Welcome to our series "Buzzy Beauty Ingredient of the Moment," the premise of which is pretty self-explanatory: In each installment, we'll explore an ingredient that's currently trending in the industry, springing up in a variety of different products lining the beauty aisle. We'll consult experts to find out about the science behind it — and why it's having a major moment right now.
Probiotics — microorganisms that occur naturally in yogurt, fermented foods and the human gut — have been getting plenty of attention of the past few years for their many purported benefits to digestion, and overall health. When ingested in food or via supplement, they can support "good" bacteria that may help boost immunity, promote a healthy digestive tract and ward off illness. But these tiny little guys are also showing up in the skin-care world, being used to market topical moisturizers, cleansers, masks and serums promising benefits ranging from quelling acne, eczema, premature aging and redness to promoting skin's moisture barrier. But how does topically applied probiotic skin care work, and is it really worth all the hype? We turned to the experts to find out.
"When it comes to skin care, products labeled as being 'probiotic' do not contain true live organisms," explains dermatologist Dr. Joshua Zeichner, the Director of Cosmetic and Clinical Research in Dermatology at New York's Mount Sinai Hospital. "Because topical creams require preservatives to prevent contamination, the same preservatives would kill any true probiotics. Instead, 'probiotic' skin care contains prebiotics or probiotic extracts. Probiotic extracts are molecules produced by probiotics that create an environment favorable for healthy bacteria to grow." Prebiotic ingredients, per Dr. Zeichner, "essentially serve as food for good bacteria." Examples of prebiotic ingredients include oat extract, which "includes non-digestible sugars that are beneficial to good bacteria" and thermal spring water, which provides minerals like selenium and strontium to promote healthy bacterial activity.
"Probiotics applied to skin can help stabilize its microbiome and strengthen its barrier so skin has an easier time becoming and staying healthy," explains Bryan Barron, Director of Skincare Research at Paula's Choice, which just launched a new probiotic-focused product. "This is incredibly important because so many things our skin deals with every day can throw its microbiome off balance and weaken its barrier: air pollution, weather changes, stress, irritating skin care products, skin disorders and sun damage. By giving your skin a mix of 'biotic ingredients, you're helping its microbiome do its job to support healthy, youthful skin."
Interestingly, not all products being marketed with the "probiotic" label actually contain probiotics, notes Dr. Zeichner. "There are some products on the market that do not specifically contain probiotics, but instead have been shown to be microbiome- safe. This means that the products have been shown to be used on the skin and not disrupt the microbiome," or the collection of microorganisms that live on the skin. "This isn't a bad thing, since research has shown that probiotic lysates or ferments — non-living strains of probiotic bacteria — maintain much of the same benefits in this form, without any of the concerns that come with using live bacteria in a skin-care product," elaborates Barron.
Generally, probiotic-spiked skin-care products are considered safe for most skin types, including those prone to sensitivity, explains Dr. Zeichner, though he cautions that like with any product, if you experience redness, burning, stinging or any other type of reaction, you should immediately rinse it off. "I commonly recommend probiotic-containing products for my patients with dry skin or eczema-prone skin. We have the largest body of data in these groups of people I know that changes in the microbiome are associated with eczema flares," he adds.
According to Barron, beyond simply incorporating probiotics into a skin-care routine, those looking for a potent inflammation-soothing routine should also consider formulas that contain both the aforementioned prebiotics and postbiotics as well, like Paula's Choice's new Probiotic Nutrient Moisturizer. "The prebiotics 'feed' your unique microbiome, allowing it to make the specific probiotics it needs to balance itself. Meanwhile, the postbiotics (which, confusingly, also include probiotic lysates) break down to generate vital substances everyone's skin needs to thrive, such as ceramides, antimicrobial peptides, replenishing fatty acids and enzymes skin cells require to perform their normal duties," he explains.
Alright, that was a lot of science. Hopefully reading it fed your inner Bill Nye the same way prebiotics feed important complexion-regulating microorganisms. If not, here's the super-simple TL; DR version: Probiotic-based products focus on calming inflammation and bolstering skin's ability to protect itself — and that's a concept that feels pretty damn appealing right now. They're considered safe for most people, even those with extremely sensitive skin, and in particular may help calm skin conditions such as acne and eczema.
Ready to try some probiotic skin care for yourself? Click through the gallery below for a selection of our (and Dr. Zeichner's!) top product picks.
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