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The Beauty Of Bacteria

Is probiotics-laden beauty a skincare win or a novelty trend?

  Bacteria has had something of a makeover. It was once confined to conversations around the efficacy of household cleaning products, but a wealth of research and resulting buzz around the natural microbiome in human bodies has turned biotics both pre and pro into mainstream terminology. Plenty of you sat up, interest piqued, and soon fridge doors were lined with kefir, brunch wasn’t brunch without sourdough and Dr Megan Rossiwas celebrity first, PhD gut researcher second. The shift has given rise to a whole new industry of probiotic foods and supplements, and now never one to be left behind the beauty industry is after its piece ofthe pie.

  The truth is that your skin is covered in bacteria; at any given moment,trillions of microscopic single-cell organisms can be found whiling away the day on the top layer of your epidermis. It’s a microbiome, just as you have a microbiome in your gut, and it exists all over your skin face and body.

  There are particularly common strains of bacteria take cutibacterium, staphylococcus hominis and staphy lococcus epidermidis, for example butthe specific make-up of your microbiome is unique to you and largely dictated by your genetics and lifestyle, including where you live, what you eat and the products you use. The function ofthis collection of bacteria is to protectthe skin and keep it healthy, just as the bacteria in the gut work to ensure your digestive system is running efficiently and effectively. 

  Scientists know that diets low in fibre and fruit and veg can cause an imbalance in the gut microbiome, giving rise to increased levels of bacteria that aren’t helpfulto the body; ifthese getinto the bloodstream and are transported to skin cells,they’ve been shown to trigger inflammation, acne, redness and dryness, says French cosmetic doctor Marie Drago. Ifthe skin microbiome is compromised in a similar way say, by applying products that are too abrasive or acidic or eating lots of high-sugar foods you’re more vulnerable to environmental stressors, such as pollution and UVrays, resulting in inflammation, loss of elasticity, acne, rosacea, sun damage the list goes on. So,the thinking goes thatif consuming probiotic foods can help you maintain a healthy gut, feeding your skin with probiotics can help the dermis in the same way.

  The beauty industry has dabbled with probiotic products for years, but rarely have the bigger brands or the average consumer taken note. Until now. A recent Mintel reporttouted probiotics as one ofthe biggest drivers ofthe UK facial skincare marketfor 2020. Searches for ‘microbiome’ on Google increased 110% last year, according to Treatwell’s Beauty Report 2019. ‘Probiotic skincare has been bubbling away for some time now, butit’s only in the past couple of years thatit’s become a status ingredient,’ says Lisa Payne, senior beauty editor attrend intelligence business Stylus. Lancôme Advanced Génifique Serum, £30, which launched in 2009, contains seven different prebiotic and probiotic extracts in its anti-ageing formula. The Elizabeth Arden Superstart range, created to bolster your skin’s defences, blends skincare darlings glycerin, ceramides and hyaluronic acid with two strains of bacteria. And smaller brands have centred their entire ranges around the concept of probiotic skincare. UK-based Aurelia Probiotic Skincare’sRevitalise & Glow Serum, £64, is a potent probiotic formula thatincreases collagen production by 140%. In a probiotic skincare first, Mother Dirt has harnessed live bacteria to level up its products. The hero ingredientin the brand’s OA+ Mist, £49, is ammonia oxidising bacteria (AOB), which naturally converts sweatinto nitrate and nitrate oxide, calming inflammation.

  Brands aren’tturning to probiotic formulas without cause.Research from the past decade points to the theory that bad bacteria in your skin’s microbiome can be warded off with the help oftopical probiotics that help good bacteria on the skin to thrive. In 2017,the University of California, San Diego discovered thattwo particular strains of bacteria staphy lococcus hominis and staphy lococcus epidermidis can eliminate staphyl ococcus aureus, found in higher quantities on the skin of people with eczema. Scientists swabbed the two strains of bacteria from the skin of an individual eczema sufferer, cultivated itin a lab and incorporated the microbes into a moisturising lotion. Next,they applied the formula to the volunteer’s forearm and noted animprovementinthe conditionwithinjust a day. What’s more, a year later, a study by the University of Antwerp in Belgium found that applying lactobacillus to mild-to-moderate acne can help reduce inflammatory lesions and blackhead formation.The bacteria altered the skin microbiome, specifically reducing the abundance of staphylococcus.

  As with alltrends that have enjoyed a sharp rise in popularity,there are those who question, if notthe legitimacy of probiotic skincare,then the blanket claims thatit would benefit everyone. Some question the idea that particular strains of bacteria are suitable for all skin types, given that everyone’s skin microbiome is different. Mike Wilson, professor of microbiology at University College London, has concerns.

  ‘Introducing any microbe that’s not part ofthe resident microbiota of a particular body region is potentially dangerous,’ he says. ‘Take lactobacillus: despite research showing its positive effects on acne-prone skin, it doesn’t occur naturally in healthy skin microbiota. It’s very difficultto predict whatit would do to the microbial communities that reside there.’ Dr Bernhard Paetzold, co-founder of S-Biomedic, which designs therapeutic and cosmetic applications for the skin microbiome, concurs. ‘Lactobacillus is naturally found in the vaginaltract, butit’s not  part ofthe facial microbiome,’  he explains. ‘I would always choose a strain that’s naturally found on the area ofthe skin you’re treating. Sadly,there’s no one good strain that would work for all applications.’

  Dr Barbara Sturm, aesthetic doctor and founder of her eponymous skincare brand, is keen for people to learn how to live in harmony with their skin in the first place, rather than turn to probiotic formulas to repair damage. ‘Healthy skin is usually ever so slightly acidic, with a pH between 4.2 and 5.6,’ she says. ‘This protects it against allthe damage life throws atit, and naturally prevents bad bacteria breeding. So focus on hydrating and strengthening your skin barrier, which maintains the pH, with ingredients such as hyaluronic acid, niacinamide and botanicals packed with antioxidants.’ That should remove the need for bacteria-specific skincare.The growing preoccupation with clean-asa-whistle skin isn’t doing your dermis any favours, either. Ingredients and preservatives designed to strip the skin can’t discern between good and bad bacteria, so they’ll wipe out hundreds of species ofthe good stuff,too. It’s the same reason gut experts warn against colonic treatments to wash away the bad, you’re likely to see the good disappear,too. Known offenders include foaming sulphates (SLS), which strip the skin of its natural oils, and methylisothiazolinone (MI), a harsh preservative thatinhibits bacteria from growing in the water found in skincare, thereby extending its shelf life.

  Acids such as glycolic and lactic, as well as physical scrubs with grains or beads, have the ability to make skin glow, but be aware thatthey’re also culprits for stripping away everything in their wake. ‘Every time you cleanse, it takes around four hours for the acid mantle, the skin’s outermost protective layer,to re-form,’ explains Dr Joshua Zeichner, dermatologist at Mount Sinai Hospital, NYC.

  Atthe end ofthe day, you’re unlikely to stop cleansing your face or turning away from acids that promise glowing skin, so it’s about weighing up the pros and cons of each product you use: if probiotic skincare allows you to find the sweet spot between getting rid of daily grime and build-up without letting bad bacteria run riot, happy days. And ifthe idea doesn’t seduce you now, know that research into identifying more strains of beneficial skin bacteria is developing at pace, and experts believe that advanced formulas will benefit your skin. So keep aneye out as you quaff your kombucha.

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