Skin should never be squeaky clean. In fact, skin shouldn’t squeak full stop. Yet our obsession with all things sanitary have led us to believe that the oils and bacteria on our skin are bad news across the board.
While an overproduction of oils, and an abundance of bad bacteria, can indeed be associated with skin concerns like acne and sensitivity, much like anything, it’s all about balance. Too much or too little of either can equally contribute to problem skin.
As things stand, skin sensitivity is on the rise – 60% of people admit to suffering from inflammation and uncomfortable complexions, but it may be that we’re actually adding to the problem.
As we learn more about the skin’s microbiome it’s clear that trying to tackle the issue by nuking our skin may be doing more harm than good – and perhaps a softly, softly approach is in order.
What is a microbiome?
“The skin microbiome is the whole community of organisms or microbes on your skin. These are made up of bacteria, viruses and fungi/yeasts. There are around 100 species of bacteria, but many thousands of bacterial strains.” explains Dr Catherine Borysiewicz, Consultant Dermatologist at the Cadogan Clinic. This may sound scary, but it’s totally natural and normal to have bacteria and organisms on our face. While there may be bad bacteria, a healthy microbiome will have plenty of good bacteria that can be very beneficial for skin.
What are probiotics?
“Probiotics are another name for ‘good bacteria,’” explains Dr Marie Drago, pharmaceutical doctor and founder of skincare brand Gallinée. “Currently, probiotics mean different things to different people because it is not regulated,” explains Jennifer Cookson, Director of Research & Product Development at skincare brand Mother Dirt. “In food, probiotics typically mean a live bacteria. However, in cosmetics, because of the need for preservatives for an extended shelf life, there are rarely live bacteria in the products. Instead you will typically see “lysates” or ferments” listed on the ingredients,” she says. “The ones used in beauty are often either killed by heat or more often grinded,” explains Dr Marie. “This does not mean that they are not effective, but that they are different from how we think about probiotics in food,” adds Jennifer.
What do probiotics do for skin?
“We have been aware of the potential benefits of prebiotics for gut health for many years, and many probiotics can be found in health food shops and supermarkets,” explains Dr Catherine. But now, “we have become increasingly aware of the importance of maintaining a healthy skin microbiome, and the role this plays in supporting and maintaining healthy skin barrier function.”
Probiotics in cosmetics are being considered for their anti-inflammatory properties. “They lower the inflammation on the skin. Because of this, they are really good for sensitive skin. They also prevent ‘inflammageing’ [where inflammation provokes accelerated ageing in skin], explains Dr Marie.
What’s the difference between prebiotics, probiotics and postbiotics?
“It can be challenging to develop skincare products containing live probiotics as this creates storage challenges – think about your live yoghurts in the fridge,” explains Dr Catherine. Alongside the lysates and ferments mentioned above, “other options for promoting a healthy skin microbiome include using prebiotics or postbiotics,” says Dr Catherine.
“Prebiotics are nutrients that can only be used by good bacteria. They are usually special types of sugars or fibres. It’s an amazing ingredient because they will feed only the good bacteria already on your skin,” explains Dr Marie. “This means that, not only can they help to lower inflammation and rebuild the skin barrier, but they also grow the good guys and starve the bad ones. They’re especially helpful if you have a bad bacteria overgrowth, such as acne (C. acnes is the culprit) or eczema (S. aureus is linked to eczema). It’s such a revolutionary way to see and treat these diseases.”
As for postbiotics, “they are a product of good bacteria that create a positive loop on the bacteria themselves,” says Dr Marie. A practical example of this is lactic acid – “it’s a natural product of Lactobacillus [a friendly bacteria], and helps destroy the bad bacteria and create the perfect environment for the good ones. It also smoothing and gently exfoliating. A dream ingredient,” adds Dr Marie.
Why are probiotics more important now than ever?
“Improved clarity and understanding about the rich microbial community on and in our bodies became possible with the development of next generation sequencing technologies,” explains Dr Catherine. “The gut microbiome has been extensively investigated and has led to a greater understanding of the interplay between our microbiome and our immune system.
Interest then turned to skin microbiome. We know that in common conditions such as eczema, acne and dandruff the delicate balance of microbes can be altered and distorted and this in turn can have a significant effect on skin barrier function and immune responses. In turn, researchers are now interested in whether it is possible to target and manipulate the human microbiome to treat and stabilise skin diseases,” adds Dr Catherine. In practice, it means we’re getting closer to managing debilitating and uncomfortable skin conditions by controlling the amount of good bacteria on our face.
Another reason that our microbiome is being brought into sharper focus, is that the boom in high potency at-home skincare (products like retinol, glycolic acid, vitamin C and ultra detergent face cleansers which have grown in popularity over recent years) have been blamed for the increased sensitivity when used too frequently.
Our skin’s natural microbiome has an important job to perform. When overly sanitised or blasted with powerful ingredients that alter its delicate balance, it is unable to fully achieve its duty of protecting our barrier function. “Microbes were present long before we started using products and our skin functioned in a healthy native state,” says Jennifer. “The rise of preservatives in skin and body care along with a number of other factors have eradicated cultures of good bacteria present on our skin. Research is still in its infancy so we’re only just starting to understand the impact this has had on us, but correlative data shows that as our modern hygiene products have advanced, so has the rise of skin concerns such as acne, eczema and dermatitis.”
Is there space in our skincare routine for both ultra powerful ingredients and probiotics?
“The ultimate aim is to be gentle in your approach and respect the skin microbiome by avoiding the use of oil stripping soaps, detergents and antiseptics. Ideally you need to ensure that you promote a healthy balanced microbe community on your skin to optimise your skin barrier function,” explains Dr Catherine. “This can be achieved through the use of prebiotic-containing skincare products.”
“I would recommend avoiding anything too harsh such as alcohol or alkaline pH soaps, agrees Dr Marie, “but in good measure, a probiotic and prebiotic skincare regime will help soothe the skin if you like retinoids and strong acids – everything in moderation.” It means if you are using powerful ingredients, it’s a good idea to top your skin back up with helpful bacteria using prebiotics.
What probiotic and prebiotic products would you recommend?
For prebiotics, Dr Catherine recommends La Roche Posay’s Lipikar AP+ range which contains a gentle prebiotic, aqua posae filiformis, that naturally occurs in La Roche Posay’s thermal spring water.
Dr Marie advises to always look for probiotic products that make sense. “Make sure that the pH that is slightly acidic to match the skin and the microbiome, with gentle surfactants and low levels of perfume and preservatives. It’s all about preserving the bacterial flora this is already on your skin.” She’s also a fan of fermented food. “I have a current obsession with water kefir to bring in bacteria, and eat as much fibres as possible to feed your own bacteria.”
Mother Dirt’s hero AO+ Mist, £49, helps to replace the good bacteria through modern skincare routines, using the ammonia in your naturally occurring sweat as a prebiotic. “When the AOB bacteria converts ammonia into Nitrite and Nitrite Oxide, they act as a probiotic, calming and soothing the skin,” explains Jennifer.
While Pamela Marshall, clinical aesthetician and co founder of beauty retailer Mortar & Milk recommends the Exuviance Probiotic Lysate Anti-Pollution Essence, £60. “It contains Lactobacillus Ferment Lysate in high concentration (derived from bacteria found in yoghurt) and balances the skin’s microbiome whilst strengthening the epidermal barrier – the uppermost layer of the skin,” she explains.