When most people think of microbes, they tend to think of infections and diseases, and usually don't think about the important role they play on the skin. In 2012, the U.S National Institutes of Health carried out the Human Microbiome Projects and since then the microbiome has been a topic of interest in food, healthcare, and skincare, with estimates placing the global market value of the microbiome in the cosmetic industry at $1.5 billion by the year 2025 (1). However, information on the microbes found on the surface of our skin is new and is considered the latest trend in the medical science and cosmetic industry. Big names such Johnson & Johnson and L’Oreal have already began focusing on taking science and applying it to products that will harness the full potential of the skin microbiome.
What is the Microbiome ?
The human microbiome consists of all microbes such as fungi, bacteria, viruses and their genes, that live naturally inside us and on the surface of our bodies.The health of our skin depends on a living ecosystem called the skin microbiome. This biome acts as a shield against external factors such as UV rays and pollution, and forms a symbiotic ecosystem with our skin (2).
This ecosystem is fragile and under the effect of an excessive presence of undesirable bacteria or certain microbes can lead to an imbalance (3). The mutual relationship between microorganisms and their resilience to environmental impacts is of great importance as the dysbiosis in the skin microbiome can consequently lead to skin damage that can manifest in the form of micro-inflammations, acne, dandruff, or eczema (4) . In other words, a healthy barrier maintains skin homeostasis, protects water loss from the body, and keeps potential pathogens and irritants out.
Categories of Ingredients that Influence the Microbiome
Over the past couple of years it has been recognized that certain types of microbes provide the host with health benefits. Terms such as probiotics, prebiotics, and post biotics have been used by cosmetic companies to take advantage of the opportunity to manage personal health in order to develop new products and increase profits (5).
Cosmetic formulations with prebiotics, probiotics, and postbiotics, serve three main functions; to protect, optimize, and restore the skin microbiome.
Prebiotics “feed” the microbiome in a potentially selective way which supports the growth of healthy microorganisms (7). Board-certified dermatologist with Zeichner Dermatology, Dr. Joshua Zeichner says most ‘probiotic’ skin care contains prebiotics. Examples of this include colloidal oatmeal and mineral water rich in selenium. This is a more holistic approach to building your microbiome as the prebiotics are meant to feed more strains of your own bacteria (8).
Probiotics are known to improve the balance between the “good” and “bad” bacteria in the body. Probiotics are also capable of producing metabolites that support skin health. One of the largest challenges the cosmetic industry faces is how to use bacteria in formulation while keeping the risk of bacterial contamination at a minimum. More research is needed in this area, however there is evidence that topical applications of [live] probiotics are beneficial for skin concerns such as skin aging and acne (9).
Postbiotics are metabolic by-products of probiotics and provide diverse functions such as stimulating a healthy gut microbiome and supporting immune function through the gut. These postbiotics include lipids (such as ceramides) and proteins (such as peptides) that a compromised microbiome does not produce on its own (8). Through the use of preservative-free postbiotcs products, we are able to rebalance the skin microbiota which has been described as an important factor in the prevention of skin diseases, restoring homeostasis.
The Microbiome and Skin Care
Skincare focused on the microbiome is a concept that has been brewing for a few years but struggled to make its way to the forefront, afterall terms like “bacteria '' and “fungi '' don't necessarily catch a consumer's attention. The concept of biome-based skin care is based around the idea of working with, rather than working against, the skin in order to achieve optimal skin care (7).
Everytime you slather something onto your skin, you may alter your microbiome. Introducing outside chemicals can damage your skin microbiome as well as the outer layer of your skin, the stratum corneum, causing the protective function of your body's ecosystem to be affected (8). Essences, moisturizers, oils, and serums affect the microbiome’s ability to thrive, says Sue Nabi, former president of L’Oreal and Lancôme.
Dos and Don'ts of Microbiome Skin Care
Do: Opt for gentle products with a simplified ingredient list
Oftentimes some of the issues you are trying to address with your skin care routine such as redness, wrinkles, dryness, acne, can be caused by your product usage . When the skin is compromised, New York City dermatologist Whitney Bowe M.D recommends focusing on ingredients that nourish the skin such as jojoba oil, shea butter, squalene oil, and aloe (11).
-Don’t: Over-treat the Skin or Use Harsh Ingredients
Avoid harsh surfactants that denature proteins and strip the skin of natural oils when cleansing. Sulfates and soaps, for example, are alkalinizing in order to remove microbes and dirt. Natural soap bars have high pHs that disrupt the skin’s natural low pH, which favors the growth of pathogenic bacteria (10).
-Do: Streamline your Regimen.
Alison Cutlan, a green chemist and cofounder of sustainable pro-microbiome skin care brand Biophile, says the “The 10-step skincare rituals expose the skin to hundreds of chemicals that put a lot of stress on the skin and microbiome, causing imbalances, and sensitivities” she cautions. She also warns against layering active ingredients that could potentially irritate the skin. Many powerful active skincare ingredients, while they have “mountains of evidence supporting their skin benefits”, are still known irritants and if used incorrectly can weaken the skin barrier. Cutlan also advises to skin any aggressive physical exfoliation steps as they can destroy your healthy and delicate skin barrier (11).
-Don’t: Use Drying Alcohols on the Face
Drying alcohols are often found in toners and are used in an attempt to degrease the skin. These alcohols damage your skin barriers as well as your microbiome. Drying alcohols can be found on labels under titles such as SD alcohol, denatured alcohol, isopropyl alcohol, or ethyl alcohol.
Hydrating alcohols on the other hand are emollients, and keep the skin hydrated and supple. These types of alcohols such as cetyl, stearyl, and cetearyl alcohol are good for the skin (11).
As the field of study on the microbiome expands, expertise of chemistry and microbiology will be needed by cosmetic companies in order to ensure high-quality cosmetics that adhere to definitions such as prebiotic, probiotic, etc (5). Developing products that promote a healthy skin microbiome in the cosmetic industry lack strong clinical evidence supporting the efficacy of these products, however, taking care of your microbiome can lead to improvements of well-being as well as appearance.
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