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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. That's not to say generalized approaches, like salicylic spot treatments and certain diets, can't be effective. They most certainly can be! It's just that the quest to improve acne can be a lot more complicated than we would like it to be. Sigh.
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? Curious and, yes, a little skeptical, we reached out to some of the industry's best dermatologists 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.
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," Joshua Zeichner, MD, 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 (aka acne, rosacea, and eczema) can flare up when something throws our gut's balance of healthy and unhealthy bacteria off-kilter. An unbalanced gut with a too-high ratio of harmful bacteria may damage our intestinal lining, which then invites irritating substances (that would normally be digested and discarded) to make their way into our bloodstream. In a chain-reaction effect, this triggers our immune system, leading to inflammation throughout our body, including redness and skin sensitivity.
"We really don't know which forms of acne are best treated with probiotics, but my guess would be that the more inflammatory forms of acne will be the most receptive to probiotics as a form of treatment," says Zeichner.
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. If the lining is damaged or weakened, unwanted waste material could leak into the bloodstream and go on to irritate other parts of the body - including the skin.
- 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 this 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," dermatologist Dendy Engelman, MD, 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 skin care 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 can 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.
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 and/or supplementing with probiotics may help calm inflammation in the skin as well as improve acne." Zeichner recommends also scaling back on inflammation and acne-provoking foods like processed, sugary, and starchy foods, in addition to dairy.
The other option is to work some probiotics into your a.m. and p.m. skin care routines. "Many probiotic-based skin care products have come to the market recently, but rather than containing true probiotics, they contain probiotic extracts or prebiotics that help create an environment optimal for healthy bacterial growth on the skin," Zeichner tells us. 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.
The Best Products With Probiotics for Acne
This treatment gel is specifically formulated to harness the strength of probiotics to help control acne. It contains salicylic and hyalauronic acids as well, making it a one-stop-shop for probiotic acne control.
As Dr. Zeichner mentioned, this cleanser is packed with prebiotics, the probiotic extracts that help create a good environment for healthy bacteria to thrive.
This overnight mask combines the best of both worlds to help restore hydration and strengthen the skin's barrier function: it combines probiotics with soothing ingredients like honey with reparative ceramides.
This creamy oil hydrator is a great multi-use option to pump in some probiotics into whatever part of your skincare routine makes sense. Use it alone as a serum or mixed in with a foundation or SPF.
Need a barrier boost on the go? A probiotic mist could work. This Dr. Jart calming spray combines probiotics with tiger grass to double down on reducing the appearance of redness.
For an everyday dose of redness-controlling probiotics, this cream from long time skin care giant Clinique is a good choice. Remember to layer up with SPF for daytime use.
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 quash acne.
Up Next: Wondering where to start with probiotic pills? Head on over to hear about a nutritionist's top recommendations.