I don’t know when probiotic skincare came into my consciousness, just like I don’t know when every woman in L.A. and NYC started wearing the same animal-print silk midi skirt. I only know that one day, both things became ubiquitous on social media feeds. As someone who doesn’t have Instagram, I was getting screenshots of ads for various probiotic skincare lines in my email inbox from friends with a consistent subject line: “Thoughts?” All of a sudden, probiotic skincare became a bandwagon, and I’ve never met a bandwagon I didn’t want to jump on.
As I researched in-depth, I learned that this is less of a bandwagon, and more of a movement. I’ve always known about the body’s and gut’s microbiome, but the skin’s microbiome was relatively new to me. It had come up once or twice during my extensive research into perioral dermatitis, but nothing was mainstream.
Then, last month, I saw a surprising body wash commercial playing on TV at the gym. “What is the microbiome?”, the voice in the ad asked viewers. After just half-a-year of research and reading medical journals on the skin’s microbiome, I was thrilled that the microbiome movement was going mainstream.
Now that probiotic skincare is cluttering the inboxes of beauty editors, consumers, and department store shelves, I’m here—along with top doctors and a product formulator—to help explain exactly what the skin microbiome is, why you need to know about, and how probiotic skincare really works.
Meet the Expert
- Dr. Marnie Nussbaum is a New York City-based board-certified dermatologist with expertise in anti-aging correction and prevention.
- Dr. Joshua Zeichner, M.D. is a dermatologist, as well as the Director of Cosmetic and Clinical Research in Dermatology at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.
- Christin Powell is a product formulator and co-founder of Kinship.
What are prebiotics, probiotics, and postbiotics?
Can you remember the first time you heard about probiotics? That’s something that I can recall. I was eight years old and my Russian grandmother was force-feeding me pickled cabbage with a spork because I wasn’t feeling well. She said it had good bacteria to fight off the bad. While the words “microflora” and “gut bacteria” were still out of my lexicon until I moved to L.A., I always had a vision that various bacteria were needed to keep each other in-check.
When I moved to L.A., often recognized as the new age health mecca of the world, the importance of good gut health was seared into my brain like grill marks on a steak.
Now we’re into not only probiotics, but prebiotics and postbiotics, too. What’s the difference? In their journal on The Therapeautic Use of Prebiotics, Probiotics, and Postbiotics to Prevent Nectrotizing Entercolitis, Dr. Ravi Patel and Dr. Patricia Denning identify the key distinctions:
- Prebiotics: Supplements or foods that contain a non-digestible ingredient that selectively stimulates the growth and/or activity of indigenous bacteria. "Think of them like fertilizer or food for good bacteria," says dermatologist Dr. Joshua Zeichner, who names thermal spring water and oat extract as commonly used prebiotic ingredients.
- Probiotics: Supplements or foods that contain viable microorganisms that alter the microflora of the host.
- Postbiotics: Non-viable bacterial products or byproducts from probiotic microorganisms that have biologic activity in the host.
Dr. Zeichner says to think of probiotics and postbiotics like "spices that make the soup taste better." They are ingredients that help healthy bacteria grow to the best of their ability."
Now that we know that prebiotics are like the fertilizer for microorganisms to grow, probiotics are the microorganisms themselves, and postbiotics are the chemical byproducts of microorganisms and bacteria, let’s discuss how they’re useful in skincare.
What is the skin microbiome?
“The skin microbiome is the billions of bacteria, fungi, and viruses that comprise the skin microbiota,” says dermatologist Dr. Marnie Nussbaum, who recently attended Paris’ Microbiome Summit for doctors and microbiologists. “The human skin has 1 billion microbes (bacteria) per square centimeter and that natural bacteria maintains the skin’s immunity and prevents pathogenic growths.”
"You may not want to think of it, but your skin is not sterile," adds Dr. Zeichner. "It is loaded with organisms like bacteria and yeast that are essential for proper functioning of the skin itself. We know disruptions of the microbiome is associated with altered skin barrier function. It is associated with dryness, premature aging, and even acne breakouts."
Essentially, the more strains of bacteria you have, the healthier your skin is.
In Europe, studies show microbiologists are culturing strains from healthy skin and diseased skin to draw comparisons in bacterial differences. Then, they replace the bacterial strains that diseased skin is lacking for long-term treatment study.
What causes the skin to be disturbed? Dr. Nussbaum explains that doctors and scientists most often attribute dysbiosis to harsh hygiene (like over-exfoliation and lathering soaps with antibacterial properties), the use of topical antibiotics, and evolution. The result of having a disrupted microbiome? Bacterial and fungal skin rashes like eczema, psoriasis, perioral dermatitis, seborrheic dermatitis (dandruff), pityrosporum folliculitis (pesky bumps on the chest and forehead), tinea versicolor, and acne–to name a few.
Thus, adding bacteria to the skin and using gentle products to help maintain its balance seems essential to good skin health. Enter: microbiome skincare. Though it can be used interchangeably with probiotic skincare, there is a subtle difference. Dr. Nussbaum clarifies, “Probiotic skincare typically uses actual probiotic elements for a therapeutic effect, versus microbiome-friendly products, which are more of a gentle or sensitive characteristic that won’t disrupt the microflora."
"The latest generation of skin care products contain probiotic ingredients to help restore the skin microbiome," adds Dr. Zeichner. "It’s important to understand what this actually means. Probiotics are live organisms and no skin care products contain true probiotics, since kin care products contain preservatives to prevent bacterial contamination and give a skin care product is shelf life. The same preservatives would kill any probiotics in the product itself."
Christin Powell, product formulator and co-founder of Kinship, describes her brand’s approach to affordable microbiome-friendly skincare. "Science is the future of skincare,” she says, and at the heart of each of the brand’s products is a proprietary combined prebiotic and probiotic from fermented lactobacillus, one of the most common families of bacteria found in probiotics. The brand calls it The Kinbiome. Powell tells me the brand hopes to target teens and young adults who are just beginning to learn about and deal with acne treatments. It’s at this young age that people first start using harsh chemicals and ingredients to strip oil production and inflammation, instead of understanding the skin's microbiome and using products to restore the healthy balance of bacteria.
As far as the probiotic skincare and microbiome movement as a whole, Powell says, “It’s just starting; this is the tip of the iceberg.” Mark our words: you're going to start seeing a lot of microbiome and probiotic-focused skincare in 2020 and beyond.
Below are a few of the best probiotic skincare brands and microbiome friendly products to restore your skin’s balance and keep it healthy:
Created by a gastroenterologist (stomach and gut doctor), Tula was one of the first brands to bring probiotics to skincare and they’ve developed a cult following. Standout products: The Cult Classic Purifying Face Cleanser, 24-7 Moisture Hydrating Day & Night Cream, Clear It Up Acne Clearing + Tone Correcting Gel.
You won’t find any of the 1,400+ banned skincare ingredients in the EU (for contrast, the US only partially banned 11) anywhere near this line. All of the packaging is made from recyclable materials, is fully recyclable itself, and some of the components are made from recycled Ocean Waste Plastic (OWP). Best-sellers include: Self Reflect Probiotic Moisturizing Sunscreen SPF 32 (with micronized zinc oxide), Insta Swipe Lemon Honey AHA Pads, Supermello Hydrating Gel Cream Moisturizer
The founder of this biome-friendly line, chemist David Whitlock, hasn’t showered in over 17 years. The standout product from the line is the AO+ Mist Live Probiotic Spray. The founder’s biotech company, AOBiome, began testing Nitrosomonas Eutropha, a strain of ammonia-oxidizing bacteria, for its possible health benefits for the skin. Now, there are countless medical journals written about the bacteria’s skincare wonders, like The use of topical Nitrosomonas Eutropha for cosmetic improvement of facial wrinkles and Dermal Microflora Restoration with Ammonia-Oxidizing Bacteria Nitrosomonas Eutropha in the Treatment of Keratosis Pilaris. Note: the AO+ Mist needs to be refrigerated, and is not advised for the immunosuppressed.
Founded by a French doctor of Pharmacy, Marie Drago, this European skincare line puts a heavy emphasis on the microbiome and bacteria. They even have a microbiome blog on their website dedicated to lessons in skin and body bacteria called Microbiome Académie. Galinée doesn’t just stop at skincare—they also have a line of haircare (because your scalp is part of the skin’s microbiome), and body soaps too. For this brand, bacteria are definitely a way of life.
Aurelia Probiotic Skincare
Made in Britain, these award-winning probiotic skincare pioneers don’t use live bacteria in their products; they believe in a more advanced delivery system. Aurelia’s propriety Probiotic Milk Peptide is a shelf-stable, non-live probiotic from bifidobacteria (a major genus that colonize mammal’s GI tract), combined with a milk peptide to keep the skin’s acid mantel balanced. Best-sellers: Miracle Cleanser, Cell Revitalise Daily Moisturizer, The Probiotic Concentrate.
Rodan and Fields Recharge Ultra Boost Moisturizing Treatment
This moisturizer by Rodan and Fields is formulated for stressed skin. "It helps hydrate and repair your skin's microbiome with probiotic extracts," says Dr. Zeichner.
La Roche Posay Toleriane Ultra
La Roche Posay Toleriane Ultra is a lightweight, comfortable-wearing daily moisturizer. "It's made with prebiotic thermal springwater and gentle enough to use even in people with ultra sensitive skin," says Dr. Zeichner.
Tata Harper Purifying Face Mask
While not all of Tata Harper’s line has probiotics, her Purifying Face Mask contains Lactobacillus and fermented fruit extracts to help treat inflamed, congested, and acneic skin.
REN Clean Skincare Perfect Canvas Clean Primer
REN is also not entirely probiotic skincare line, but many of their products now mention being microbiome friendly and some incorporate probiotics themselves. The Perfect Canvas Clean Primer has Lactococcus Ferment Lysate, a fairly-new and interesting probiotic ingredient with anti-acne effects (plus, it makes my face feel amazing)/
Patel RM, Denning PW. Therapeutic use of prebiotics, probiotics, and postbiotics to prevent necrotizing enterocolitis: what is the current evidence? Clin Perinatol. 2013;40(1):11-25.
Notay M, Saric-Bosanac S, Vaughn AR, et al. The use of topical Nitrosomonas eutropha for cosmetic improvement of facial wrinkles. J Cosmet Dermatol. 2020;19(3):689-693.
Lee NY, Ibrahim O, Khetarpal S, et al. Dermal microflora restoration with ammonia-oxidizing bacteria nitrosomonas eutropha in the treatment of keratosis pilaris: a randomized clinical trial. J Drugs Dermatol. 2018;17(3):285-288.