Everything You Need to Know About Your Skin Microbiome
There's a host of new products aimed at bettering the skin's microbiome. But do they really work?
Your skin acts like a bouncer for your body, keeping out viruses and other organisms that can make you sick. Experts used to think the skin cells were that first line of defense, but we now know it begins with the skin’s microbiome. Yep, you've heard all about the probiotics that feed your gut. But the newest probiotics are aimed at bettering your skin—and the trillions of microbes that live there.
You can't see all of the 1,000 species of bacteria and fungi that live on the upper layer of your skin, but they likely impact what your skin looks and feels like day-to-day. "We already know that a single centimeter of skin can contain bacteria, fungus, mites, and viruses," says Melissa Kanchanapoomi Levin, M.D., a New York-based dermatologist and clinical instructor at New York University. "Most of the microorganisms haven't been researched yet, but we know that diversity [of that microbiome] keeps skin healthy." (Related: Should You Try the Microbiome Diet?)
Ideally, these bugs are abundant enough to overpower the harmful microorganisms you encounter, says Jessica Richman, Ph.D., the CEO and co-founder of uBiome, a biotech company that recently partnered with L’Oréal to study the skin microbiome. But things like the soap you use or the clothes you wear can throw off the skin’s microbiota, possibly leading to acne, skin inflammation, and other issues. We asked top experts for the best science-backed ways to feed your skin’s healthy bugs and boost your immunity and glow.
Take Note of Certain Skin Conditions
New research shows that keeping these microorganisms in balance may help to protect skin from certain conditions. For example, acne, eczema, and rosacea are now attributed to a lack of diversity in the skin microbiome, Dr. Levin explains. Eczema patients, for instance, were found to have a microbiome that's different from the microbiomes of those who do not suffer from the telltale inflammation and skin rashes.
Often, skin conditions occur because the microorganisms found on the skin have changed significantly from optimal levels, she adds. To keep those in check, try La Roche Posay's Toleriane Hydrating Gentle Cleanser (Buy It, $15; ulta.com), which uses prebiotic thermal water and doesn't change the skin's natural pH to help promote diversity of the skin's microbiome.
And here's some good news: If you're taking an oral probiotic that targets the gut microbiome, you might see an improvement in a condition like acne because of the connection between the gut and the skin.
Stop Using Harsh Soaps
“Dermatologists have started advising against overcleaning,” says Anne Chapas, M.D., a dermatologist in New York City. Washing your skin too often (skip those trendy triple-cleanse routines) or using harsh soaps strips away good bacteria, she says. Clean only when you really need to—before bed to remove makeup, after a workout or an especially sweaty day—and avoid antibacterial soaps.
Preserving these colonies of organisms also means focusing on eliminating fragrances and other powerful synthetic materials, says Dr. Levin. Retinoid or topical antibiotics also disturb the fragile balance of skin organisms. "There's a strong push not to give so many antibiotics or retinoids," says Dr. Levin. "You don't want to significantly change the diversity of your skin."
And don't forget other body parts, she warns. For instance, wearing natural clothing fibers can keep the skin flora in balance in other parts of your body, including the armpits and groin area. Or try Gallinée La Culture Body Milk (Buy It, $38; lookfantastic.com) which uses prebiotic and lactic acid along with probiotics to encourage microbiome diversity. (Next up, read: How to Clean Your Skin Without Getting Rid of Good Bacteria)
Hydrate—Inside and Out
Regularly underhydrating can negatively affect your skin’s microbiome, Richman says. Drink at least 64 ounces of water a day, says Melissa K. Levin, M.D., a dermatologist in New York City and a clinical instructor at NYU Langone Health. She also suggests using a microbiome-pampering moisturizer: “Look for one with hyaluronic acid or glycerin, humectants that draw water into the skin, plus ceramides or squalene, fats that restore the skin barrier.”
Whenever possible, wear clothing made from natural fibers such as cotton and bamboo, especially if the fabric will be close to your skin for a long time, like underwear. Synthetic fibers can irritate the skin barrier, changing the ratio of good to bad bacteria, says Dr. Levin. Man-made fibers, like polyester, also provide a more welcoming environment for odor-causing bacteria than cotton, the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology reports. (Related: Fitness Gear Made with Natural Fabrics That Stand Up to Your Toughest Workouts)
Supplement Your Skin
The probiotics you take for your gut may boost the skin’s microbiome too. “Some data shows they can decrease inflammation that occurs with conditions like acne and rosacea,” says Dr. Levin. The probiotic strains with proven skin benefits include Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, both of which are found in Hum Skin Heroes Pre + Probiotic (Buy It, $40, sephora.com). As for topical probiotics, “more research is needed to confirm their effectiveness,” says Y. Claire Chang, M.D., a dermatologist in New York City, “but early lab studies suggest they may regulate the skin microbiome and restore barrier function.”
Don't Overhaul Your Beauty Routine
Even as we learn what's living on our skin, cosmetics companies are just beginning to research how to treat the skin microbiome with prebiotic ingredients ("food" for our good bacteria strains) or probiotic strains (the actual "live" bacteria) to encourage balance and gentler ingredients overall. For some skin products—much like the yogurt or the probiotics we eat—refrigeration is a must. That's the case with Mother Dirt's AO+ Mist (Buy It, $49; amazon.com), a live probiotic spray that users say reduces dependence on deodorants and moisturizers. (Related: 4 Sneaky Things Throwing Your Skin Off Balance)
Ultimately, Dr. Levin believes that skin-care companies will start to target each person's unique microbiome by building out algorithms to track which ingredient matches their specific needs.
For now, adding topical probiotics to your beauty routine is experimental. "There's no great evidence for us to tell you exactly which bacteria would be beneficial," says Dr. Levin. But there's no real harm in playing around with some probiotic skin-care products.