You may have noticed the spike in skincare products that claim they can optimize the skin’s microbiome, the assortment of microorganisms that live on its surface. It started about six years ago. Their formulas contain probiotics, which are said to rebalance the skin’s microbiome. The thinking is that the introduction of “good” bacteria strong-arms some of the “bad” bacteria out of the way, reducing inflammation, among other things, along the way.
While parts of that logic are true, it’s apparent that probiotic skincare is more the result of some ambitious marketing than a scientific process. In other words, probiotic skincare may well be the future of skincare, but it’s not here yet.
Do probiotics have any benefits?
There’s plenty of research that makes a connection between microbiome imbalances in the skin and gut and inflammatory skin conditions like eczema, acne, and rosacea. There are also lots of people who’ve tried probiotic-infused skincare products and swear by their effectiveness.
But these products cannot fundamentally change – or recolonize, if you want to get technical about it – our skin’s microbiome. That’s not to say that nothing happens. Certain probiotics could potentially affect (and even benefit) our skin, but for now, those effects will last only until the products containing those probiotics are washed away or those live microorganisms die.
The future is bright, but it’s not here yet
The crux of the issue is this: The body’s microbiomes are incredibly nuanced and complicated landscapes – the gut’s even more than the skin’s. And researchers have only just begun to differentiate between the specific strains of probiotics. To claim that we have any idea which of those strains will have long-lasting, or even short-term, effects is to make a leap that’s simply not supported yet by science.
As one researcher said, “The science right now has revealed promising leads, but nothing particularly solid.”
Even more, the majority of the research on probiotic therapies focuses on the microbiome in the gut, not the skin. And to our understanding so far, the benefits are not interchangeable.
Yet, probiotic skincare’s market share is growing every year. However, it’s being largely fueled by a buzzword and vague marketing campaigns. For example, a type of bacteria called lactobacillus features prominently in probiotic creams and serums, but it’s not because it’s shown any notable benefits to the skin. No, it’s popular among skincare brands because it’s one of the few strains that will stay alive in unrefrigerated cosmetic formulation.
It’s not unrealistic to think that probiotics will revolutionize skincare – imagine a probiotic that secretes sun protection when you go outside – but there’s still a lot that needs to be understood between now and then.