Between the meteoric rise of all things fermented and the proliferation of pre- and probiotics in the supplement aisle, you’re probably no stranger to the association between good bacteria and gut health. But what you may not realize is that there’s a parallel track in the beauty world, where skin and oral care experts are increasingly looking to your microbiome—that is, the trillions of infinitesimally tiny organisms that call your body home—for new pathways to glowing skin, a bright smile and more. Read on for the latest.
From the flowery-sounding “flora” to the more techy “microbiota,” the going terminology doesn’t quite capture what’s actually living on your skin: 1.5 trillion or so colonists—“rich communities of bacteria, fungi and other microbes,” per the National Institutes of Health’s Human Microbiome Project—most harmless, many helpful and some even vital. Exactly how your skin interacts with its resident microbes is the subject of ongoing research, but here’s one thing that’s clear: You want your bacteria in balance.
“It’s well known that microorganisms—and likely more specifically, microorganisms in disequilibrium—contribute to conditions like acne and seborrheic dermatitis,” says New York dermatologist Daniel Belkin, MD, of NYDG Integral Health & Wellness. “For example, both acne sufferers and non-acne sufferers have the same dominant bacteria P. acnes in their follicles, but only the acne sufferers are reacting to it, possibly in part because of fewer ‘good’ bacteria in the mix.”
Increasingly, beauty brands are looking to work with that mix, aka your microbiome, to address not only acne and dermatitis, but also a host of other issues. Thus, the many recent skincare launches touting probiotics (simply put, good bacteria), prebiotics (ingredients that feed the helpful microbes) and postbiotics (by-products of fermentation).
Among the field’s pioneers is Columbia SkinCare, whose Probiotic Complex and Concentrate launched in 2018 with a potent blend of lactococcus ferment lysate, peptides and stem cell extracts. “One very important consideration in developing the products was balancing the skin’s ecosystem,” says Steven Rosenfeld, the company’s president and CEO. “And if you don’t recognize how important that is, you’re likely upsetting the ecosystem.”
As for what that upset looks like, some of the big tells tend to be a diminished moisture barrier and increased irritation. So the surface-plumping and soothing properties of Columbia SkinCare’s Probiotic Collection are among the first things fans notice. But the overall rejuvenating effects have also won raves, plus an eager audience for the upcoming additions to the line: a cleanser and toner.
A few more favorites to look out for: For the Biome Invigorate Powder Mask, a blend of pre- and postbiotics, among other microbiome-friendly ingredients, whose net result is a serious glow; Symbiome The Answer, a lactobacillus ferment-fueled smoothing and repairing serum; and Éminence Organic Skincare Clear Skin Probiotic Masque, with exfoliating yogurt, cleansing kaolin clay, anti-inflammatory tea tree oil to soothe breakout-prone skin.
There was a time not too long ago when oral care products deployed “nonbiodegradable pesticides that have since been banned,” says Gerald Curatola, DDS, founder of New York’s Rejuvenation Dentistry and author of The Mouth-Body Connection. “The thinking was, if you kill bacteria, you’ll have a healthy mouth, but everything we were doing was wrong,” he explains. A longtime veteran of microbiome research—as well as biologic dentistry and holistic healthcare—he suggests embracing, rather than battling, the fact that your mouth is a bacterial breeding ground. Or more appealingly put: “organic gardening for the mouth, versus synthetic pesticides.”
As for what the six to 10 billion microbes in your mouth do for you, if they’re in balance, they transport minerals to your teeth, oxygen to your gums and free radicals away from your gums; fight cavities and bad breath; and perhaps even more counterintuitively, whiten your teeth. And that’s just the short list.
“A healthy flora is a thin, clear, odorless film,” says Dr. Curatola. “You don’t wake up with thick, sticky film on your teeth when your microbiome is in balance, so ‘morning breath’ tends to recede.” Staining does, too—thus the whiter teeth.
“Both intrinsic and extrinsic staining accelerate in the presence of an unhealthy microbiome,” explains Dr. Curatola. Little wonder, then, that when he formulated his own products, he went with a nutritional rather than a detergent approach.
Among the microbiome-feeding elements of his Revitin Oral Therapy & Prebiotic Toothpaste line, whose ranks are expanding to include new flavors and formulations: xanthan gum produced from a probiotic ferment, the prebiotic Chondrus crispus seaweed and antioxidant CoQ 10.
And though dentistry-specific pre- and probiotics are still nascent—with most current options limited to supplements and lozenges such as Hyperbiotics PRO-Dental and NatureWise Oral Health Probiotics—look out for more oral care products to come.