Our relationship with bacteria is complicated – we destroy it in the bathroom but devour it in the kitchen. Sauerkraut and kimchi are modern day status symbols. Even better if you undertake the fermentation yourself, of course. And fanatics swear by live bacterial strains not just for their gut, but for their skin, too. Indeed, probiotics are occupying an increasingly big space in the skincare world, with some believing that they're necessary to cultivate a healthy, radiant-looking complexion.
The idea may make you itch, but there are more than one trillion bacteria and fungi happily crawling and snacking on the skin’s surface, otherwise known as the microbiome. Said to repair environmental damage, they keep the skin barrier healthy and protect against pathogens. But over-cleansing, rigorous exfoliation and pollution, throws it out of whack. “The microbiome is the skin’s first line of defence, so when that is disrupted, it is no longer able to ward off inflammation. Skin tends to flare up and be drier, itchier and more sensitive,” says Dr Marie Drago, the founder of Gallinée, a brand that's built on probiotics.
“It’s estimated that 21 per cent of your body’s bacteria is found on the skin,” says Jules Miller, founder of The Nue Co, a supplement and skincare brand that uses both probiotics (the bacteria itself) and prebiotics (food for said bacteria). “Everyday stressors such as pollution actively impair our skin’s microbiome in much the same way as they do our gut. A topical probiotic helps to deliver good bacteria, restoring imbalances for increased hydration and fewer blemishes.”
Of these, Lactobacillus Ferment, is top dog in the culture club, helping skin to stave off aggressors. Want in? You can find it in Vintner's Daughters cult Active Treatment Essence, £210. Also popular is Bifida Ferment Lysate which, derived from yeast, helps to soothe inflammation – it's a key ingredient in Estée Lauder Advanced Night Repair Serum, £82. Then there's Streptococcus Thermophilus, which thought to increase the production of ceramides (fatty molecules which help to retain moisture), is used in Dr Jart+ Cicapair Tiger Grass Colour Correcting Treatment, £37.
But naysayers argue that, thus far, there isn't enough evidence to preach the pleasures of probiotics. “There is some scientific data which suggests that people who suffer with acne or active flare-ups of eczema have alterations in their skin microbiome,” explains Dr Anjali Mahto, consultant dermatologist at Skin55, “but we still know relatively little about these ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria or even how they interact with each other.” And when it comes to the aforementioned Lactobacillus, Dr Mahto cautions that it has only been studied in the context of the gut microbiome, not skin.
Still, that hasn’t deterred Clinique from using Lactobacillus Ferment in its Moisture Surge 100H Auto-Replenishing Hydrator, £38; nor Allies of Skin from blending it with zit-fighting silver and zinc in its Molecular Saviour Probiotics Treatment Mist, £57. Lancome’s Advanced Génifique Youth Activating Concentrate, £89.10, feeds the bacteria you already have and Aurelia’s Resurfacing Serum, £64, combines bakuchiol, a retinol alternative, with a ferment to offset dryness.
New trend 're-wilding' essentially means treating your face like a garden, which yes, sounds hilariously woo woo, but, meaning to leave nature to nature, it's lauded for restoring your microbiome's 'wild' state, i.e. buzzing with bacteria.
“These days most of us are only in contact with microbes of human origin, which means there is an absence of regular bacterial ‘chatter' on the skin’s surface. It is this lack of diversity that can make the microbiome unhealthy and lead to chronic inflammation,” says Trevor Steyn, founder of the first live skincare brand Esse and pioneer of the trend.
Steyn blames our obsession with stripping away skin’s sebum – yes, all those harsh acids and astringent toners. “These natural oils feed microbes living on the skin,” he explains. “Removing their food source leaves space for opportunistic species such as P.acnes, which cause breakouts to flourish. Bringing nature’s microbes back onto skin in the form of live probiotics can offset the impact of our urban lifestyles.”
Formulating products with live bacteria isn't easy, because the preservatives that stop skincare from going off, can also kill live probiotics. To that end, brands such as Esse, have to get smart. Its Probiotic Serum, £100 keeps live bacteria inactive in an oil solution (which also contains mild preservatives and organic hydrators) until they come into contact with moisture on the skin. At this point, they begin to repopulate the good bacteria, and set about restoring your skin’s ecosystem. The Nue Co’s Barrier Culture Moisturiser, £45, and Gallinée’s Youthful Serum, £50, get around it by using ‘tyndalised’ bacteria, which means the bacteria is gently deactivated by heat.