The word “bacteria” probably doesn’t give you good vibes, especially after what we’ve all been through this past year. But contrary to popular belief, not all bacteria are bad. When it comes to balancing out the bacteria in your microbiome, it might be the key you’ve been missing in your routine to achieving your best skin. While prebiotics and probiotics have typically been associated with your gut health, it’s been the latest buzz in the skincare world. How are bacteria and skin health all related? We dive in with your biggest questions about the trend.
What’s a microbiome and why does it matter?
“The skin microbiome is a living, breathing community of microorganisms on our skin surface that is invisible to us. It is composed of bacteria, fungi, viruses, and yeast — billions of them,” says Fatima Fahs, MD, a Michigan-based dermatologist.
“We now know that the diverse community of bacteria on our skin is imperative to maintaining a healthy skin barrier. Research has shown that when our microbiome is disrupted, this can contribute to a disturbance of our skin barrier, ultimately leading to skin sensitivity,” she says. Everyone has a unique composition of organisms that make up their skin microbiome. It can also vary based on what part of the body we are referring to. “For example, the underarm area has vastly different microorganisms than that of the scalp. To make matters even more complicated, external factors can also impact our skin microbiome: the climate we live in, our age, ethnicity and even our diet or level of stress,” she says.
What’s the difference between probiotic and prebiotic skincare?
Whether they’re on your skin or in your stomach, probiotics are live bacteria that we use to introduce the “good bacteria” to our microbiome. Prebiotics are the non-living substances or nutrients that promote the growth of good bacteria.
Prebiotics provide the nutrients our skin needs to create a healthy environment for good bacteria to flourish and grow. Think of prebiotics as the fertilizer for beautiful, green grass.
In other words, prebiotics act like the food source to your probiotics. All-day long, your skin is trying to balance the good microorganisms with maintaining your immunity to the bad ones.
What do they do for your skin?
“Research shows that the composition of our skin microbiome can impact the severity of skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis, and acne. In individuals with these conditions, the microbiome may be altered, resulting in a disrupted skin barrier that cannot retain moisture and is more prone to infection or outside insult,” says Fahs.
Most skin types will benefit from the use of probiotics and prebiotics in skincare. “Even if you don’t have a specific skin condition or issue, they promote a healthy, diverse microbiome to maintain a healthy skin barrier. As always, it is hard to predict how you’ll react to a certain formulation, so as with any new product, it’s never a bad idea to test a patch of skin prior to use,” she says.
It’s important to remember that not all strains of bacteria are alike, and certain ones will fit your needs better than others. Here are a few common probiotics and prebiotics found in skincare:
- Lactococcus ferment lysate: Great for dry or sensitive skin to restore your skin’s balance.
- Bifida ferment lysate: Known to help decrease dryness and create a stronger barrier against environmental stressors (like pollution).
- Lactobacillus ferment lysate: Addresses signs of aging as well as improving adult acne.
- Vitreoscilla filiformis: Known for improving atopic dermatitis and severely dry skin.
- Nitrosomonas eutropha: Decreases excess oil production and clogged pores.
- Inulin: Helps address issues like rosacea, fine lines, or hyperpigmentation.
- Oat extract: It can translate to fewer bouts of eczema and relief for dry, inflamed skin.
- Fermented honey: Supports the skin’s natural microbiome.
- Pink yeast filtrate: Rich in minerals, amino acids, and vitamins to nourish the skin.
- Chlorella: Fights the look of surface redness by supporting the skin’s natural microbiome.
- Kelp: Also reduces the look of redness and irritation.
“It’s best to use them together,” says Fahs. “Since prebiotics act like the food source to your probiotics, if you use probiotics alone, your skin will have a tough time trying to make those beneficial bacteria from your probiotics thrive.”
Is there a difference between taking them orally versus applying them topically?
“Probiotics and prebiotics are taken orally as supplements have been studied for years and confer numerous benefits to both the gut and skin,” says Fahs. You can obtain probiotics naturally from foods like kefir, tempeh, kimchi, and kombucha. According to Harvard Health Publishing, the recommended probiotic dose ranges from one billion to ten billion colony-forming units (CFU), which is the amount contained in a single capsule supplement, a day.
You can also find prebiotics in foods (mainly fruits and vegetables) like artichokes, bananas, flaxseed, barley, chicory, soybeans, and oats. You only need about three to five grams of prebiotics a day to get the benefits. You won’t usually see the word “prebiotic” on your ingredient labels, however. You may see it listed as galactooligosaccharides, inulin (a type of fiber), or oligofructose (which is a type of inulin).
“Because probiotics are live organisms, it is easier to consume them orally then formulate them in a shelf-stable cream,” says Fahs. “There is some controversy regarding the stability of probiotics in skincare products as you can imagine, because if probiotics are truly ‘live’ bacteria then they should theoretically not be able to survive in a cream that contains preservatives on a shelf, and instead require refrigeration. Therefore, most skincare that claims to contain probiotics actually contain bacterial extracts or ingredients, not necessarily living bacteria,” says Fahs.
“Prebiotics in skincare, on the other hand, are much easier to formulate. They provide the nutrients our skin needs to create a healthy environment for good bacteria to flourish and grow. Think of prebiotics as the fertilizer for beautiful, green grass,” she says.
For people with a sensitive stomach, irritable bowel syndrome, or SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth), one of the benefits of using probiotics and prebiotics in your skincare as opposed to introducing it as part of your diet is that it shouldn’t worsen symptoms of bloating, gas, or diarrhea.
How long will it take to see results?
“Results from topical skincare products can be as soon as one or two weeks of regular use. Remember that consistency is key in terms of frequency of application as our microbiome is a living system that requires regular maintenance. It is not a one and done scenario,” says Fahs.