There's a host of new products aimed at bettering the skin's microbiome. But do they really work?
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." Here's what experts know about your skin's microbiome so far.
Take note if you have rosacea, eczema, or acne.
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 ($15; laroche-posay.us), 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.
Preserving these colonies of organisms means focusing on eliminating harsh soaps, 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 ($38.50; lookfantastic.com) which uses prebiotic and lactic acid along with probiotics to encourage microbiome diversity.
Don't start overhauling your beauty routine just yet.
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 ($49; motherdirt.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 of the probiotic products above.