Despite our uneasy feelings about germs these days, not all of them are bad. Just like the probiotics that are found naturally in your food (kombucha, yogurt, and kefir, for instance) to keep your gut balanced and healthy, when they’re applied topically, it has the same positive benefits for your skin. If your beauty goals for the new year involve healthier-looking skin, studies have shown that these good bugs can do anything from strengthening your skin barrier to calming dryness and inflammation to minimizing acne (more on that in a bit).
It might sound a little too good to be true, but that’s what our pros are here for. We, er, bugged them for a 101 lesson. Here’s what you need to know:
What are probiotics?
Simply put, it’s good bacteria. The skin microbiome — the ecosystem of your skin — is constantly balancing the good and the bad in over a trillion bacteria in our skin. “Probiotics aid in creating a balanced environment with diverse skin-helpful bacteria,” says Blair Armstrong, dermatology physician’s assistant and founder Gilded. A balanced microbiome leads to happy skin.
What are the benefits?
Probiotic skincare adds a variety of healthy bacteria to the skin, creating an armor composed of microorganisms that safely protects the skin from harm. “Think of your microbiome like a seesaw. If one side is too heavy, it won’t be able to function optimally. Good bacteria on the skin have a protective effect and prevent the overgrowth of bad bacteria,” says Dr. Joshua Zeichner, a dermatologist based in New York City.
Probiotics play well with pretty much any other skincare ingredient, especially protective ones like ceramides.
Anyone could use probiotics and benefit from their perks, but here are just a few of the main highlights:
If you have sensitive skin…
Probiotics add protection from stressors that could spark an inflammatory reaction. They also have natural antimicrobial properties that help shield against bad bacteria. Recent studies showed that probiotics could improve atopic eczema, wound and scar healing, and help skin-rejuvenation. By helping the skin’s immune system, probiotics help your skin to have fewer negative reactions.
If you have mature skin…
“Probiotics have anti-aging properties and support the skin’s innate defense mechanism,” says Armstrong. They help build collagen so it smooths fine lines and wrinkles. Probiotics protect against free radicals that can speed up the aging process.
If you have acneic skin…
According to the International Journal of Women’s Dermatology, probiotics have been shown to directly inhibit acne through the production of antibacterial proteins and restore healthy fats, which can benefit acne and counter common side effects from acne treatments. If, for example, you used a harsh exfoliant that ended up stripping your skin (an all-too-familiar issue when you’re trying to scrub away acne), probiotics can help rejuvenate and replenish your natural skin barrier.
If you have dry skin…
Certain strains (like in the Lactobacillus species aka lactic acid) have moisturizing and exfoliating properties that help with dry skin. “A balanced microbiome can help to restore a healthy pH balance, improve hydration, strengthen the skin’s surface helping to protect the skin from environmental damage, [and] improve dryness and redness,” says Dr. Jenelle Kim, founder and formulator of JBK Wellness Labs.
What about prebiotics?
To achieve the best skin results with probiotics, Kim advises that you simultaneously use prebiotics, which is like food for your probiotics to grow.
“Ultimately, probiotics work best when combined with prebiotic ingredients. This is because prebiotics naturally fuel the growth of probiotics and help them thrive so that they can effectively do their job. So, the best probiotic moisturizer, or any other probiotic skincare product, should contain both prebiotics and probiotics for best results,” she explains.
What kind of strains should I use?
Read the product’s packaging and be on the lookout for the following ingredients: “When buying probiotic skincare products look for ingredients like Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, Vitreoscilla (they’re the most common probiotic strains that you’ll find in skincare), and prebiotic sugars like xylitol, rhamnose, glucomannan, and oligosaccharides,” says Kim.
Who shouldn’t use probiotics?
The best part about topical probiotics is that there aren’t any major side effects. If you’re taking antibiotics, it likely cancels out your probiotics, so check with your doctor to see if it’s worth starting this new skincare regimen. If you’re using probiotics orally instead of topically, it might take a little while for your digestive system to get used to your new biotic friends.
With additional reporting by Christa Lee.