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Acne, by far, is one of the most common—albeit confusing, frustrating, and mysterious—skin conditions out there. It's highly personal, and there is hardly a practical, one-size-fits-all approach for treating breakouts, even though we're often prescribed blanket quick fixes in the form of supplements or topical skin care products. What works for hormonal chin and mouth-centric breakouts likely won't be the best solution for the occasional red angry bump or two, which is why consulting a dermatologist is paramount.
Despite giving up hope for a miracle skin solution for everyone, we've been overhearing more and more chatter about the relationship between good skin and the health of the bacteria in your gut. Many people say the addition of probiotics (be it via supplement or skincare) might be the fix for a blemish-prone complexion, but could popping a bacteria-laden pill or switching out our skincare routine with probiotic-enriched formulas be the answer? We spoke to dermatologists Dendy Engelman, MD, and Joshua Zeichner, MD, to get their professional opinion on the matter.
Type of Ingredient: Bacterial supplement
Main benefits: Calms internal and external inflammation, restores skin barrier function, offers protection from harmful environmental particles, inhibits bacteria growth
Who should use it: While anyone can benefit from probiotics, they will be especially helpful for those with inflammatory skin conditions like acne, eczema, or rosacea, or anyone suffering from dryness or sensitivity due to a disrupted skin barrier.
How often can you use it: It is safe to use both oral and topical probiotics daily, both morning and night.
Works well with: Ingredients like ceramides, which also help strengthen skin's protective barrier.
Don't use with: Anyone currently taking a course of antibiotics should take care to leave time between taking their prescription and their antibiotics to lessen the chance of one canceling out the other.
What Are Probiotics?
First things first: let's dissect what probiotics are and why they are intertwined with our health—from acne to anxiety to bloating.
"Probiotics are ingredients that promote the growth of healthy bacteria in our bodies," Zeichner explains. "True probiotics are live organisms that may be found in fermented foods like yogurt or high-quality supplements. When taken by mouth, they can help normalize your gut bacteria, improve the microbiome of your digestive tract, and subsequently reduce inflammation throughout the body, including the skin."
Essentially, probiotics are living, gut-friendly bacteria that can benefit our overall well-being by regulating our digestion, fighting potential pathogens or environmental damage, and even strengthening our immune system. Specific inflammation-related skin disorders (acne, rosacea, and eczema) can flare up when something throws our gut's balance of healthy and unhealthy bacteria off-kilter. An unbalanced bacteria ratio may damage our intestinal lining, which then invites irritating substances to make their way into our bloodstream. This triggers our immune system, leading to inflammation throughout our bodies.
Meet the Expert
- Dendy Engelman, MD, is a board-certified dermatologic surgeon with a focus on cosmetic enhancement procedures for both the face and body as well as skin cancer treatment. She is also a fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology, American Society of Dermatologic Surgery, and American College of Mohs Surgery.
- Joshua Zeichner, MD, is a dermatologist who treats both medical and cosmetic skin concerns to address total skin health. He is Director of Cosmetic & Clinical Research in Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.
Benefits of Probiotics for Acne
Probiotics offer both internal and external benefits, and one method of use may yield better results than another for each person.
- Calms internal inflammation: Taking probiotics is the best bet to keep the lining of your digestive tract smooth and robust. "Acne-causing bacteria promote inflammation in the skin, leading to acne breakouts," says Zeichner. "The theory behind the use of probiotics for acne is that it can normalize the balance of healthy bacteria on the skin to reduce inflammation."
- Inhibits production of Propionibacterium acnes: Probiotics applied to the skin consistently led to fewer instances of the P. acnes bacteria that causes acne, according to an article in the International Journal of Women's Dermatology.
- Protects skin from environmental damage: Fighting off external sources of irritation or infection is easier when probiotics bolster your skincare. "Probiotics can create 'holes' in bad bacteria and kill them," Engelman elaborates. "Similar to the way antibiotics work in the treatment of acne and rosacea, probiotics can help fight harmful bugs from triggering that inflammation in the first place."
- Strengthens skin's natural moisture barrier: If you've scrubbed too vigorously with cleansers and other products, probiotics help restore the skin's natural barrier function, which is vital to banishing redness, sensitivity, breakouts, and irritation.
Side Effects of Probiotics for Acne
Probiotic skincare does not have any notable side effects. It is important to note that introducing probiotics into your digestive system may stir things up a bit, so probiotics might possibly increase the number of breakouts you see. There are extra steps to take that can protect your microbiome if you are introducing probiotics orally, so it is best to speak with a healthcare professional before starting. Also, always consult your doctor if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, says Engelman.
How to Use Probiotics For Acne
As we've explored, there are two main options for introducing probiotics into your skincare routine. Eating, drinking (kombucha, anyone?), or supplementing them is one option. "Probiotics may be taken by mouth as an effective yet indirect way to treat acne," Zeichner explains. "In situations where the gut microbiome is altered, a patient can develop inflammation within their digestive tract, which spills over to the general circulation as well as the skin. Correcting a 'leaky gut' by eating or supplementing with probiotics may help calm inflammation in the skin as well as improve acne."
The other option is to work some probiotics into your a.m. and p.m. skin care routines. "Topical skin care products do not typically contain live microorganisms," says Zeichner. "Most contain prebiotics, which are essentially foods that preferentially support growth and healthy bacteria on the skin."
Probiotic-infused products include cleansers, serums, moisturizers, oils, and masks, meaning there's a way for everyone to introduce these hardworking organisms into their lives. Not sure where to start? Try a serum. "For probiotics, serums are best. Serums are meant to be the workhorse products of the skincare routine. They deliver powerful doses of actives to target a specific skin concern at lower molecular weights," says Engelman.
The Best Products With Probiotics for Acne
This serum is a one-stop-shop, combining Vitamin C and wild indigo with probiotics. Vitamin C can lighten hyperpigmentation (like from acne scars) and wild indigo reduces redness. "These ingredients combined with probiotics are a great tool to fight acne," says Engelman.
Oats are the primary ingredient in this rich night cream, along with soothing feverfew. "Oats have long been known to protect the skin, but now we know they contain specialized sugars that are beneficial in normalizing the skin's microbiome," says Zeichner.
This moisturizer "contains prebiotic thermal spring water that has been used for decades to treat inflammatory skin conditions because of its high levels of minerals like selenium," says Zeichner. It's like a trip to the hot springs for your face.
If you're wanting a probiotic-laden pick-me-up, this sheet mask is it. "It combines probiotics and hyaluronic acid for powerful hydration while restoring balance and combating damage from environmental aggressors," says Engelman. Four masks come in a pack.
Engelman recommends this lightweight moisturizer if you're suffering from the dryness that acne treatments like acids can cause but still have oily skin overall. "It will absorb excess oil that could be a feeding ground for bacteria," she says.
In addition to both pre- and probiotics, this dietary supplement contains plenty of essential vitamins and minerals—and who doesn't love a stylish container? Engelman says she uses one scoop a day.
Although this body wash doesn't specifically contain probiotics, it has been clinically studied and proven safe for the skin's microbiome, according to Zeichner. "It is effective enough to treat the chest and back, but also actually mild enough for use on the face."
However powerful they are, probiotics probably won't have the power to completely transform and prevent breakouts—especially if underlying issues like genetics are the likely cause. Still, supplementing your diet with probiotics and adding them into your skincare routine is a promising avenue to explore in the quest to banish acne.
Cleveland Clinic. Acne: overview.
Cleveland Clinic. Probiotics. Updated March 9, 2020.
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Kober MM, Bowe WP. The effect of probiotics on immune regulation, acne, and photoaging. Int J Womens Dermatol. 2015;1(2):85-89. doi:10.1016/j.ijwd.2015.02.001
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