When I wrote about eight skincare trends to look for in 2020, I predicted a surge in products that affect the skin’s microbiome. Well, The study of the microbiome definitely isn’t slowing down, and we’ll continue to see lots of innovation in products that positively affect the skin’s microbiome. While many “trends” come and go (trust me, I’ve seen a lot in my 30 years as an esthetician!), I believe this one will become a mainstay.
As more and more companies start to incorporate microbiome technology into their products (including mine), you might be wondering how it works and whether or not it’s worth your money. Keep reading for everything you need to know about the skin microbiome. (Note: It’s continually being studied so there will certainly be more information coming out as time goes on.)
What is the Microbiome and How Does it Impact the Skin?
At this point, many of us are already aware of the gut microbiome and the ways in which it’s thought to affect our health. But the surface of our skin is home to an equally diverse array of microorganisms. Most of these microorganisms are types of bacteria, but you can also find fungi, viruses, and mites. Together, these form our skin microbiome—the first line of defense against environmental aggressors, toxic substances, and harmful organisms. While we all share certain similarities when it comes to our skin flora, each person’s exact makeup is so unique that the human microbiome is actually becoming an emerging tool in forensics. The microbes you leave behind are as distinct as a fingerprint and can theoretically be cross-referenced with DNA to identify a suspect. Pretty cool!
Despite all the research, there’s still a lot we don’t understand about the skin microbiome. But we are starting to realize it has a big effect on our overall skin health. At this point, it’s thought to play a role in inflammatory skin disorders such as acne, rosacea, eczema, and psoriasis. This is because our skin microbiota plays a crucial role in the functioning of our skin’s immune system and moisture barrier. Unfortunately, there’s a lot that can cause an imbalance in our skin microbiome, from harsh cleansing to some of the chemicals in our products.
Here are a few ways the microbiome can affect our skin.
Inflammatory Skin Diseases (Acne, Rosacea, Eczema, Psoriasis)
One thing researchers have begun to focus on more is the connection between inflammatory skin diseases and an imbalance in the skin microbiome. It’s actually been shown that patients with conditions like acne and eczema have a less diverse microbiome than those without. In rosacea, it’s thought that an imbalance in microbiota disrupts the skin’s immune function, leading to an increased inflammatory response (hence, the redness associated with rosacea).
P. acnes is a type of bacteria associated with acne, but did you know there are actually thirty-six different bacterial strains in this group? One of them is known to cause acne, but the other thirty-five are considered “good” bacteria that help the skin carry out necessary functions. The problem with traditional acne treatments like benzoyl peroxide is that they wipe out all bacteria on the surface of your skin. They don’t target just one, specific strain. We’re starting to realize that this scorched-earth technique may not be the best approach and could actually be harming acneic skin by throwing its microbiome out of whack.
Since the microbiome is the first layer between our skin and the outside world, it’s also crucial in making your skin’s barrier whole. When we use products that are too harsh, we risk disrupting the skin microbiome and, therefore, our moisture barrier. If you do have a compromised moisture barrier, here’s how you can fix it—FAST.
The five skincare products that can disturb your healthy microbiome:
- Facial cleansing (sulfate-based cleansers that are too stripping)
- Toners (those formulated with SD Alcohol or Denatured Alcohol. Be sure to use an alcohol-free toner though!)
- Hydrogen peroxide
- Benzoyl peroxide
- Strong emulsifiers
Simply put, products that are too harsh and stripping disrupt every aspect of your skin’s barrier. This is all the more reason to treat your skin gently by using “microbiome-friendly” products (you’ll be hearing this term more and more in the future).
There is also some evidence that certain microbes are able to produce chemicals that can help brighten and lighten the skin by fading pigmentation, such as melasma. There is still a lot of research to be done here, but it is promising and I’m eager to see what comes of it.
How is the Microbiome Being Used in Skincare Products, and is it Effective?
So now that we know what an important role the microbiome plays in keeping the skin healthy, how do we incorporate it into products? There are currently three ways to affect the microbiome through skincare.
Prebiotics are substances that feed microbes and help them thrive—think of them as food for good bacteria! Prebiotics include ingredients like seaweed, fatty acids, and polysaccharides. One benefit of prebiotics is that they aren’t living organisms and therefore won’t be harmed by preservatives. This makes them a lot easier to formulate with. I chose to use a fermented polysaccharide prebiotic in my new Rapid Response Detox Toner because it’s a safe, stable way to positively affect the skin’s microbiome.
Probiotics are actual, living bacteria that are put into a product. While research has shown that introducing microbes onto the skin can successfully alter the composition of someone’s skin microbiome, this testing has been done in a medical setting. Formulating a cosmetic product that can live on a shelf and successfully deliver live microbes onto the skin is much more challenging. Preservatives are needed to keep products stable and prevent the proliferation of harmful microbes. The problem is that we don’t have a preservative system sophisticated enough to differentiate between “good” and “bad” bacteria. This means that, for now, products that truly contain live bacteria likely need to be refrigerated. I know some companies are marketing probiotic products claiming they don’t need to be refrigerated, but according to the FDA, 90 percent of these actually contain postbiotics instead (more on these shortly).
Another challenge is that, when it comes to the skin microbiome, it’s highly unlikely that a one-size-fits-all approach is that effective. As I mentioned, each of our skin flora is as unique as a fingerprint. One person may benefit from a certain strain of bacteria that could throw someone else’s microbiome off balance. In the future, I think we’ll see a rise in products that target each person’s unique microbiome, but we’re a ways off from that. For now, using topical probiotics in skincare is mostly experimental (though it’s unlikely to cause harm).
Postbiotics are essentially what is left over after the microbes living on our skin die off. They release chemicals that can then be used to create proteins and sugars that help our skin cells thrive. The byproducts of living microbes can be used in skincare to benefit the skin by supporting a healthy microbiome.
Can Taking Probiotics Internally Help Your Skin?
I think it’s a great idea for anyone to take a probiotic supplement for overall health (I certainly do), but bacteria that are good for your gastrointestinal health may not necessarily translate to good skin. Of course, everything in our bodies is connected and caring for yourself internally is important for general skin health. That said, in my experience, I have found that what you do internally will help internally, and what you do topically will help topically.
I don’t believe you can take a probiotic and expect it to clear your acne any more than I believe a “clean” diet is the cure for acne. Now, don’t get me wrong, eating certain foods or having an imbalance in your gut microbiome may exacerbate acne. But I know so many people who, for instance, have really healthy diets and still break out. I’ve also known people who eat a lot of unhealthy foods and never get blemishes (greasy foods don’t cause acne, let’s clear that myth up once and for all. But these 11 things might).
Another thing to note is that most probiotic supplements only contain a handful of bacterial strains. Since there are thousands of types of bacteria in our gut, researchers are questioning whether loading up on just a few strains could cause an imbalance and promote the proliferation of harmful strains in certain individuals.
As far as our understanding of the human microbiome is concerned, we’ve only just started to scratch the surface. It’s become clear that our microbiome, both internal and external, plays an important role in our overall health and wellbeing. The implications of this are exciting and could lead to many groundbreaking advances in both medicine and skincare. While research regarding probiotics in skincare is very promising, we have a ways to go before we know how to properly formulate and target these products. For now, using probiotics topically is experimental. In the meantime, pre- and postbiotics are a stable and effective way to positively affect the skin’s microbiome so I suggest you look into them! I hope you enjoyed this post! #obeyrenee
Celebrity Esthetician & Skincare Expert
As an esthetician trained in cosmetic chemistry, Renée Rouleau has spent 30 years researching skin, educating her audience, and building an award-winning line of products. Trusted by celebrities, editors, bloggers, and skincare obsessives around the globe, her vast real-world knowledge and constant research are why Marie Claire calls her “the most passionate skin practitioner we know.”