What's the Deal With Probiotics and Prebiotics in Skincare? Derms Explain the Difference

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In case you missed it, the microbiome is an especially hot topic in skincare. In previous years, the conversation seemed to focus on the deeper, collagen-producing layers of the skin. Now, the attention is on the very surface layer and its microorganisms and bacteria. "Our skin has a complex combination of many microorganisms—like bacteria, viruses, fungi, and even mites—that live in symbiosis, called the skin microbiome," says dermatologist Dr. Anar Mikaliov. "The organisms prevent overgrowth of pathogenic microbes and produce molecules beneficial to the skin."

These microbes are essential to your skin’s flora and, in short, keep it functioning as it should. When your microbiome is compromised, issues in the form of inflammation tend to take shape. With probiotics and prebiotics being so beneficial for your gut flora, it only makes sense that they’d also impact your skin flora, right? Clearly, the beauty industry has similar thoughts, with the abundance of probiotic and prebiotic-forward products launching in recent years. 

However, the question remains: How effective are probiotics and prebiotics for your skin? We spoke to a trio of skincare pros to find out once and for all. Keep reading to learn about the benefits of probiotics and prebiotics in skincare.

Meet the Expert

  • Dr. Anar Mikaliov MD is a board-certified dermatologist based in Burlington, Massachusetts, and is the founder of Skintensive skincare and KP Away
  • Dr. Elsa Jungman is a microbiome scientist with a Ph.D. in skin pharmacology. She is the founder of her eponymous skincare line, which focuses on microbiome-friendly ingredients backed by science.
  • Heather Hickman is a spa, skin, and body specialist and the VP of Education at Dermalogica. She has over 20 years of experience in the skincare and spa industry, and is both CIDESCO and IHBC qualified.

Probiotics in Skincare

So, what are probiotics? "Probiotics are living organisms that benefit the health of their host," says Hickman. "These good bacteria have been shown to strengthen the immune system and improve nutrition absorption."

When used in your skincare, probiotics balance and improve your skin's microbiome. "When the skin's microbiome is not balanced, the skin can display various inflammatory skin conditions like acne and atopic dermatitis," says Dr. Mikaliov. "The idea of probiotic skincare, similar to probiotics in food, is to add bacteria onto the skin to improve or perhaps restore the microbiome."

The catch? According to Dr. Jungman, most probiotic skincare formulas don't contain live probiotic organisms but rather lysates or fermented extracts. "That is why there is still a lot of controversy over redefining the term 'probiotics' for skincare, as using live microorganisms in products is a great hurdle to the product's shelf-life and formulation," she says. "These lysates or fermented extracts are actually closer to postbiotics."

According to Dr. Mikaliov, lysates contain molecules broken down by probiotics in their living state. "They're often nutrient-rich and include soothing antioxidants, amino acids, polysaccharides, antimicrobial peptides, enzymes, vitamins, and more with skin benefits," he adds. 

In general, if your microbiome is out of balance from using harsh formulas, probiotics (or their lysate form) can introduce beneficial bacteria and nutrients that work to soothe inflammatory skin issues.

Prebiotics in Skincare

"Prebiotic is somewhat of a misnomer—they are essentially 'food' for probiotics, not a precursor to probiotics," Dr. Mikaliov says. "In skincare, the prebiotics used include mostly plant-based sugar molecules and oils with healthy carbohydrates that the skin's microbiome likes." Common ingredients are oat, rice, flaxseed, soy, glucomannan, and ginseng. These elements serve as nutrition for the 'good' bacteria to keep your skin's microbiome healthy. 

"Think of your skin like a garden; prebiotics are like fertilizer aiming to help your skin flourish," Dr. Jungman says. "Prebiotic skincare can help balance your microbiome, which in turn, can reduce redness and inflammation, reduce wrinkles and signs of aging, and keep the surface of your skin healthy."

Probiotics vs. Prebiotics in Skincare

While probiotics and prebiotics seemingly create the same result, the two ingredients are different in the overall makeup of a formula. "A product claiming to be a probiotic would need to contain live microorganisms, whereas a prebiotic product can have plant-based ingredients that 'feed' or activate the skin's natural microorganisms," Hickman says. "Probiotics and prebiotics work the same on varying skin types, but the difference would be in the rest of the product formulation. For example, are the prebiotics in a cleanser for oily skin or a moisturizer for dry skin?" In other words, consider your skin type, the formula containing the pro or prebiotics, and your end goal when shopping for products. 

Additionally, because prebiotics aren't living ingredients, Dr. Jungman notes that they tend to be more shelf-stable. "Prebiotics are easier to incorporate into skincare as it does not have to be viable like probiotics," she says.

It is worth noting the two ingredients can be combined into a single formula, known as a symbiotic product. However, Dr. Jungman notes that the jury is still out on whether the combination is more efficacious.

Topical vs. Oral Probiotics and Prebiotics

Oral probiotics and prebiotics are popular in the wellness realm, but how effective are they for your skin? According to Dr. Mikaliov, they're better used to balance and nourish your gut flora. "Oral probiotics are very different as they contain live bacteria that go into your gut and help balance your skin from the inside out," he says. "Oral prebiotics include a lot of fiber-rich food that help balance your gut microbiome." He notes that while the gut microbiome is essential to your overall health and the health of your skin, there aren't any solid studies to show whether or not they're better for your complexion than applying the ingredients topically.

Hickman echoes his sentiment. "Although advantageous, oral pro or prebiotics will first target the body's other microbiomes, such as the gut," she says. "Topical applications are always more impactful for treating the skin directly."

How to Use Probiotics and Prebiotics in Your Skincare Routine

If a balanced microbiome is your ultimate goal, there are various ways you can incorporate pro and prebiotics into your routine to achieve that. Consider your skin type, what's working in your existing lineup, and where you can add products that contain probiotics or prebiotics. Hickman advises thinking about the function of the product you want to add and the ingredients it contains.

"If you are looking for a pre or probiotic to target dry skin, look for a moisturizer with an oil-based formulation that will work with the prebiotics to support the lipid barrier," she says. "Alternatively, if you are looking for a cleanser that will balance the skin without causing sensitivity or dryness, look for ingredients such as oat milk that will work alongside prebiotics to balance the skin and add nourishing lipids to soothe and reduce sensitivity."

Additionally, take a closer look at the ingredients in the formulas you're currently using. Probiotics and prebiotics are so common in skincare, so they may already be in your rotation. "A lot of existing products already contain probiotic lysates or ferment filtrates, as well as prebiotics," Dr. Mikaliov says. "For example, oat extract is a prebiotic readily used in skincare formulas."

The Takeaway

If reducing irritation and achieving a more balanced microbiome are among your skin goals, then introducing a probiotic or prebiotic formula into your lineup could be a good move. While Dr. Jungman notes that although studies have yet to show their efficacy, that shouldn't stop you from seeing whether each ingredient is suitable for your skin.

"Many skincare ingredients contain harmful chemicals, exfoliants, fragrances, and much more that can damage the microbiome," she says. "If you are concerned about the health of your microbiome, consider switching to a more minimalist, microbiome-friendly proven routine."

Keep in mind that because it's challenging to incorporate probiotics in their living state into a skincare formulation, you're likely dealing with lysates or fermented extracts, and the product may not have as long of a shelf life. Prebiotics, in general, are more stable and easier to incorporate into a product. "Ultimately, prebiotics and probiotics help reinforce the skin's defense by strengthening the microbiome and protecting the lipid barrier, with prebiotic ingredients being more stable in a formulation," Hickman adds.

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