out P. acnes bacteria and "inject their genetic material into [them], forcing them to make more and more new phages until they burst," says Daniel J. DeNoon at WebMD. Now skincare experts think tapping these predatory viruses, which leave other cells alone, could hold the key to stopping zits dead in their tracks.
How would phages be more effective than current treatments?
Current acne treatment is based on various factors, including cleaning out the pores to remove sebum, using antibiotics to kill bacteria, reducing swelling with anti-inflammatory medicine, or using hormone treatment therapy for especially bad acne. These approaches all have their limitations: Antibiotics often fail, for example, because P. acnes can develop a natural resistance. Phages, which doctors hope to develop into a topical cream, offer a "more efficient approach because they are a natural predator, unlike a synthetic antibiotic," says Christopher Wanjek at LiveScience. That means acne-causing bacteria would be less likely to develop a natural resistance.