By now you’re probably at least semi-acquainted with probiotics — pro referring to “positive” or “good” and biotics referring to “living organisms.” In the case of probiotics, we’re talking about “good bacteria,” which, until recently, most people have associated with yogurt or orally ingested supplements. These are designed to help set our gut flora straight via healthy bacteria, which can aid digestion and promote general health. In recent months, though, there’s been a noteworthy uptick in topical probiotics that are applied directly onto the skin.
While it’s easy to think that probiotic-infused skincare could be a marketing gimmick, don’t be skeptical: there are serious benefits for your complexion. Here, we break down how these products work, ingredients to look for, and more things to know before investing in this ingredient trend.
How Topical Probiotic Skincare Products Work
“Similar to how ingestible probiotics interact with gut flora, topical probiotics simply strengthen and enhance skin flora,” says Dr. Joel Schlessinger, a board-certified dermatologist and cosmetic surgeon practicing in Omaha, Nebraska. He notes that the skin’s microbiome is comprised of thousands of microorganisms, most of which are natural, “good” bacteria.
“Good” bacteria sounds like an oxymoron, but they’re actually there to protect you. Think of them as the spiders of the skincare world: they may creep you out, but they’re there to safeguard you from other scarier creatures. “This ‘good’ bacteria defend the skin from ‘bad’ bacteria, protecting against skin damage and other concerns,” Dr. Schlessinger explains. When skin is unprotected, or the “bad” bacteria outweighs the “good,” and your skin becomes susceptible to further damage.
Sarah Akram, a board-licensed master esthetician based in Alexandria, Virginia, adds that it can even lead to issues such as acne, eczema flare-ups, increased sensitivity, and greater environmental havoc.
Ingredients to Look For
While there is a plethora of different kinds of probiotics, there are two main groups that are especially common: lactobacillus and bifidobacterium. These both contain subgroups, or species, of further bacteria, such as L. Acidophilus (the L. stands for lactobacillus) or B. Lactis (a.k.a. Bifidobacterium Lactis). These popular probiotics are found naturally in the body, but are also commonly found in dairy products like yogurt, or other fermented foods, such as miso or tempeh.
They’re also found in skincare products, where they work hard to protect your skin. “[Probiotic] ingredients such as lactobacillus, bifidobacterium, and vitreoscilla strengthen the skin’s surface against pollution, free radicals, and damaging effects from the sun,” Akram advises. “They can also enhance your skin’s ability to stay hydrated, while soothing existing inflammation.”
Soothing and recovery is a key benefit of the new GlamGlow® BerryGlow™ Probiotic Recovery Mask ($49), which features that recognizable lactobacillus ferment to help balance and support the skin. The ingredient co-stars are also important: you’ll find hyaluronic acid, jojoba oil, and shea butter to help amplify the hydrating benefits of probiotics, plus a blend of antioxidants (including blueberry, beetroot, cranberry, and goji) to help keep free radicals from inflicting damage.
But What Are Prebiotics?
When reading ingredient lists on topical probiotic skincare products, you may notice that these products also contain “prebiotics.” These are simply organisms that the good bacteria feasts upon. This keeps them alive — and therefore effective.
For example, the Algenist® Alive™ Prebiotic Balancing Mask ($38) is loaded with algae prebiotics to help keep the probiotics alive (hence the befitting name). It also contains bentonite clay to improve skin clarity and zap excess oil, as well as the brand’s signature ingredient, alguronic acid, which curbs signs of aging. In addition to leaving the skin radiant, the mask makes for a fun sensorial experience, as it turns from green to pink. Read our beauty editor’s review of the Alive Prebiotic mask here.
You’ll also find a combination of prebiotics and probiotics in the Saturday Skin® Cotton Cloud™ Probiotic Power Sheet Mask ($6), which delivers them to your skin via a thin microfiber sheet.
While pre- and probiotics rebalance your complexion and improve its overall health and radiance, cotton extract, vitamin E, and polyphenols further bolster the skin's barrier function and impart deep hydration.
A Guide to Using Topical Probiotics
A consistent regimen that includes cleansing, toning, exfoliating, hydrating, and a shield of SPF can help improve your skin’s barrier function and keep the delicate microbiome at peace. The addition of a topical probiotic, however, essentially gives skin a balancing boost.
“Everyone’s skin has its own unique microbiome, and this is the case whether their skin type is normal, dry, or oily,” explains Dr. Schlessinger. “This means every skin type [may] benefit from probiotic skincare.” He adds that it’s rare for probiotics to cause reactions or irritate skin, but that some people may be sensitive to other ingredients that the bacteria have been formulated with.
How often, and the order in which you use topical products, depends on two factors: your skin type and the product’s formulation. If you’re not sure if a certain product will work for you, read the instructions and follow them to a T. If you’re not sure how often to use it, a good rule of thumb is about once weekly until you know how your skin will react to it. (Whenever trying a new product, in general, it’s best to spot test in a discreet spot, such as the back of your neck or under your chin, and refrain from using it right before a big event.) Of course, while probiotic-infused skincare offers plenty of benefits, it’s worth consulting with your dermatologist if you’re unsure if these kinds of products are right for you and your complexion’s needs.
Lastly, it’s important to remember that probiotic skincare features living bacteria. This means that expiration dates should be followed closely: the product’s efficacy will change as it reaches the end of its shelf life. After all, you’ll want to get your money’s worth! Learn more about beauty products and their expiration dates here.
Dr. Joel Schlessinger is a paid Allergan® consultant.
Some complimentary products were provided to the author for the purpose of writing this article.
Product prices may vary from the time this article was written.
Allergan® may receive commissions for purchases made through links in this article.