Your gut’s not the only important place that’s brimming with good bacteria to harness for your overall well-being—your face is, too. (Yes, ew. But it’s a good thing.)
And just as your body’s microbiome—the collection of millions of tiny organisms that dictate everything from how you digest food to your metabolism—is an important factor in your overall wellness game, the same thing applies to your complexion. Which explains why the new healthy face frontier just might feature probiotics popping up beyond supplement aisles and onto beauty shelves.
The new healthy face frontier just might feature probiotics popping up beyond supplement aisles and onto beauty shelves.
“Several years ago, we started to become more aware of the gut microbiome and the need for certain types of good bacteria in our digestive system,” says Jasmina Aganovic, president of Mother Dirt, a brand that harnesses beneficial microbes for skin and body care. “That translates to your skin as well.”
So it comes as no surprise that an increasing number of skin-care products cultivate those good germs, as opposed to wiping them out with harsh ingredients. “When we’re slathering antimicrobial products on our skin every day, that’s the equivalent of taking a course of antibiotics—but no one thinks of it like that yet,” says Marie Veronique Nadeau, chemist, skin-care guru, and founder of the Marie Veronique skin-care line. “What it does is reduces the diversity of your microbiota, and you get too clean—and this leads to all sorts of common-day skin issues.”
Keep reading to get the lowdown on the other vital microbiome—and how to make bacteria your (skin-saving) friend.
So what is the microbiome on your skin?
Aganovic says you can use the analogy of all the different climates of the planet. “The different ecosystems are dictated by the climate,” she explains. “Because of their weather and settings, the types of organisms that thrive there are very different. The same thing happens with the various microbiomes of your body.”
Your skin’s microbiome is influenced by a number of factors, according to Jessica Weiser, MD, of New York Dermatology Group. “These include internal health—such as antibiotics or processed sugar and carbohydrates— environmental toxins, and an assault on the dermis from harsh cleansers and soaps,” she says.
“It’s a potential explanation for why we have too many inflammatory skin disorders in the modern, developed world.”
As for its function, it’s all about protection in order to keep your skin’s barrier intact and hydrated. “The skin microbiome defends against infection, aids in wound healing, and limits exposure to allergens and UV radiation,” Dr. Weiser adds.
Basically, it’s an extension of your immune system, Aganovic says. “But we’re constantly sterilizing and destabilizing this ecosystem,” she explains. “This leads to a state of inflammation—the immune system goes into hyper-drive as it tries to protect itself. It’s a potential explanation for why we have too many inflammatory skin disorders in the modern, developed world.”
How to treat it
The thing is, one of the main functions of skin care is to eradicate bacteria—that’s the whole reason for cleansers. And this, our experts say, is not good for the microbiome.
“That’s why we’re evaluating our existing perceptions of bacteria and seeing what we can do to course-correct,” Aganovic explains. “Good bacteria on your face is necessary for optimal functioning. It’s about simplification and what we refer to as biological mimicry—working with [the microbiome] rather than against it.”
“Good bacteria on your face is necessary for optimal functioning.”
How do you do this with your own at-home routine? Take a closer look at your labels. “So many products are typically preserved with microcidal ingredients,” says Nadeau (things like parabens, PEGs, 1,4-dioxane, and polysorbate). “That means they’re killing off anything that’s alive and potentially helping your skin become healthier.”
What keeps these good pathogens in check, then? Nadeau says it’s about using probiotics in skin care and avoiding any cleansers with detergents (sulfates, for example). “The more you can aid and abet them in their jobs, the better off you’ll be for it,” she explains. “Look for Leuconostoc or Leucidal, which come from fermented radish root filtrate. Other preservatives to look for are aspen bark and elderberry phytocide. And oils should be preserved with vitamin E to stabilize them.”
Oh, and you can try not washing your face for a while—that works, too.
A new frontier
There’s actually still a lot that scientists and skin experts don’t understand about the organisms that live on your face. “There are definitely more questions than answers at this point,” says Aganovic. “What we do know is that the skin’s microbiome is a very different than that in the gut.”
Regardless, natural-beauty gurus have settled on the verdict that a symbiotic relationship—rather than a destructive, antimicrobial one—is key for a healthy glow. And they’re bottling that theory in a slew of products—including Marie Veronique’s Pre + Probiotic Mist ($40), Mother Dirt’s Moisturizer ($34), and Aurelia Probiotic Skincare’s Revitalize & Glow Serum ($96), among others.
“What we do know is that the skin’s microbiome is a very different than that in the gut.”
So, new goal: Harness a cozy little bacteria community on your face—as a (very earthy) way of reaching for enviable radiance.
More scientific skin intel: These are the 11 best supplements for clear skin, and this is your definitive plan for getting rid of acne (once and for all).