Like fashion, there are also trends within the skincare industry that change as customer demand and science changes, but how do you differentiate between a promising ingredient versus one with unreliable claims? Reading an ingredient list can be tricky and it’s hard to know what to look for with new things popping up so often. This got me thinking (and wanting to research for myself) about the skincare ingredients I hear and see being talked about a lot, some with debate, others with a consensus on whether it’s worth the hype or not.
I’ve written about the most common acne ingredients in my all about acne post and some other common ingredients in my skincare label post if you want to read more, but this post will focus on an increasingly hot topic: pre and probiotics, and the role they play in skincare.
The skin microbiome is made up of various microorganisms including bacteria, fungi, and even viruses. A healthy microbiome is an important part of the skin barrier and helps protect against environmental stressors and foreign pathogens. The microbiome can be disrupted by over-cleansing, using harsh products that are not pH balanced, and dry or dehydrated skin. Microbiome varies greatly depending on diet, lifestyle, environment, and even through skin-to-skin contact with another person. It is not known which strains and how much of each strain is needed to make-up a “perfectly” healthy microbiome, which also varies on different parts of the body (e.g., your armpit has a different microbiome than your forehead). There is also a fair amount of research in the role the microbiome plays in inflammatory skin diseases.
A common way I’ve heard prebiotics described is they are like the fertilizer to probiotics. Prebiotics feed probiotics; they work symbiotically. Prebiotics are more easily stabilized and have much a longer shelf life than probiotics (see below).
An up-and-comer in skincare. Probiotics are live microorganisms. Strains of probiotics are so sensitive that even the journey from mouth to the stomach can lessen survivability, therefore diminishing the potential benefits. However, there is a lot of interesting research being done to improve encapsulation.
I currently use a cleanser with pro and postbiotics (I’m on my third bottle now) and thoroughly enjoy it. However, whether the results I’ve seen are partly from the probiotics or simply from a pH balanced, well-formulated cleanser, I can’t be sure. From what I’ve learned so far, I am definitely looking at the ingredient label more closely than before.
If you see a strain of bacteria in a product followed by the word “ferment” or “filtrate”, this is not technically a probiotic. These post-biotics, as they are sometimes called, are essentially the leftovers of live probiotics. Postbiotics are much more promising in terms of stability and skin benefits. If a brand is marketing that a product has “probiotics”, but it is actually a by-product, this can lead to some confusing marketing claims. A lot of probiotic products do also contain pre and postbiotics.
Much like taking a supplement, pre, pro, and postbiotics in skincare are meant for balance. They aim to help strengthen the skin barrier, protect against pathogens and environmental stressors, improve skin sensitivity, increase hydration, and help with inflammatory skin diseases like acne, rosacea, and dermatitis. There are a fair amount of fascinating findings in individuals with those skin conditions; e.g., people with eczema have a lack of microbiome biodiversity and people with acne have an overgrowth of certain bacteria, compared to people who don’t have these issues. I will link some studies at the end of this post if you’d like to read more about treatment strategies for specific skin concerns.
On the Contrary
Although the idea of probiotics in skincare is exciting and the benefits promising, there hasn’t been a lot of research on the efficacy or stability of them in skincare. There is, however, considerably more research on the (lack of) viability of probiotic supplements. Manufacturers go through a lot of trouble to ensure minimal degradation of the various strains of probiotics added to food and supplements, so the idea of having them shelf-stable in a topical form is a newly explored subfield.
Another issue is that most (almost all) skincare products contain preservatives to prevent bacterial growth. So if the preservatives are doing their job and preventing bacterial growth, and probiotics are bacteria, how can survivability of the intentionally added microorganisms be ensured? This creates a contradiction in the formulation and, again, confusing marketing claims. This is also why most brands opt for ferments and lysates instead of living bacteria.
So, is it worth it?
The problems with stability are prevalent but can be improved over time. The issue with this now is the correlation with false or misleading marketing claims that can be an unnecessary dip into your wallet. If you want to try a product with probiotics, go for it; when in doubt go for pre or post, not probiotics. You know at least with prebiotics and filtrates that you are getting some benefit, whereas probiotics are much less reliable and can be over-priced. Overall, this is an idea that I’m excited about and will continue to follow as new methods and technology come out.
*Just using a gentle cleanser and a plain moisturizer can help repair and strengthen the skin barrier which supports a healthier microbiome.
What are some ingredients you see a lot in skin care products and what are newer ingredients that you want to learn more about?
- Cassandra Bankson video
- Bacteria Therapy For Eczema
- Brosseau, Carole et al. “Prebiotics: Mechanisms and Preventive Effects in Allergy.” Nutrients vol. 11,8 1841. 8 Aug. 2019, doi:10.3390/nu11081841
- Byrd AL, Belkaid Y, Segre JA. The human skin microbiome. Nat Rev Microbiol. 2018;16(3):143-155. doi:10.1038/nrmicro.2017.157
- Grice EA, Segre JA. The skin microbiome [published correction appears in Nat Rev Microbiol. 2011 Aug;9(8):626]. Nat Rev Microbiol. 2011;9(4):244-253. doi:10.1038/nrmicro2537
*DISCLAIMER: This post is intended for educational and entertainment purposes only, it is not meant to be a replacement for professional medical advice or treatment.