“Microbiome Friendly” Beauty Products: Do They Work?

The moment we are born, each of us is seeded with trillions of bacteria cells that live and thrive in our skin. These cells form what is known as our skin microbiome. The exact makeup of each person’s microbiome is as unique as a fingerprint and as we go through life meeting new people, interacting with environments, adopting different lifestyles and changing with age, so too does the diversity and health of that microbiome. .

Something as simple as getting out of the house can make our skin microbiome adapt. So is living with someone, in that two people’s microbiomes become so intertwined that algorithms can correctly identify cohabiting couples based solely on their microbiomes.

“The skin microbiome is a natural ecosystem of bacteria that live on the skin,” explains cosmetic physician and skin specialist Dr Martin Kinsella. “It works to protect the skin against harmful pathogens to the point where a well-functioning skin microbiome is the foundation of a healthy immune system.”

As the microbiota colonizes our skin, it flourishes by feeding on the salt, water and oil (sebum) that we naturally produce. This keeps our ecosystem in a delicate balance. When a pathogen comes into contact with a thriving microbiome, it is prevented from colonizing the skin by being excluded. Our microbiome produces antimicrobial compounds and nutrients that act as a form of protection.

If our skin is the first line of defense against pathogens and injury, our microbiome is its armor.

Indicative of this protective nature, studies have found links between babies delivered by cesarean section, meaning they don’t come into contact with vaginal microbes during delivery and increased cases of allergies and asthma later in life. Unicef ​​has made skin-to-skin contact a key component of its birthing patterns, citing the practice’s power of “allowing the baby’s skin to colonize with the mother’s friendly bacteria, providing protection against infection”.

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When this protection is weakened by damage or the presence of harmful bacteria, the delicate balance of the microbiome can be disrupted. This imbalance has been linked to dry skin, eczema, acne and psoriasis, and according to the Skin Microbiome in Healthy Aging (SMiHA) network, around 50% of the UK population experience a microbiome-associated skin complaint each year. .

“Chemicals in skin care products can disrupt the skin’s natural microbiome of the delicate balance of oil and bacteria in the skin,” says Kinsella. “Antibacterial agents are a big factor in this, and other products have harsh chemicals that alter the skin’s natural pH balance.”

This was seen during COVID-19, when a study found that “changes in microbial flora” caused by increased use of disinfectants were linked to an increase in skin damage. Medications and antibiotics have been shown to destroy the skin’s beneficial bacteria, making it more prone to infections. Conditions like acne and dandruff can also be a sign of an imbalanced skin microbiome.

Once out of balance, the microbiome cannot effectively protect against other bad bacteria, and a vicious cycle ensues. With eczema, bad bacteria cause the skin to become inflamed, patients scratch the skin, damaging it further, which allows more bad bacteria to enter.

Kate Porter, founder of skin care brand Harborist, explains: “More severe eczema and dry skin have been linked to an abundance of a bacteria known as Staphylococcus aureus. There is evidence that the reduction S. aureus, to restore a more diverse microbiome population, reduces eczema symptoms. But it’s a chicken and egg situation. Does the unbalanced microbiome cause these problems or vice versa?”

As we age, our microbiome undergoes more changes. This change is not only associated with visible changes – wrinkles, dark spots, dry skin – but also internal changes. There is a school of thought that as our microbiome changes with age, our skin’s ability to protect us from UV radiation diminishes. Thus increasing our susceptibility to skin cancer.

Closeup of a face with acne

Acne is linked to an imbalance in the skin’s microbiome © Getty Images

Recent studies have even shown that the skin microbiome is a more accurate predictor of chronological age compared to the gut. With this theory, a person’s microbiome could, at least hypothetically, be used to assess life expectancy. “Aging has a profound effect on the skin’s microflora in terms of species and numbers,” explains the team leading the SMiHA. “Therefore, human skin presents an excellent system for establishing how changes in the microbiome influence biological age.”

This is not to say that microbiomes are the sole cause of such conditions and diseases – genetics and lifestyle play significant roles, for example – but disruption to our skin’s ecosystem is a contributing factor. Modern hygiene habits, including daily baths, are believed to play a role. Harsh skin care products are often to blame. Researchers from Finland have found a correlation between increasing prevalence of allergies and atopic conditions and declining biodiversity in urban areas.

However, just as everyday products have been linked to disruption of the microbiome, an increasing number of brands are launching products infused with prebiotics, probiotics and post-biotics to balance out this disruption.

While probiotics refer to ‘friendly’ bacteria and prebiotics are nutrients that feed these probiotics, postbiotics are what get left behind in the process. The jury is still out on the benefits of topical probiotics and prebiotics for the skin, largely due to early research and the fact that the use of live bacteria in cosmetics is a regulatory sticking point, but post-biotics in products for the skin are already common.

Lactic acid, for example, found in ready-to-use skin care products, is a by-product of the fermentation of a probiotic called lactobacillus. When applied topically, it has been shown to hydrate, reduce signs of aging and soothe redness.

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The researchers are also looking into the possibility of microbiota transplants to solve skin problems. In a study published in 2018 in the journal JCI Visionan abundance of S. aureus in the microbiomes of people with atopic dermatitis has been replaced by a bacterium known as Roseomonas mucosa “with significant reductions in measures of disease severity and need for topical steroids.”

The problem with nearly all of these findings, however, is that the underlying mechanisms of the skin microbiome remain largely unknown and their impact is disputed. For all studies that link cesarean deliveries with lower immunity, there are studies that either fail to find the same correlations or find associations that are statistically irrelevant.

“When the skin is healthy, we believe that the skin’s microbiome is also healthy, but we’re not sure about that,” says the SMiHA team. “Our understanding of how to manipulate the skin microbiome using everyday products is still very poor.”

“As consumers, we like being able to link a specific ingredient in our skin care to a specific outcome, but there are a number of factors that influence our microbiome,” adds Porter. “It’s tricky to change for the better using just one thing, because the microbiome varies so much between people. There is also no single best direction to change that.”

Recently, initiatives like the Skin Trust Club have started to collect samples from the public to delve into our skin’s health and inner workings. From a biomedical perspective, researchers are also exploring the effects of antibiotics on the skin microbiome to see if we can reduce antimicrobial resistance.

This is much easier said than done, however.

“There is huge commercial appeal to exploring how to improve skin through a microbiome-targeted approach,” concludes the SMiHA team. “However, separating the effects of topical products on the microbial population and skin cells – in a way that allows us to say categorically that microbial targeting leads to healthier skin – is a major challenge for the scientific community.”

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