The quest for clean skin could be the big beauty paradox of our generation. The invasive army of soaps, exfoliators, cleansers, facial foams and treated water that we use has tampered with the naturally occurring probiotic microbes that exist on our skin’s surface. This has spearheaded probiotic skincare – newly available in the UAE – which basically introduces live bacteria in a cosmetic product.
The trillions of bacteria that reside on us may be too tiny to see or feel, but they are the ultimate health inspectors. According to the 2012 Human Microbiome Project, the human body – gut, hair, skin and all – has its own genetic microbiome. Healthy and radiant skin is the result of the complex chemical magic that occurs between these microbes and our own cells.
Why we need probiotics
Much like antibiotics, which can flush our systems of both good and bad bacteria, heavy-duty cleansing products attack the harmful pathogenic bodies that we are bound to come into contact with. But they also destroy the useful probiotic bacteria that are naturally a part of our skin’s environment.
Our skin cells have docking surfaces, minuscule craters of sorts, which can become a hotbed for all manner of foreign microorganisms. The premise of probiotics in beauty is that if we can house mainly good bacteria on and inside these surfaces, there is no room left for skin-damaging pathogens – you may be exposed to them because of the various pollutants we’re surrounded by, but they will be turned away by competitive exclusion (see video below).
This, in turn, slows down the ageing process, helps to avoid and heal adult acne and blemishes, and makes the skin appear clean and clear. “Probiotics are also super-soothers,” says Teresa Stenzel, director of education at Bioelements, which produces an anti-ageing serum with live probiotic cultures immersed in soy and rice-milk proteins.
“In addition to tricking skin into missing bad bacteria, probiotics can calm cells to prevent them from producing the immune response that causes inflammation.”
Looking at microbes
Skin microbes are just as important as those that reside in our organs – what yogurt is to gut heath, bacteria such as lactobacillus and bifidobacterium are to a radiant epidermis. However, it is estimated that we have squandered at least 30 per cent of our microbial partners, compared with our pre-skincare-obsessed forebears, who were largely unafflicted by zits, eczema and rosacea. We also lose them to age, lifestyle and the elements, and to products laden with preservatives and disinfectants, which can kill all surface bacteria.
Much of this has been known for some time, but it took research and development experts several years before they could come up with a way to formulate skincare that was able to include and maintain live bacteria – the good kind, of course.
“A strong colony of good microbes protects you from the bad guys, the opportunist bacteria that can colonise and grow on the skin, stripping it of its lustre and health. Probiotics in skincare is like living armour against pathogens,” says Trevor Steyn, an organic chemist-turned-microbiologist, and founder of Esse.
Products available in the UAE
The South African skincare brand was brought to the UAE by Wellness United in April, and has two serums that host live bacteria, which cost from Dh485 for 30ml. “The lactobacillus we use produces lactic acid on the skin’s surface and keeps the pH level low, between 4 and 5, which is where it’s supposed to be. It also produces hyaluronic acid, a great moisturiser, and it is selectively toxic to pathogenic microbes,” Steyn says.
Esse is one of only a handful of brands that has been able to sustain on a large scale the highly complex process of introducing and retaining live bacteria in its products.
“The serum encapsulates the bacteria using a prebiotic – food that serves good microbes – and then distributes them into an oil base. This is important, encysting them in oil with no contact with either water or air until the product comes into contact with the water on the skin’s surface, and the lactobacillus can activate and start to grow,” Steyn says.
And therein lies the trick: ensuring that the good bacteria don’t die or age before they’re even out of the box. Another constraint is the fatal impact that all but the mildest of preservatives have on these organisms. What this means is that while you might have a probiotic product as the first barrier, slathering a chemical-laden cream or foundation on top will render it almost ineffectual.
This ties in with the move many of us are making to organic skincare and make-up.
“In general, too, if you’re trying to keep your own healthy microbes alive on your skin, stay away from synthetic chemistry – read the small print, and opt for natural oils and plant extracts,” Steyn says.
MotherDirt, from the United States, is another brand that employs live bacteria in its range. The ammonia-oxidising bacteria is introduced into cleansers, creams and mists. The company says these can reduce dependence on soaps, deodorants and conventional moisturisers.
Belgium-based Yun has a line of face and body washes and creams also infused with live lactobacillus. According to the experts at Yun: “Gentle skincare is key; choose body washes and soaps that are kind to the skin and its bacterial flora.” In other words, products that can reintroduce good microbes.
Owing to the complexity and cost of producing and retaining live microbes, however, most probiotic-touting brands, such as Eminence, La Roche-Posay and Aurelia Probiotic Skincare, use non-active bacterial extracts. “Products like the Aurelia Miracle Cleanser, a creamy, gentle, probiotics-infused balm, remove all make-up and impurities while maintaining the balance of the acid mantle. This helps avoid transepidermal water loss, which can lead to dryness, irritation and sensitivity, and helps keep the microbiome intact,” says Aurelia founder Claire Vero.
“As the probiotics we use are non-live – bifida ferment lysate is derived from a milk protein – we are able to include them across our range of skincare. But we always suggest to patch-test a product, especially if a person’s skin type is reactive,” Vero says. The checklist for non-active products is to verify where on the list of ingredients the probiotics are placed; higher up indicates a more concentrated formulation and more effective outcome.
Holistic skin health
Healthy skin is greatly influenced by lifestyle, and goes well beyond the products we buy. “Applying probiotics may produce more immediate results in improving skin conditions because of the direct absorption through the surface. However, ingesting probiotics and applying probiotics topically, used in tandem, will produce sustained results and may actually be required to treat more severe skin conditions,” says Natalie Pergar of Eminence Organic Skin Care. The brand uses probiotic strains in its Clear Skin range, aimed at soothing inflamed skin.
Dalia Fernandez, product marketing manager at Foreo, says: “To help maintain a natural balance of probiotics in the body, you can either take a supplement orally or simply rely on the foods you eat. For example, kimchi, sauerkraut and other fermented vegetables are full of healthy probiotics. The skin benefits from consuming probiotics, as well as applying them topically through products, which is more of a targeted approach to restoring skin.
“Including probiotics, especially in your morning skincare ritual, ensures you’ll start each day with a healthy, radiant and protected complexion,” Fernandez says. Foreo’s Awakening Radiance Yogurt day cleanser contains the bifido bacteria disintegrated in a bioactive milk-based nutrient.
Does this mean that, in addition to adding yogurt, cabbage and kefir to your diet, you should also throw out your entire existing face and body skincare range and make-up? As with any new and not yet fully developed science, we would advise not. While a probiotic serum might well do wonders when it’s the first layer to make contact with the skin on your face and neck, it might not work (or smell) quite as well as if you, say, replaced your deodorant with a microbe-infused mist. Everyone’s microbiome is different and will react as such to the bacteria. In the future, we may well get personalised skincare products, but for now a one-microbe-fits-all theory will require a bit of trial and error, and should be approached with caution and common sense.