Gone are the days when we’d run from bacteria as if it were our ex in the grocery store.
Today, research on probiotics and the microbiome—the millions of bacteria and biomes found in and on the human body (see What you need to know about your microbiome)—supports the fact that certain bacteria types are actually good for us. Although we most often associate this concept with digestion and gut health, a newer body of science points to the fact that your skin has its very own microbiome, too.
“At the cellular level, skin represents a complex set of ecosystems composed of skin cells and their associated microbiome,” says William B. Miller Jr., MD, author of The Microcosm Within (Universal, 2013). This microbiome varies based on a range of factors, from genetics and gender right down to the clothing you wear. And although we have been trained to think we are “in combat” against bacteria, there’s actually a need to embrace it to support everything from digestion and immunity to mood and skin. “We are now learning that our existence as healthy organisms goes beyond fending off the microbial ‘bad boys’ and is instead firmly anchored in a complex and intimate interrelationship with microbes that grants us survival and well-being,” says Miller.
Balancing the skin’s microbiome
Your body’s immune system and the microbes on your skin work hand in hand to educate and support one another. So when the bacteria, viruses and fungi that inhabit your skin get out of whack, you’re more susceptible to dermatitis, acne and rosacea. And partly because of our germ-free lifestyle, these conditions are on the rise, according to Jasmina Aganovic, president of Mother Dirt, a skin care company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, focused on restoring good bacteria to the skin.
The good news is that you can support your skin’s microbiome. The better news? It doesn’t require drastic shifts in your beauty regime, says Aganovic. First up: Ditch the synthetic facial washes and antibacterial soaps, which can damage your skin’s microbiome. Research has shown that harsh antibacterial ingredients, such as triclosan can have many potential dangers, including contributing to antibiotic-resistant bacteria and destruction of all the bacteria, good and bad, in or on your body. Other ingredients can also strip the skin of its own healthy bacteria.
“Some surfactants are more abrasive than others,” says Aganovic. “Sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium dodecyl sulfate are two to keep an eye out for, as they’re quite harsh.”
Aganovic also abides by the “less is more” approach to skin care, pointing out that using fewer ingredients will interfere less with your skin’s natural oils and bacteria. “Using a multitude of products for our skin and hair is something that the generation before us didn’t do. Cutting down on product usage, even just a little bit, will not only save you time and money, it will help save your skin and the environment.”
Better together: The gut-skin-brain axis
It stands to reason that when one “system” in your body is thriving, the rest of you will be doing well, too. Research on a concept called the “gut-skin-brain axis” supports this notion and proves some eyebrow-raising connections between emotional well-being, gut health and clear skin.
“It seems that all of these organ systems share evolutionary developmental roots and have substantial influences on each other,” says Miller. “Therefore, research has been directed toward attempts to alter the gut microbiome to exert a positive effect on other systems.”
For example, research shows that stress can cause a microbiota imbalance, which can lead to inflammation and acne, but that probiotics can counterbalance this. In one study, patients who drank a lactobacillus-fermented dairy beverage effectively reduced their total acne lesion count. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends introducing healthy bacteria through supplements and focusing on stress-reduction practices such as meditation, exercise and other wellness-oriented activities to take control of your gut-skin-brain axis.
Good bacteria from the inside—and out?
The increasing research on probiotics for the skin has inspired more companies to release topical products marketed as containing healthy bacteria. But should you believe the hype?
There are several barriers to developing topical probiotics, says David Keller, vice president of scientific operations for probiotic ingredient supplier Ganeden. These include shelf stability and shelf life (dead bacteria are not probiotics, the company points out), research on specific strains and their targeted beauty benefits, and FDA compliance. As a result, the ingredient company has instead invested in a research-backed anti-aging ingredient called Bonicel that is derived from probiotics. “When probiotic bacteria grow, there are many beneficial by-products that are produced,” Keller says. Miller agrees that, because the industry is so young, there has been little standardization of research or outcomes but says that the results could vary based on the product and the person. “At this point, any consumer might consider experimenting with a commercial product and personally judging if there is sufficient improvement to justify the cost.”
While we might not be “there yet” when it comes to research on topical probiotics, there is progress toward discovering topical strains than can thrive on the skin. Early research on topical bacteria is promising, appearing both in academia and in the skin care industry from companies such as Mother Dirt, which is studying the role of ammonia-oxidizing bacteria in skin health.
Aside from building up a substantial and credible body of research, another challenge is getting people to overcome the “ick” factor. “For such a long time we’ve been told that bacteria on the skin is a bad thing, so reversing the ingrained psychology is tough,” says Aganovic. “By the same token, gut probiotics have been in the spotlight long enough now that most consumers are able to be receptive to the idea of a skin probiotic.”