How Topical Probiotics Can Improve Skin Health

Industry experts break down how spas can harness topical pre- and probiotics to benefit clients’ skin.

Probiotic-skin-care-facial[Image: Paffy69/ISTOCK; skeeze/Pixabay]

It’s 2019 and probiotics are no longer just fodder for dairy foods and kombucha, but have solidly arrived in the mainstream. Nowadays, experts claim that these so-called “friendly bacteria,” essential for maintaining a healthy digestive system and regulating immune response, may offer benefits beyond the yogurt and beverage aisles. After all, our skin is its own teeming microbiome, aka a place where millions of “bugs” and various other bacterial species live symbiotically. As Katherine Tomasso, national director of education for Yon-Ka Paris, explains, “The microbiome is what protects our skin from invading pathogens and irritants.” When it’s compromised by environmental toxins, processed foods, stress and antibiotics, “opportunistic pathogens and irritants can penetrate the skin’s surface, resulting in a host of reactions,” she warns.

Given the known benefits of ingesting probiotics, it makes sense that companies are increasingly formulating topical options that purport to calm the complexion, maintain moisture balance in the skin barrier, and protect it from harmful bacteria. Clients with acne, rosacea, eczema and other inflammatory conditions in particular may benefit. DAYSPA turned to skincare industry pros to find out more about this fast-growing field.


Getting Topical

Humans are, in essence, walking petri dishes that harbor billions of bacteria, fungi and viruses—best-case scenario, they all live in harmony. Unfortunately, that’s not always so. “Imbalances of all those agents within the body often reveal themselves externally—certain types of acne and skin congestion are directly related to bacteria imbalance,” says Natalie Pergar, lead skin care trainer for Éminence Organic Skin Care.

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Good and bad bacteria both play a role in the skin’s immunity, says Karen Asquith, national director of education for G.M. Collin. “Chronic inflammation occurs when bad bacteria stimulates the immune response and we don’t have enough good bacteria to fight it,” she explains. “Prebiotics assist in the proliferation of good bacteria on the skin, so they essentially feed probiotics.” Prebiotics consist of fibers like flaxseed, bran and barley, notes Steven Rosenfeld, CEO of Columbia SkinCare. “We provide these ‘good’ bugs with food and a place to live, and they in turn help us fight the ‘bad’ bugs and aid us in balancing our microbiome,” he says. “Prebiotics sustain and enable probiotics to keep the pathogenic bacteria under control.”

And as we know, probiotics fight bad bacteria. “Their presence on the skin doesn’t leave space for the bad bacteria to proliferate and induce an immune response, which helps the skin combat damaging externals such as pollution and free radicals,” says Asquith, pointing out that studies show pre- and probiotics also carry antiaging benefits thanks to their inflammation-minimizing powers. Plus, according to Pergar, the “protective shield” that probiotics provide helps preserve the moisture barrier. “By interfering with bacteria’s ability to stimulate an immune reaction, probiotics calm the parts of the cells that may want to react to the presence of bad bacteria, and normalize the skin’s natural bacterial and moisture balance, helping it to ‘reset,’” she adds.


Delivery 101

Pre- and probiotics can be incorporated into all skincare products; the formulation simply depends upon skin type and the condition it’s meant to address. “When we’re trying to develop something that will effectively eliminate or minimize the amount of pathogens on our skin, we want to be sure we don’t upset the balance of healthy bacteria living there as well,” notes Rosenfeld. With prebiotics, he prefers to source insulin derived from chicory root, as well as plant sugars like xylitol, for use in hydrating agents.

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Probiotics commonly used in skin care include Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, but such agents can sometimes be confusing to parse on products’ ingredient labels. “Probiotics generally have ‘bacillus’ in their name, such as Lactobacillus ferment,” says Asquith. (This is because most probiotics used in skin care are derived from bacteria cultures found in milk and yogurt.) These are also frequently combined with other microorganisms for optimal outcomes, adds Pergar.

When it comes to soothing acne flare-ups and normalizing skin’s bacterial and moisture balance, topical probiotics are a promising option. “This is because bacterial imbalance and inflammation are the biggest culprits in terms of acne,” says Pergar. Asquith agrees: “Acne-fighting products containing both pre- and probiotics—say, oligosaccharides as prebiotics and Lactobacillus acidophilus as probiotics—have proven to be beneficial in reducing blemishes in clinical studies.” In these cases, probiotics combine best with naturally astringent, antiseptic willow bark or salicylic acid, as well as soothing niacinamide—blends that can be powerful allies in addressing eczema, too, says Asquith.

Meanwhile, probiotic Lactobacillus casei and Lactobacillus acidophilus combine well with chamomile for a calming effect, and Asquith points out that they actually work well with other anti-inflammatory actives including aloe, licorice extract and madecassoside. “Pre- and probiotics can be formulated to help rebalance many inflammatory conditions, including sensitive and reactive skin, acne and rosacea,” notes Tomasso. Probiotic serums or creams soothe skin on a cellular level, adds Rosenfeld, who explains that this also helps improve texture and stimulate natural collagen production. “A combination of prebiotics and probiotics formulated with vitamins, antioxidants and other beneficial ingredients can improve the skin barrier while increasing the production of antimicrobial peptides, enhancing the growth of the stratum corneum,” he says.


On the Horizon

The experts are all in agreement: The inclusion of pre- and probiotics in skincare products and treatments is here to stay. “Research is still in its infancy—especially when it comes to prebiotics—but I believe these actives fill a void, and are not just a passing trend,” says Tomasso.

Thanks to new technology called next-generation sequencing (NGS), scientists are able to rapidly sequence whole genomes and study microbial diversity in humans and the environment—a revolutionary breakthrough, says Rosenfeld. “Older sequencing technologies were very expensive and they provided a limited view of what was going on, but this allows us to resolve the genetic blueprints of organisms within communities and obtain genome sequences from more complex environments,” he explains. “We’re at an amazing point in microbiology, where we can use sequencing to obtain hundreds of genomes from an ecosystem.”

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It’s significant because the more the industry learns about the microbiome and the relationships between healthy skin and overall wellness, the better formulators can identify which specific pre- and probiotics work together most effectively. “I’ll go out on a limb and predict that in 10 years’ time, the paradigm for skin care will shift to one based on utilizing the body’s microbiota and harnessing its own healthy bacteria to fight disease and stimulate the skin renewal process,” says Rosenfeld.

—Katie O’Reilly

This story first appeared in the October issue of DAYSPA Magazine. To receive the magazine, subscribe here.

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