Some studies suggest we inherit most of our microflora from our mothers during childbirth. It performs a central biological function; that is, to aid good bacteria in warding off the pathogenic bad ones. In the past, microbes have been thought of as something that should be removed from the skin but, this view is beginning to change. Today, understanding the role of bacteria is the goal of some of the most critical research in the world. The microbiome has been tied to a range of maladies including obesity, autism, anxiety, Parkinson’s disease, cardiovascular diseases and rheumatoid arthritis. Yet many consumers remain convinced that bacteria are “bad.”
Terms to Know
Now, product launches have piqued their curiosity. The skin also has its own unique ecosystem of microbiota which changes throughout a person’s lifetime according to their age, diet, environment and lifestyle. The gut and skin play a balancing act between beneficial, neutral and harmful flora that are interrelated with the innate and adaptive immune system. According to Leslie Baumann MD, it is known that a balanced gut microbiome contributes to overall wellness, including skin health, but does the skin’s own unique ecosystem also has an impact on its appearance and feel? Scientists, dermatologists and beauty brand executives have given the matter serious consideration in recent months; and consumers are more aware of the microbiome. As a result, skin microbiome research is changing the way we think about skin care. Baumann defined these terms in Dermatology News (Nov. 13, 2018).
Microbiome: microbes that live in a particular environment or biome.
Microbiota: the collection of living microbes that live in or, on an environment.
Prebiotics: a non-digestible food ingredient that promotes the growth of microorganisms in the intestines. This can promote the growth of beneficial or harmful micro-organisms. Think of them as a type of fertilizer for the microbiome.
Probiotics: living microorganisms that can provide beneficial qualities when used orally or topically.
The skin is subject to a variety of assaults, including sun radiation, urban pollution, weather and chemicals in the environment. According to Whitney Bowe MD, medical director, Integrative Dermatology, New York, NY, the a healthy microbiome influences the risk for skin diseases such as acne, rosacea, eczema, psoriasis and premature aging. Working with the immune system, microbes have the added task of helping to regulate proper functioning of the skin barrier. If impaired, the barrier is less likely to trap moisture and more likely to let in allergens and irritants leading to chronic inflammation.
Healthy skin has a diverse array of bacteria. Several beneficial bacteria strains can help reduce flare-ups of chronic skin concerns and protect against premature skin aging. With an uptick in environmental toxins and ultraviolet rays, not to mention high stress levels and over-processed diets, the microbiome may be getting damaged in ways that are unprecedented in the course of evolution. Lactobacillus paracasci, which inhibits skin inflammation and Streptococcus salivarius, which inhibits the overgrowth of P. acnes, can help to reduce flare-ups in patients with acne and rosacea, according to Bowe.
Microbiome and Skin Health
Certain bacteria provide relief for skin concerns that involve poor barrier function. According to Mary Margaret Kober MD, Naples, FL, bacterial strains S. thermophilus, S. hominis and S. epidermidis, are all beneficial for patients who struggle with eczema and sensitive skin. The key characteristic of aging skin is that skin’s pH increases and this can allow the enzymes that break down collagen and elastin and lead to the visible signs of aging. According to Kober, we lose our ability to fight oxidation as we get older because we have a low number of antioxidants in our skin. Several beneficial strains have free radical scavenging properties, so they can help fight skin aging that way.
Anti-aging strains found on the skin include B. Coagulans, L. plantarum, L. paracase and Bifidobacterium Breve. According to Bowe, these are all probiotics that have been shown to have either free radical scavenging properties or they boost ceramide production in the skin, helping to reduce the depth and number of wrinkles in the skin and protect against UV rays. Probiotics have become so popular that they are being marketed in food, supplements and even beauty products. They are not regulated as drugs by the US Food and Drug Administration; rather, they fall under the Dietary Supplement Health & Education Act (DSHEA) are regulated less tightly than drugs. They don’t need to be proved effective to be marketed, and the quality can be lax. Dr. Rob Knight, University of California, San Diego, has embarked on a journey to isolate microbes, examples in hunter-gatherer populations in Tanzania and South America’s rain forest. By exploring which of these microbes are good or bad for skin health, Knight hopes to determine what should be done to stave off irritation and even the physical signs of aging.
Bowe and Kober have proposed the following: Even if you are not ready to get on board the bacteria bandwagon yet, you should at least throw away your hand sanitizers, harsh soaps, body puffs and brushes, anything that could physically disrupt the microbiome. Avoid over-exfoliation and extended hot shower, they can damage the skin barrier and damage your skin microbiome. To keep skin’s microbial community healthy and varied, choose a gentle, pH-balanced soap-free cleanser that leaves skin hydrated not taut.
Bowe and Kober recommend using only one type of exfoliator: a physical scrub, or chemical exfoliant and limiting its use to once or twice a week. Also many bacteria require moisture or water to grow and thrive on the skin, so applying anything that is going to trap moisture is the key. It is preferable to use moisturizing products that contain ceramides. They help maintain the skin barrier and hydration and this protects the skin microbiome. Moisturize frequently in the winter months and wear sunscreen. UV light can cause damage and change the skin’s composition.
Dietary habits can also affect skin health. Refined carbohydrates, devoid of fiber, can encourage the growth of very unhealthy bacteria in the gut, triggering system-wide inflammation, which manifests in the skin. Healthy diets should include low glycemic index whole or unprocessed foods, such as multigrain breads, quinoa, sweet potatoes, barley, whole grain and vegetables.
Unfortunately, many diets are composed of highly processed or sugary snacks, which cause gut imbalance and enable harmful bacteria to flourish and break down the lining of the intestinal wall. As a consequence, whatever you are genetically predisposed to—i.e., acne, brown spots, eczema—may show up on skin. According to Gail Cresci a clinical nutritionist with the Cleveland Clinic, drinking alcohol may strip the mucus lining that protects the gut, making it more vulnerable to leaky gut syndrome. As a result, molecules that are not meant to be in the bloodstream “leak through” the intestinal lining, triggering systemic inflammation, which exacerbates many skin conditions.
The microbiome varies by body site and each person’s microbial signature is unique. Much remains to be learned about the microbiome and Rutgers University researchers have proposed creation of a global microbe vault to collect and preserve beneficial microbes. The key to understanding the proposal is that not all germs are bad. Some bacteria and viruses aid digestion and others regulate immune systems. There are even bacteria that display amphibiosis; i.e., they can be good or bad depending on which other microbes are present or on their human host’s genes, age or environment. Evidence is growing that diminished microbial diversity may trigger or worsen inflammatory bowel diseases such as diabetes, food allergies and autism. A global bank of beneficial bacteria could preserve us, too, one day.
Lift All Boats
Skin care marketers always seek ingredients that promise to protect skin. Obviously, ingredients such as herbs, botanicals and vitamins were far more attractive to consumers than bacteria, but the truth is that the probiotics present an opportunity to reduce the need for many ingredients and also promote skin’s own defense mechanisms.
According to Mintel, microbiome science advances are lifting the entire skin care industry, which is expected to post a global CAGR of 6% between 2016 and 2021. For example, US sales of lactobacillus-based skin care products grew 98% between 2013 and 2017.
Skin care companies are rolling out topical products infused with probiotics or in many cases prebiotics, which are the ingredients that serve as food for the body’s existing good bacteria. P&G has applied for patent on a prebiotic composition “to improve the health of skin microbiome.”
L’Oréal has patented the bacteria derived ingredient vitreosdilla ferment intended to balance the microbiome of dry skin. The material can already be found in La Roche-Posay’s Lipikar Balm AP+ Intense Repair Moisturizing Cream.
J&J is working with Biomedic to develop a bacterial treatment for therapeutic and cosmetic applications.
BASF and Givaudan have introduced products to enhance the microbiome and skin health, while Azitra, Greenaltech and Vantage market microbiome-focused ingredients.
Analysis of the skincare market has highlighted four different formulation approaches in microbiome-based beauty. They are:
- Removing bacteria. This approach is well-established and applied in mainstream cleansers and spot treatments that are typically aimed at teenagers and people with acne-prone skin.
- Prebiotic: This approach focuses on feeding “good” bacteria. It is typically used in products such as cleansers and fits with a narrative of gentle, natural skin care.
- Probiotic: This approach focuses on adding “good” bacteria (extracts rather than cultures). Consumers are likely to be familiar with probiotics in relation to gut health and live dairy products. Several beauty brands champion this approach and influencers see it as something new and different.
- Postbiotic: This approach involves adding bacteria byproducts. They are usually combined with pre- or probiotic treatments, although a few postbiotics such as hyaluronic acid, are already known in their own right.
The brands currently offering products are generally focused on prebiotic and probiotic solutions. Some take a scientific stance with products designed to address specific concerns and benefits, such as reducing wrinkles. Others place the emphasis on nature, overall skin health, holistic lifestyles and green beauty. From microbiome-friendly cleansers and moisturizers, to microbiome-enhancing probiotic mists and serums, there is plenty of opportunity for innovation and to redefine or reposition established products. Overall they help balance the good bacteria living on and in you.
Algenist’s Alive Prebiotic Moisturizer with SPF 15 is said to balance the skin microbiome while protecting it from sun exposure. The product’s namesake prebiotic is derived from algae, which is combined with a probiotic, zinc oxide and alguronic acid, a regenerative microalgae compound. Together, these ingredients are meant to leave skin hydrated, glowing and smooth, with better-managed surface skin bacteria.
Mother Dirt AO+Mist contains bacteria that can improve skin clarity. Clinique Redness Solutions Cleanser calms irritations and restores moisture using Lactobacillus extract. Payot Crème No.2 Nuage calms stressed complexions with a blend of probiotics, sugar-based prebiotics and botanical extracts. La Roche-Posay Lipikar Balm AP+ Intense Repair Moisturizing Cream stabilizes skin’s microbiome with prebiotic thermal water and an extract of Vitreoscilla filiformis. Fresh Black Tea Kombucha Facial Treatment Essence boosts skin elasticity and fights oxidative damage caused by environmental toxins. Some products, such as Tula Multi Spectrum Overnight Skin Rescue treatment, Dior Loife Oil-to-milk make up removing cleanser, and Kristina Holey + Marie Veronique Barrier Restore are the latest wave of products that feed the skin’s microflora to support proper barrier function.
Early Distant Warning
In recent research news, Australian researchers have developed an innovative ingestible sensor technology that can measure and track the gut microbiome, enabling previously impossible insight into the digestive system. The sensor is in pill form and operates on stomach acid to detect, calculate and transmit critical data. Most importantly, this sensor identifies gut bacteria to help doctors get a better sense of a patient’s immune response. The sensor can even detect and decipher early DNA mutations before the patient exhibits symptoms.
The microbiome has entered the consumer consciousness and researchers have realized its health-boosting potential, but it still remains uncharted territory. The scientific community and skin care brands are currently leading the conversation in defining microbiome, why is it relevant to specific skin care concerns and which products work and why. But we still need to understand about the conditions in which microbes are either beneficial or harmful to the skin, what triggers their imbalance on the skin flora and how to rebalance them.
At the present time, the practice of adding topical probiotics to beauty ritual is experimental. There is no great evidence that tells us which bacteria would be beneficial. It is hoped that in the future, skin care companies will start to target each person’s unique microbiome by tracking ingredients that match specific needs. Conversely, there could be more research to determine how some of the less usual strains of bacteria in the skin microbiome affect the skin’s appearance.
Navin M. Geria
Chief Scientific Officer
AyurDerm Technologies, LLC
Navin Geria, former Pfizer Research Fellow is a cosmetic and pharmaceutical product development chemist and the chief scientific officer of AyurDerm Technologies LLC, which provides Ayurvedic, natural and cosmeceutical custom formulation development and consulting services to the spa-wellness-dermatology industries. He has launched dozens of cosmeceutical and ayurvedic anti-aging products. Geria has more than 30 years of experience in the personal care industry and was previously with Clairol, Warner-Lambert, Schick-Energizer, Bristol-Myers and Spa Dermaceuticals. He has nearly 20 US patents and has been published extensively. Geria edited the “Handbook of Skin-Aging Theories for Cosmetic Formulation Development” focus book published in April 2016 by Harry’s Cosmeticology. He is a speaker, moderator and chairman at cosmetic industry events.