The Goal: Optimize your skin and gut microbiomes to enhance health, beauty and longevity.
The Problem: “Optimized” has yet to be elucidated
Microbiome: Think of this as the population in a community. In this case, though, the population is to the tune of tens of trillions of microorganisms living on your
skin and in your gut. They vary from bacteria and viruses to other little critters in between. Some are helpful (commensal), some are symbiotic (a relatively peaceful co-existence), and others are harmful (pathogenic).
Foods rich in probiotics include yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut and kombucha tea. In skincare, probiotics would be living organisms placed on the skin via sprays, creams or other formulas.
Prebiotics: This refers to foods or ingredients that promote the growth of microbes within any given microbiome. Oral prebiotics may include nondigestible (by humans at least) carbohydrates found in fibrous foods, such as apples, artichoke, flax seeds, legumes, onions, etc. They can provide nutrition for bacteria (the probiotics) in the gut. The key is to eat the right sources, so you feed all the correct types of bacteria that you want to promote. Unfortunately, many prebiotics can feed both the good and bad microbes.Prebiotics in skincare products can be botanically based sugars and oils based on the above sources that provide nutrition for bacteria on the skin’s surface. Because microbes that live on the skin differ from those living in the gut, we need prebiotics specifically formulated for the skin.
Postbiotics: These are the byproducts of probiotics and are most commonly produced by fermentation. Well established and commonly used in dermatology and skin care, they include ingredients such as lactic acid and glycerol. Postbiotics are even often considered the beneficial waste product of bacteria and help to convert essential vitamins in food to a form that we can use.
Synbiotic: A product that contains both probiotics and prebiotics that has the nutrients for bacterial growth and the bacteria themselves.
And Now for the Story:
For all you germaphobes out there, it may make you uncomfortable to know that on any given day there are likely trillions of bacteria living on your skin and in your gut. Before you run out to get a crazy “detoxifying” colonic, I’m hopeful you’ll celebrate the tiny inhabitants instead. What you put in and on your body can play a powerful role in your overall health, age, and wellbeing. You’ll see that bacteria aren’t all bad and, in fact, there are some we can’t live without. The goal is to nurture and support commensal microbes, as they can improve digestion, vitamin production, and immunity. And, they keep the dangerous microbes from taking over and causing harm.
The perfect microbiome has yet to be elucidated, but we do know that there is no one-size-fits-all formula. The DNA in yours is unique from that of someone else. Also, the microbiome is not fixed, rather it can be in flux due to lifestyle, aging, and environmental factors such as diet, antibiotics, alcohol, and pollution.
The benefit of having a healthy microbiome is that it strengthens your immune system, equipping it to better defend against environmental stressors that cause disease (even cancer) and exponentially speed up the aging process. A gut microbiome that is off balance can lead to a leaky gut, which is a situation where harmful bacteria, cell wall proteins, and other by-products are allowed to enter your bloodstream. The result is often inflammation that can cause disease or inflammatory skin issues such as eczema, psoriasis, and acne.
To optimize the microbiome many are turning to pre, pro and post biotics.
Prebiotics are starting to become more popular and common in skin care, but as I mentioned above, these substances many times feed the bad microbes along with the good, so they are most beneficial when your microbiome is “healthy” and in symbiosis with you.
Probiotics have gained popularity in skin care over the past few years and there are many from which you can choose. However, most of the brands out there are not actually “probiotic” but most times are instead pre or post biotics. Anything with the label “ferment” or “lysate” are not probiotics, despite what they are marketed as.
Because of all these factors, it can be intimidating when parsing out what to look for in a probiotic skincare product. The bacteria most commonly used include the dairy propionic acid bacteria (PAB) lactobacillus and bifidobacterium. Since these microbes are not native to skin, it is still being determined if they are able to live and thrive long enough to confer any benefit.
The barrier in creating probiotic skin care for mass production is finding a good way to preserve it, since the function of preservatives is to eliminate bacteria and yeast from the product. As you can imagine, if you are trying to formulate a live probiotic product where the active ingredient is bacteria, finding a preservative system that would keep the topical pure, while also allowing for the probiotic to live/function is indeed challenging. This is why the industry is turning to prebiotics, which have a more sustainable shelf life.
Unfortunately, because of the challenges, the majority of skincare that claim the moniker of “probiotic '' don't actually have live microbes and are therefore not really probiotics but mostly marketing hype. There may be some exceptions out there, so keep your eyes peeled for products that have live cultures that are skin-relevant!
Probiotic skincare is still in its infancy and there is much more marketing hype out there than legitimate evidence, so make sure you temper your expectations when trying out new products. While you parse through all the options, why not begin by improving your gut health, which we know can also have a great impact on your skin and overall health? You can start by adding more fiber (a good ol’ prebiotic) to your diet.