As wellness continues to influence our daily beauty routines, we’ve begun to hear more and more about the skin microbiome. Similar to the delicate balance of gut microorganisms that play a vital role in the digestive process, the skin microbiome is getting a lot of attention from researchers and skincare companies alike.
What is the skin microbiome?
Essentially an invisible ecosystem that covers every square inch of our skin, the skin microbiome serves as a protective living layer of microorganisms — including bacteria and yeast. “We are born with good bacteria on our skin that live with us and protect us from the moment we enter the earth,” explains Connecticut-based board-certified Dove® dermatologist Mona Gohara, MD. “Bad bacteria, or what I call ‘burglar’ bacteria, do not belong there. When they invade, they cause harm in the form of infection or inflammation.” Between “good” and “bad,” an estimated one billion bacteria — comprised of thousands of distinct species! — can be found on one square centimeter of skin.
Interestingly, factors that can affect the skin microbiome are not just skin deep. “There is a growing body of evidence that a healthy gut microbiome can contribute to a healthy skin biome,” says board-certified Miami dermatologist Heather Woolery-Lloyd, MD. “For example, studies have shown that oral probiotics can positively affect the skin in many ways, including increased hydration, reduced transepidermal water loss, reduced skin sensitivity, and improvement in acne.” With all of these positive attributes, it’s no wonder bacteria is gleaning so much attention. It’s important to remember, however, that while they may deliver similar skin-supporting benefits and may even be linked, the gut microbiome and skin microbiome are different entities.
How the skin microbiome works, and factors that can affect it
The human microbiome is important for a healthy skin barrier, Dr. Woolery-Lloyd explains. This barrier, which is designed to retain moisture, serves as a barricade between the body and the surrounding environment, preventing irritants and harmful microorganisms from entering the body. It does this by relying on the proper balance of bacteria to perform its job. “As bacterial diversity increases on the skin, the barrier function also increases,” she adds. By this logic, we should actively try to improve the diversity of good bacteria on our skin. You could increase bacteria — thereby conceivably diversifying your bacteria types — with a live probiotic skincare product. The Mother Dirt® AO+ Mist® ($49), for instance, contains a mix of live bacteria; many users swear it has changed their skin for the better (a potential signifier of a more diverse microbiome). Aside from using probiotic skincare products, researchers are still exploring possible ways we can increase our skin’s bacterial diversity.
It’s also important to be aware of habits that decrease good bacteria, since the microbiome is particularly sensitive to the environment around it. Dr. Gohara explains, “Anything that can strip or dry the skin, harm the skin barrier, or change the pH of the skin can potentially harm the microbiome.” This includes extreme climate conditions, harsh chemicals, certain skincare products, and even some professional skincare treatments. If you suspect your skin’s pH is thrown off (your skin feels tight, dry, or “stripped”), consider pH-balanced products like the Dove Deep Moisture Body Wash, which is intentionally formulated to balance pH levels, and thus, the microbiome.
How to tell whether your skin microbiome is balanced
Since the skin’s microbiome is microscopic, it’s impossible to assess its state with the naked eye. That said, there are some telltale symptoms that could clue you in. “Initially, you may not notice anything, but an unbalanced microbiome could result in your skin working harder than it has to,” says Dr. Gohara. “In the case of serious microbiome disruption, you may experience inflammation, irritation, or infection.”
The skin microbiome has been found to play a role in several common skin conditions as well. “Good bacteria are abundant in healthy skin, and bad bacteria, like Staph, are abundant in disease-affected skin,” Dr. Woolery-Lloyd explains. “Poorly controlled eczema and psoriasis have been associated with an unbalanced microbiome.” Research has also identified a link between the microbiome and acne. Relative to healthy skin, skin affected by severe acne has a microbiome that is significantly more imbalanced than the microbiome in those with mild to moderate acne.
It’s possible that the skin microbiome may play a part in aging as well. “It is known that a healthy microbiome reduces inflammation and improves the skin barrier,” says Dr. Woolery-Lloyd. “Over time, this may result in healthier aging.”
What you can do to promote a healthy skin microbiome
The best way to protect and promote skin’s natural microbiome is to commit to a gentle skincare routine. From there, you can consider oral probiotic supplements, as well as specific skincare ingredients that are intrinsically linked to the microbiome itself.
As always, talk to your doctor before starting any new supplement.
Understanding pre-, pro-, and postbiotics
Skincare and supplement brands are recognizing the connection between the microbiome and skin health — and they’re responding to it in droves. For instance, you may have noticed more products and beauty articles lauding prebiotics, probiotics, and even postbiotics. All three “biotics” support the microbiome in somewhat of a chain reaction. Understanding the unique functions can help you glean the most benefit from your skincare routine.
Prebiotics are essentially “food” for good bacteria (i.e. prebiotics support probiotics). Find them in La Roche-Posay® Toleriane® Hydrating Gentle Cleanser ($15), which touts prebiotic-rich spring water as a key ingredient.
Probiotics are synonymous with “good” bacteria (Lactobacillus, a bacteria that produces lactic acid, is a commonly-referenced example). These helpful “active” bacteria can supplement the skin’s natural microbiome, and they may work especially well when combined with prebiotics (the aforementioned “food”). We love probiotic-focused skincare brands Tula® (try the Self-Care SundayTM Nourishing Face Mask, $56) and Mother Dirt.
Lastly, postbiotics are byproducts of processes performed by prebiotics. Though relatively nascent, research on postbiotics suggests that they may play an important role in maintaining a healthy microbiome. And, because postbiotics are byproducts and therefore “dead,” they’d be less volatile from a formulation standpoint. Postbiotic-centric skincare has yet to be created, but with the current and growing interest in the microbiome as a whole, it’s not entirely out of the question.
Dr. Mona Gohara is a paid Allergan® consultant.
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