Everything You Need to Know About Probiotic Skin Care, According to Experts

They can help clear your skin.

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Here’s a news flash for you: The surface of your skin is covered in bacteria, and just like the bacteria in your gut, this bacteria ranges from harmful to harmless to beneficial. In total, roughly 1000 different species of bacteria have been identified on healthy human skin. This “ecosystem” of microorganisms is referred to as a microbiome, and it’s vital to the health of your skin. In fact, if the microbiome is disrupted, it can potentially play a role in a whole list of less-than-savory skin conditions, including the likes of dry skin, inflammation, irritation, and even psoriasis, eczema, and acne, according to David Lortscher, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and founder and CEO of Curology.

That’s where probiotics come in. Probiotic skincare products are formulated for the sole purpose of supporting the skin’s microbiome, which, in theory, keeps the aforementioned skin conditions at bay. In order to fully understand probiotic skin care and the way it supports the skin’s microbiome, we have to dig a little deeper and define what probiotics actually are, how they work, and the difference between probiotics and prebiotics, which is yet another beauty industry buzzword. Read on to learn about all of this and more.

What are probiotics, really?

Marie-Laure Simonin Braun is a skin biologist and the CEO of Payot. She says that probiotics are “deactivated microorganisms” that are procured through biotechnology. “These probiotics strengthen the skin microbiome (all the microorganisms that live in symbiosis with our bodies) and relieve many conditions of sensitive skin,” she says.

If the thought of rubbing bacteria on your skin by way of a probiotic moisturizer makes you cringe, know that there are no live bacteria present. According to Dr. Lortscher, “probiotic bacterial cell lysates, or the broken-down version of probiotic cells that are no longer living and multiplying,” are used in probiotic skincare products. Whether you call them “broken-down” like Dr. Lortscher or “deactivated” like Braun, these probiotics are often paired with other good-for-skin ingredients, such as hyaluronic and lactic acids. Dr. Lortscher says these ingredients work together to moisturize the skin and improve its barrier function.

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“In theory, they may have some antimicrobial and immune-stimulating effects and act on epidermal and dermal remodeling (which can affect skin’s appearance).” While this all sounds rather incredible, Dr. Lorstcher cautions that “more research is still needed before we can confirm these effects.”

What skin type does probiotic skin care benefit?

“The use of probiotics is suitable for all skin types. Indeed, they will maintain the balance of natural skin flora and therefore strengthen the skin barrier function,” Braun says. “They are particularly recommended for sensitive skin, stressed skin, and reactive skin.”

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To sum it up, Braun says that if your skin has a microbiome (which it does), you can benefit from probiotics. Furthermore, if you struggle with sensitivity, then you can especially benefit from probiotics.

Dr. Lortscher agrees with the theory behind probiotic skin care; however, he’s not sold on the real-life application (at least, not yet). “In theory, topical probiotics may be able to influence the composition of skin microflora and discourage the growth of pathogens. This would reduce the presence of harmful bacteria growing on your skin and help maintain the ideal skin microbiome. However, there isn’t enough strong clinical research to show that probiotics work topically.”

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He also notes that the skin’s microbiome is influenced by both internal and external factors, including skin pH, sebum production, geographic location, and the use of antibiotics and cosmetics, so supporting your skin’s microbiome goes beyond just using a specific skincare product. (In fact, some experts say that specific skincare products could be part of the problem. Products such as harsh cleansers and stripping peel masks, as well as habits such as over-exfoliation, could be damaging your microbiome without you even realizing it.)

So what’s the difference between probiotics and prebiotics?

If you’re familiar with probiotics, then you’re probably familiar with prebiotics, too—and yes, there is a difference between them. According to Braun, while probiotics are essentially “good bacteria,” prebiotics are the nutrients that encourage their growth and reproduction. In other words, one is a microorganism, and the other is the microorganism’s food. “From a chemical standpoint, they often belong to the sugar family (like alpha-glucan oligosaccharide) and are always an excellent source of nutrients for the good bacteria (probiotics),” Braun says. “They are perfect to fortify the natural skin flora by restoring its health and rebalancing the microbiome.”

Dr. Lortscher notes that you can, in fact, reap the benefits of pre- and probiotics through your diet. “Many dietary plant fibers act as prebiotics, which are non-digestible food substances that stimulate the growth or activity of beneficial gastrointestinal microbes,” he says. “Consuming a wide variety of dietary fibers will encourage the growth of a diverse and healthy gut microbiome. In turn, this may help create a healthy environment for the skin microbiome, although more research is still needed. Foods rich in prebiotics include asparagus, bananas, oatmeal, and legumes.” You can also take supplements.

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So, what’s the verdict, then? The verdict, it seems, is that maintaining awareness of your skin barrier through the products you use and the lifestyle you lead is never a bad thing. Seeing as topical probiotics have the potential to support said skin barrier, they’re definitely worth a try.

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