A Microbiome Scientist Tells Us How Probiotics Benefit Skin

Brace yourself: At this moment, there are over 1 trillion microorganisms living on your skin. While the word ‘bacteria’ may make you shiver (probably now more than ever), we actually want these living things to thrive given their ability to soothe inflammation (including eczema and psoriasis), prevent acne, and slow signs of aging. That’s where the concept of probiotic skincare comes in. Besides the fact that these microorganisms are heroes in gut health—and are one of the reasons kombucha has become a drink of choice in recent years—probiotics hold a place in skincare, too. To better understand how adding probiotics to your routine can benefit skin’s microbiome and overall health, we consulted scientist Sofia Popov, the founder and CEO of GUTXY.

What Is Skin’s Microbiome?

In order to understand how probiotics work, Popov explains that we must first take a look at skin’s microbiome (also referred to as the skin flora). “Our skin is home to millions of bacteria, fungi, and viruses otherwise known as our skin microbiome.” Similarly to a fingerprint, each person’s microbiome is unique (and can change as we age) although they all share a similar role. “Like those in our gut,” Popov says, “the microbes on our skin play essential roles in our body: Protecting against pathogens, supporting the immune system, and ensuring your skin is healthy.” If you’re well-acquainted with skin’s moisture barrier, this might sound familiar. That’s because technically, the microbiome is its outermost layer. This invisible coating of microorganisms sits right above the skin's acid mantle, helping keep intruders away and protecting its lower layers from damage. 

As you can imagine, allowing this ecosystem of bacteria and other organisms to flourish is important for keeping the microbiome in tip-top shape, which will benefit skin’s health overall. While this is true for all types and concerns, it’s particularly beneficial if you have sensitive skin, frequently breakout, or are prone to inflammation (such as eczema, rosacea, psoriasis, and dermatitis). “The population of microbes on your skin influences how your skin looks and feels,” Popov adds. A well-balanced microbiome can fight off infections, heal wounds (like acne scars) more quickly, prevent moisture loss, and better protect against UV ray damage. Basically, according to Popov, having more good or bad microbes [can] play a role in whether skin stays clear or breaks out, feels itchy or smooth, looks inflamed or stays get the picture. 

When the microbiome is out of whack, skin’s barrier won’t work as well as it should. Taking antibiotics (which can eliminate the good bacteria as well as the bad), using products with a high pH (remember: skin’s optimal pH level hovers around 5), and an unhealthy diet can all contribute. So how do we ensure all that good bacteria thrives and the skin's microbiome stays happy and healthy? Enter: Probiotics. 

The Benefits of Probiotics 

Popov puts it simply: Probiotics are the “living microbes we can consume in pill, powder, or food form to get a direct boost of good gut bugs.” Since these microorganisms are present in the gut as well, consuming probiotics will likely share some of these fringe benefits. In fact, Popov adds, “studies have observed an important connection between the gut and skin. Trouble with the gut often goes hand-in-hand with skin troubles, and can even influence several skin disorders.”

Before the idea of consuming live bacteria freaks you out, consider that you’ve likely ingested a source of probiotics before. Yogurt, sauerkraut, tempeh, and sourdough bread all contain them. Although, unless you’re eating a significant amount of probiotic-rich foods, it’s unlikely you’re getting enough to make a difference in your microbiome. That’s why many opt to take probiotics in supplement form in order to see any results. Of course, if you’re particularly focused on any of the skin concerns we mentioned previously, Popov says you can also reap the benefits of probiotics by applying directly on the skin (which is just as effective as imbibing it) when it comes to refining the balance of microbes. 

No matter how you choose to get your dose of probiotics, you’ll likely see them referred to them by their scientific name. Lactobacillus bulgaricus, Bifidobacterium infantis, and Lactobacillus plantarum are some examples of probiotics commonly used to benefit the skin's microbiome. Our Milky Cleanser is formulated with lactobacillus ferment lysate; this ingredient goes through a fermentation process that breaks itself down into smaller molecules your skin can actually absorb (as we know with ingredients like hyaluronic acid, molecule size matters). While this ingredient is lab-made, it mimics the benefits of using live microorganisms: rebalancing, soothing, and reducing inflammation and redness. By the way, while some experts advise on storing probiotics in the fridge—since these living organisms are so unstable—most forms of skincare (including ours) use a shelf-stable version that doesn’t require refrigeration. 

What About Prebiotics?

If you’re familiar with probiotics, you’ve likely come across the term prebiotics, too (we know, we know: it’s confusing). You can think of prebiotics as a supplement to your probiotics; they’re non-digestible fibers that promote beneficial gut bacteria. In other words, says Popov, “prebiotics are food for your live probiotic bacteria. If you don’t have enough prebiotics, your ‘good gut’ bacteria starve.” Ideally, both probiotics and prebiotics will work together to ensure skin’s microbiome works at its best.

As of right now, research on the benefits of topical prebiotics are fairly limited. Similarly to probiotics, however, you can load up on them through your diet. Asparagus, oats (psst: these are also found in Gentle Cycle), onions, asparagus, and garlic are just some foods that contain an ample source of prebiotics.

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