Dear Daniela: What Is The Anti-Acne Vaccine & Is It Safe?

Illustrated by Anna Sudit
Dear Daniela,
I’ve been hearing whispers about an acne 'vaccine' or 'injection' – could such a thing exist? I’ve struggled with problem skin for as long as I can remember, so this sounds like it could be something of a holy grail for me! But I also can’t find much information about it, or anyone who offers it. Please help!
Beatrice, 30
An acne vaccine, just like finding front-row Beyoncé tickets lying in the street, sounds far too good to be true. After all, a vaccine? For spots? It’s about as far-fetched as Destiny’s Child reforming at said concert and inviting you up on stage, right?
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Well, not actually. Dermatologist Dr Justine Kluk told me she’s seen some of the research that’s been published around the vaccine, and she’s almost as excited as you. "There are a lot of unknowns and things we’re still not sure of," she told me over the phone, "but as a dermatologist who sees so many people suffer with acne and how it impacts their psychological health, I’m always heartened to hear of developments like this."
Firstly, there is already an 'acne injection' – a cortisol shot. This is a one-off injection, which you can have straight into the heart of a particularly nasty spot, and you’ll see it reduce in size and redness within 24-48 hours. They’re costly and more of a quick fix than a cure but they’re popular with, say, brides who break out just before their big day, or models before fashion week. But what we’re talking about here is an acne vaccine, developed by a group from the University of California, and published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology.
"We know that acne has three primary underlying causes," continued Dr Kluk, "those being excess oil production, blocked pores and bacterial inflammation. One bacteria in particular, the P. acnes bacteria, is thought to be responsible for the cascade of bodily responses that cause acne to form. However, around 60% of the skin carries this bacteria, without necessarily causing breakouts. Where the 'vaccine' shines is that they seem to have been able to isolate the toxin in the bacteria, and neutralise that." Basically, for the same reason that loading up on antibiotics when you’ve caught a nasty infection can leave you running low on 'good' bacteria and reaching for the Yakult, just attempting to smack out all the P. acnes might not work. "So far, they’ve tested it on skin biopsies from acne sufferers and mice. Not on live people," added Dr Kluk. This is an important distinction to make; we still know nothing of the side effects, or whether it’s effective or even safe in humans.
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But as Dr Kluk reminded me, with 85% of the population suffering from acne at some point in their lives, nothing is as good as prevention, although we only really start adding ingredients like salicylic acid, glycolic acid and retinoids into our skincare routine once we've had a breakout.
Another thing that’s not strictly clear from the research as it stands is whether this vaccine would be administered preventatively or for people already suffering (can you imagine the next generation lining up in school for an acne jab alongside Gardasil?). "I think it’s quite unlikely the NHS would be able to fund a national rollout of it," said Dr Kluk. "After all, as distressing as acne is, it doesn’t pose a public health risk like measles or mumps do. It’s also worth noting that we have no idea when this vaccine will be ready to market, if ever – it could take many, many years."
There is still lots to be excited about, though. Researchers have found a target in that toxin, and you can’t really treat something without the right target, and the initial results are impressive. In the meantime, Dr Kluk advised: "If your skin is really getting you down, do push your GP for a referral to a dermatologist. Explain to them how it’s affecting you and your confidence. Remember, it’s better to treat acne properly and as soon as possible to avoid scarring." I’ll second this. Your skin is your body’s largest organ, and if you were suffering with any other organ, you’d have no qualms bringing it to your doctor. Don’t feel you’re being silly or vain or selfish! Gently explain your reasons to your GP and go from there.
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Good luck,
Daniela
Got a question for our resident beauty columnist Daniela Morosini? No problem, qualm or dilemma is too big, small or niche. Email deardaniela@refinery29.uk, including your name and age for a chance to have your question answered. All letters to ‘Dear Daniela’ become the property of Refinery29 and will be edited for length, clarity, and grammatical correctness.
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