The latest trend in skincare? Probiotics. Here’s everything you need to know about it.
If you’ve ever slapped a yogurt mask on your face, congratulations: You’ve already discovered probiotic skincare. The tradition of using yogurt to calm and soothe troubled complexions dates back centuries, but in the past decade, cosmetic brands have been taking a more in-depth look at why it works, and how to combine it with other cutting-edge ingredients to make skincare that works for everything from anti-ageing to acne.
Probiotics are good for eczema and acne
Rewind to 2008, when scientists in the US began The Microbiome Project, a massive piece of research into the balance of bacteria in the body. Media coverage of this initiative made everyone gung-ho for probiotic tablets to boost general health. It then emerged that these pills might also help the skin microbiome – the billions of bacteria that live on the epidermis – and in turn one’s complexion.
“There is some evidence that taking gut probiotics actually helps skin conditions such as rosacea, eczema and acne. So the idea is: If the probiotics in our gut work, why not apply them directly to our skin?” explains Dr Ivan Tan, medical director of Nu.Reflections Medical Aesthetics.
Probiotics helps to reduce skin sensitivity
While much of the initial research was focused on conditions like acne and eczema, brands now are claiming that probiotic skincare can benefit everyone. How? Besides battling the baddie bugs for space on skin’s surface, they’re said to maintain a healthy pH, and produce molecules like sugars and lipids, which strengthen the skin barrier and reduce sensitivity.
These days, probiotics has become a major buzzword in beauty. Nicolas Travis, founder of two-year-old homegrown cult skincare label Allies of Skin, attributes this to “the whole inside-out trend”. “(You know, what with) people starting to take better care of themselves and realising how important gut health is,” he explains.
“A healthy gut equals healthy skin. There is a direct correlation, so customers are starting to educate themselves about the importance of good bacteria (in all forms). (People now) are extremely savvy and interested in both wellness and cutting-edge skincare,” he adds.
Probiotics are finally becoming more popular in skincare
Sheenum Kumar, marketing manager of Lancome Singapore, points out that using probiotics in skincare isn’t new. There are two in its Advanced Genifique Youth Activating Serum, which has been around since 2009, while its Genifique Sensitive serum, which was launched last year, contains a third probiotic. The thing is, it’s taking a while for the concept to become popular, she says.
“While customers are fully aware of the benefits of probiotics in food items, it is our role as skincare experts to educate them on their key functions in building skin’s resilience to external impurities,” she says. “We have definitely seen a general uplift in awareness on probiotics in skincare (during)our campaigns in 2017… but there is more work to be done.”
This has not stopped some beauty companies from taking their belief in the benefits of probiotics to the next level. Take Korea’s Su:m37, which uses bacteria it creates through natural fermentation, instead of artificially in labs (which is what the majority of beauty brands are known to do.) This, the label claims, concentrates the ingredients and allows them to be absorbed into the skin more easily.
There’s also live bacteria. Probiotics in skincare, you see, are usually dead. While still effective, they are less so as compared to when they’re living. Niche brands, like Esse from South Africa, have tapped on this. It incorporates live bacteria in its skincare that, in turn, must be preservative-free and stored at a certain temperature.
Then there are products with prebiotics, which act as food for probiotics that are naturally present on skin. La Roche-Posay uses them in two of its ranges – the anti-eczema Lipikar and anti-acne Effaclar – while Dior’s Hydra Life line contains prebiotic fermented sugar along with ingredients like haberlia, which is said to stimulate skin’s own flora to produce substances that are good for skin.
What’s next for probiotics in skincare?
The use of probiotics in skincare may be as old as Cleopatra, whose very stinky bath was said to contain fermented milk. Now that it’s at the cutting-edge of industry research, what next? The answer: the use and study of even more tongue-twisting types of bacteria.
Lactobacillus, of which there are hundreds of strains, is by far the most common. It is mostly used for acne, sometimes with the broth in which it was cultured (in which case it’s known as lactobacillus ferment). Others with proven results include streptococcus thermophilus (it helps with hydration), and bifidobacterium longum (this reduces sensitivity). There are, however, thousands more to be investigated – and many unanswered questions: How do factors such as climate, age, gender, hormones and ethnicity affect the skin microbiome? What effects do cleansing and antibiotics have? Does the microbiome of one’s spouse change your own? And – the ultimate question – might it one day be possible for brands to tailor products exactly to our own unique bacterial mix?
All this is, of course, years away and, as Dr Tan points out: “Most studies are done with oral consumption, and not with actual topical application. More research needs to be done.” His advice: Use them if they work for you, and drop them if they don’t.
A version of this article first appeared on www.femalemag.com.sg.