New research suggests that high levels of vitamin B12 may affect germ activity in certain people, boosting the odds that they'll develop acne.
However, it's too early to say if anyone should cut down on their vitamin B12 intake from food or vitamins to avoid getting pimples, researchers said.
"I don't think we have studied enough to suggest that," said study leader Huiying Li, assistant professor of molecular & medical pharmacology at the University of California, Los Angeles. Still, the research provides insight into not only vitamin B12 but also genetic activity that could prompt pimples.
"There are certain genes that could potentially influence whether people have acne breakouts or not," she said. "These genes could be targets of future drug treatment."
The study appears in the June 24 issue of Science Translational Medicine.
A deficiency in vitamin B12 can cause serious health problems, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Too little vitamin B12 has been implicated in anemia; digestive problems; and neurological problems, such as numbness and tingling in the extremities, vision problems and memory loss.
Vitamin B12 is found in animal products such as dairy and shellfish. Vegetarians and vegans are advised to take supplements or eat enriched foods to get this nutrient. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, "many people over age 50 lose the ability to absorb vitamin B12 from foods," and weight-loss surgery can cause the same problem.
The current study looked at what factors make people more vulnerable to acne. Li and her colleagues found signs that vitamin B12 may boost acne by disrupting a type of skin bacteria known as Propionibacterium acnes that's related to acne.
After linking the vitamin to acne, the researchers then analyzed 10 people with clear skin who were told to begin taking vitamin B12 supplements. Their extra consumption of vitamins affected how genes in skin bacteria processed the vitamin, Li said, although only one person subsequently broke out with acne.
Li said this provides more evidence that vitamin B12 can affect the activity of skin bacteria. According to her, the affected germs -- P. acnes -- can contribute to inflammation, a crucial component of acne.
Researchers have linked vitamin B12 to acne in prior studies, Li said. But several questions remain unanswered.
While genes acted differently in the only person in the study who developed acne, it's not clear how many people may share a similar vulnerability. However, the activity of these genes could be important for treatment in the future, she said.
Li also said it's not clear what the study findings could mean for people with acne or those who want to avoid it.
To make things more complicated, "exactly how the bacteria on our skin contribute to acne remains to be completely understood," said Dr. Whitney Bowe, clinical assistant professor of dermatology at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City.
"For example, the bacteria P. acnes has long been thought to play a role in acne, but there are numerous people who have P. acnes on their skin and never develop acne," said Bowe, who was not involved with the new study.
And simply killing the bacteria doesn't work to cure acne, she said.
So now what? "It's too soon to tell my patients to stop eating foods or taking vitamins that contain vitamin B12 based on this study," Bowe said. "This study does suggest that high levels of B12 in the bloodstream might make acne worse in certain individuals. Further studies are needed to confirm this result and help us to understand the clinical relevance of these findings."
And, again, it's important to note that a deficiency of vitamin B12 can have serious consequences throughout the body and brain, according to the CDC.