Probiotics have crept into our consciousness, popping up in everything from kombucha to smoothie supplements, kefir and yoghurt. While the gut-loving benefits of consuming probiotics are hardly a new concept, it’s the impact probiotics have on the skin microbiome that’s attracting the most attention.
In the same way that our gut is home to trillions of good (and bad) bacteria, so too is our skin. Sure, it’s enough to make you squirm. But think of the bacteria living on your skin as your first line of defence against infection and environmental damage, your BFF when it comes to regulating pH levels, and your secret weapon to keep skin looking plump, dewy and healthy.
The initiated will likely have been slathering on probiotic skincare since it first appeared on our radar years ago, but it’s high time the rest of us followed suit.
Here’s everything you need to know about what the skin microbiome is, how to know if yours is under threat, and how to fix it (hello, probiotics).
MAKING SENSE OF THE MICROBIOME
One expert who is well versed in the skin microbiome and how best to care for it is Caroline Parker, head of education for Dermalogica New Zealand.
“The microbiome is the community of microorganisms that live on the surface of our skin,” Parker says.
“Traditionally we think of bacteria as being “bad”, but the skin’s microbiome plays an important role in some of the skin’s key processes like regulating the pH of the skin to support healthy enzyme function. The microbiome is also a key part of the immune function of our skin and blocks bad bacteria. It is a critical part of the health of our skin.”
Astonishingly, there are more than one trillion bacteria living and metabolising in and on our skin. Of that number, there are more than one thousand different species of bacteria, the diversity of which, Parker says, is hugely important to skin health.
Put simply, the more strains of bacteria your skin has, the healthier your skin will be. This theory is supported by Professor Richard Gallo, a leading medical scientist in the fields of immunology, skin biology and the microbiome.
Speaking recently at the Lancome Skincare E-Symposium, which homed in on the microbiome and its function, Gallo explained how a balanced microbiome is the key to healthy skin.
“What we’ve learned is, in healthy conditions, with a balanced function of the microbiome, we have normal host immune response, we have good wound healing, able to resist infectious diseases,” he says.
“Whereas if the microbiome is out of balance, we see the onset of skin diseases, skin infections, and an inability to heal. So, keeping the proper function and the amount of microbes in balance on the skin is key to microbiome health in skin.”
UNDERSTANDING THE SKIN-GUT AXIS
Turns out, our skin microbiome and gut microbiome are intrinsically linked.
The skin microbiome shares a connection to the colonies of bacteria lining our intestines, which is why consuming a diet rich in probiotic foods is said to improve skin health from the inside out.
This link is known as the skin-gut axis, RawKanvas co-founder Simona Valev says.
“Each person has a unique microbiome that is determined by genetics, environmental factors like diet, sleep and stress, medical history and medications. If your gut becomes overrun with bad bacteria and the digestive balance is off, this may lead to an inflammatory response in the skin,” she says. Think of the balance of bacteria lining the gut like a maths equation: good bacteria bad bacteria = optimal skin health, Valev explains.
When this balance is thrown out, by things like antibiotics or eating junk food, the bad guys multiply and outnumber the good guys, damaging the lining of the intestines and causing toxins to enter the bloodstream. This manifests in the skin in the form of breakouts, rashes, rosacea and eczema.
MICROBIOME UNDER THREAT
Skincare commentators have noted our quest for imperfection-free skin has caused us to become a little too clean.
It’s been touted by many as the hygiene hypothesis where our obsession for cleanliness can interrupt the natural acid mantle of the skin.
Harsh surfactants and cleansers can strip the skin of its natural oils, leading to trans-epidermal water loss, which causes redness, sensitivity and dryness.
“Antibacterial products get rid of bacteria on the skin’s surface, but they don’t differentiate between good and bad bacteria, they simply remove all bacteria,” RawKanvas co-founder Shannon Lacey explains.
“Overuse of antibacterial products can actually cause an imbalance in the skin microbiome, which makes us more susceptible to germs. Eliminating good bacteria from the microbiome can play a role in flare-ups of rosacea, dermatitis, psoriasis, dandruff, fungal infections, inflammation and breakouts.”
THE BEAUTY OF BIOTICS
One of the best ways to keep your skin microbiome in check is to add the right kind of bacteria to the skin in the form of probiotic skincare.
In the same way that taking probiotic supplements help to rebalance the gut and address inflammatory disorders, probiotic skincare has a similar effect when applied topically.
Chances are you’re familiar with prebiotics and probiotics, but there’s a third form to acquaint yourself with too postbiotics.
SO, WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?
1. Prebiotics promote the growth of micro- organisms, acting like the fertiliser needed to feed micro-organisms.
2. Probiotics are the living micro-organisms themselves, and can alter the microflora of the host.
3. Postbiotics are the chemical byproducts of micro-organisms.
When added to skincare, Valev says prebiotics help make the environment on your skin more beneficial for good bacteria to grow, while probiotic skincare acts as a protective shield against bad bacteria, therefore helping to decrease inflammation, dryness, itching and irritation and to slow premature ageing.
Probiotic skincare can help the complex ecosystem of the skin to flourish, resulting in balanced, glowing skin that’s better equipped to protect itself against environmental aggressors.
Two of the most common probiotics are lactobacillus plantarum and bifidobacterium longum, both of which are also found in food sources like yoghurt.
Probiotics (micro-organisms) perform at their best when coupled with prebiotics (fertiliser), which is why you’ll often find both working synergistically in cleansers, serums, moisturisers and masks.
The benefits of incorporating probiotic- infused skincare into your regime vary depending on skin type.
Dry, sensitive skin: Those with dry or sensitive skin may benefit most from using probiotic and prebiotic skincare, due to this particular skin type being more prone to irritation and inflammation.
Oily skin: Parker recommends prebiotics and probiotics to ensure a balanced pH, resulting in healthy skin. “Oily skin often has an imbalanced microbiome due to the over secretion of oil which causes acne-causing bacteriatothrive,orduetoover-cleansing,” she says.
Acne-prone skin: Valev suggests trialling probiotic skincare to help create an optimal environment for the good bacteria on your skin to fight against breakout-causing bad bacteria.
Ready to send in the good bugs? Here are the best probiotic skincare products to support the health of your skin microbiome:
Dermalogica Active Clay Cleanser, $75, recruits probiotics to deeply purify and balance oily skin. It’s formulated with kaolin clay and activated binchotan charcoal to absorb impurities and excess oil while protecting the skin’s natural lipid barrier (therefore keeping the skin’s microbiome intact).
La Roche-Posay Lipikar Huile Lavante Cleansing Oil, $37, is best suited to those with dry or sensitive skin, and contains prebiotic Aqua Posae Filiformis to rebalance the skin’s microbiome. Couple this with skin-soothing niacinamide and hydrating shea butter, and this gentle, oil-based cleanser is an ideal option for those who wish to try out the trend before they invest.
Raw Kanvas The Limelight Brightening Probiotic Lotion, $75, is a vegan probiotic lotion which aims to reduce the appearance of breakouts and redness, while brightening and hydrating the skin. Additional ingredients like kakadu plum and hyaluronic acid help to promote a more radiant complexion.
Clinique Redness Solutions Daily Relief Cream, $100, uses the same natural bacteria found in fermented foods to soothe irritated skin and reduce redness. Anyone who’s ever experienced a compromised skin barrier will know the work required to restore it back to health, but Clinique’s offering fast-tracks the process with its patented lactobacillus extract. Formulated as part of Clinique’s own microbiome technology, this soothing probiotic works to strengthen the skin’s barrier and restore balance to the microbiome with continued use. It even works on broken capillaries, blotchiness and rosacea.
Elizabeth Arden Superstart Probiotic Boost Skin Renewal Biocellulose Mask (4 pack), $95
This biocellulose sheet mask contains Elizabeth Arden’s 2X Probiotic Complex that helps to boost the appearance of a healthy, glowing complexion, while optimising the skin’s microflora and improving its natural defenses. It fits snugly to facial contours while drenching skin in other skin-loving ingredients, including glycerin, sodium hyaluronate (a derivate of hyaluronic acid) and essential lipids that are naturally found in the skin.
Lancome Advanced Génifique Youth Activating Concentrate, from $137, contains a powerful combination of seven prebiotic and probiotic fractions to strengthen the skin’s microbiome and target 10 visible signs of ageing. The high concentration of active ingredients, including yeast and bifidus extracts, improves skin texture, tone, elasticity and firmness.
Hair and makeup / Sarika Patel.
Photographer / Babiche Martens.