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Beauty

It's Not Just Your Guts, Your Skin Needs Probiotics Too

If you’ve ever slapped a yogurt mask on your face, congratulations: You’ve already discovered probiotic skincare. The tradition of using yogurt to calm and soothe troubled complexions dates back centuries, but in the past decade, cosmetic brands have been taking a more in-depth look at why it works, and how to combine it with other cutting-edge ingredients to make skincare that works for everything from anti-ageing to acne. 

Rewind to 2008, when scientists in the US began The Microbiome Project, a massive piece of research into the balance of bacteria in the body. Media coverage of this initiative made everyone gung-ho for probiotic tablets to boost general health. It then emerged that these pills might also help the skin microbiome – the billions of bacteria that live on the epidermis – and in turn one’s complexion.

“There is some evidence that taking gut probiotics actually helps skin conditions such as rosacea, eczema and acne. So the idea is: If the probiotics in our gut work, why not apply them directly to our skin?” explains Dr Ivan Tan, medical director of Nu.Reflections Medical Aesthetics.

While much of the initial research was focused on conditions like acne and eczema, brands now are claiming that probiotic skincare can benefit everyone. How? Besides battling the baddie bugs for space on skin’s surface, they’re said to maintain a healthy
pH, and produce molecules like sugars and lipids, which strengthen the skin barrier and reduce sensitivity.

These days, probiotics has become a major buzzword in beauty. Nicolas Travis, founder of two-year-old homegrown cult skincare label Allies of Skin, attributes this to “the whole inside-out trend”. “(You know, what with) people starting to take better care of themselves and realising how important gut health is,” he explains.

“A healthy gut equals healthy skin. There is a direct correlation, so customers are starting to educate themselves about the importance of good bacteria (in all forms). (People now) are extremely savvy and interested in both wellness and cutting-edge skincare,” he adds. 

Meanwhile, Sheenum Kumar, marketing manager of Lancome Singapore, points out that using probiotics in skincare isn’t new. There are two in its Advanced Genifique Youth Activating Serum, which has been around since 2009, while its Genifique Sensitive serum, which was launched last year, contains a third probiotic. The thing is, it’s taking a while for the concept to become popular, she says. 

“While customers are fully aware of the benefits of probiotics in food items, it is our role as skincare experts to educate them on their key functions in building skin’s resilience to external impurities,” she says. “We have definitely seen a general uplift in awareness on probiotics in skincare (during)our campaigns in 2017… but there is more work to be done.”

This has not stopped some beauty companies from taking their belief in the benefits of probiotics to the next level. Take Korea’s Su:m37°, which uses bacteria it creates through natural fermentation, instead of artificially in labs (which is what the majority of beauty brands are known to do.) This, the label claims, concentrates the ingredients and allows them to be absorbed into skin more easily.

There’s also live bacteria. Probiotics in skincare, you see, are usually dead. While still effective, they are less so as compared to when they’re living. Niche brands, like Esse from South Africa, have tapped on this. It incorporates live bacteria in its skincare that, in turn, must be preservative-free and stored at a certain temperature.

Then there are products with prebiotics, which act as food for probiotics that are naturally present on skin. La Roche-Posay uses them in two of its ranges – the anti-eczema Lipikar and anti-acne Effaclar – while Dior’s Hydra Life line contains prebiotic fermented sugar along with ingredients like haberlia, which is said to stimulate skin’s own flora to produce substances that are good for skin.

The use of probiotics in skincare may be as old as Cleopatra, whose very stinky bath was said to contain fermented milk. Now that it’s at the cutting-edge of industry research, what next? The answer: the use and study of even more tongue-twisting types of bacteria.

Lactobacillus, of which there are hundreds of strains, is by far the most common. It is mostly used for acne, sometimes with the broth in which it was cultured (in which case it’s known as lactobacillus ferment). Others with proven results include streptococcus thermophilus (it helps with hydration), and bifidobacterium longum (this reduces sensitivity). There are, however, thousands more to be investigated – and many unanswered questions: How do factors such as climate, age, gender, hormones and ethnicity affect the skin microbiome? What effects do cleansing and antibiotics have? Does the microbiome of one’s spouse change your own? And – the ultimate question – might it one day be possible for brands to tailor products exactly to our own unique bacterial mix?

All this is, of course, years away and, as Dr Tan points out: “Most studies are done with oral consumption, and not with actual topical application. More research needs to be done.” His advice: Use them if they work for you, and drop them if they don’t.

If you’ve ever slapped a yogurt mask on your face, congratulations: You’ve already discovered probiotic skincare. The tradition of using yogurt to calm and soothe troubled complexions dates back centuries, but in the past decade, cosmetic brands have been taking a more in-depth look at why it works, and how to combine it with other cutting-edge ingredients to make skincare that works for everything from anti-ageing to acne. 

Rewind to 2008, when scientists in the US began The Microbiome Project, a massive piece of research into the balance of bacteria in the body. Media coverage of this initiative made everyone gung-ho for probiotic tablets to boost general health. It then emerged that these pills might also help the skin microbiome – the billions of bacteria that live on the epidermis – and in turn one’s complexion.

“There is some evidence that taking gut probiotics actually helps skin conditions such as rosacea, eczema and acne. So the idea is: If the probiotics in our gut work, why not apply them directly to our skin?” explains Dr Ivan Tan, medical director of Nu.Reflections Medical Aesthetics.

While much of the initial research was focused on conditions like acne and eczema, brands now are claiming that probiotic skincare can benefit everyone. How? Besides battling the baddie bugs for space on skin’s surface, they’re said to maintain a healthy pH, and produce molecules like sugars and lipids, which strengthen the skin barrier and reduce sensitivity.

These days, probiotics has become a major buzzword in beauty. Nicolas Travis, founder of two-year-old homegrown cult skincare label Allies of Skin, attributes this to “the whole inside-out trend”. “(You know, what with) people starting to take better care of themselves and realising how important gut health is,” he explains.

“A healthy gut equals healthy skin. There is a direct correlation, so customers are starting to educate themselves about the importance of good bacteria (in all forms). (People now) are extremely savvy and interested in both wellness and cutting-edge skincare,” he adds. 

Meanwhile, Sheenum Kumar, marketing manager of Lancome Singapore, points out that using probiotics in skincare isn’t new. There are two in its Advanced Genifique Youth Activating Serum, which has been around since 2009, while its Genifique Sensitive serum, which was launched last year, contains a third probiotic. The thing is, it’s taking a while for the concept to become popular, she says. 

“While customers are fully aware of the benefits of probiotics in food items, it is our role as skincare experts to educate them on their key functions in building skin’s resilience to external impurities,” she says. “We have definitely seen a general uplift in awareness on probiotics in skincare (during)our campaigns in 2017… but there is more work to be done.”

This has not stopped some beauty companies from taking their belief in the benefits of probiotics to the next level. Take Korea’s Su:m37°, which uses bacteria it creates through natural fermentation, instead of artificially in labs (which is what the majority of beauty brands are known to do.) This, the label claims, concentrates the ingredients and allows them to be absorbed into skin more easily.

There’s also live bacteria. Probiotics in skincare, you see, are usually dead. While still effective, they are less so as compared to when they’re living. Niche brands, like Esse from South Africa, have tapped on this. It incorporates live bacteria in its skincare that, in turn, must be preservative-free and stored at a certain temperature.

Then there are products with prebiotics, which act as food for probiotics that are naturally present on skin. La Roche-Posay uses them in two of its ranges – the anti-eczema Lipikar and anti-acne Effaclar – while Dior’s Hydra Life line contains prebiotic fermented sugar along with ingredients like haberlia, which is said to stimulate skin’s own flora to produce substances that are good for skin.

The use of probiotics in skincare may be as old as Cleopatra, whose very stinky bath was said to contain fermented milk. Now that it’s at the cutting-edge of industry research, what next? The answer: the use and study of even more tongue-twisting types of bacteria.

Lactobacillus, of which there are hundreds of strains, is by far the most common. It is mostly used for acne, sometimes with the broth in which it was cultured (in which case it’s known as lactobacillus ferment). Others with proven results include streptococcus thermophilus (it helps with hydration), and bifidobacterium longum (this reduces sensitivity). There are, however, thousands more to be investigated – and many unanswered questions: How do factors such as climate, age, gender, hormones and ethnicity affect the skin microbiome? What effects do cleansing and antibiotics have? Does the microbiome of one’s spouse change your own? And – the ultimate question – might it one day be possible for brands to tailor products exactly to our own unique bacterial mix?

All this is, of course, years away and, as Dr Tan points out: “Most studies are done with oral consumption, and not with actual topical application. More research needs to be done.” His advice: Use them if they work for you, and drop them if they don’t.


Estee Lauder Micro Essence Skin Activating Treatment Lotion ($80) contains a micro-nutrient bioferment that is said to hydrate skin and strengthen the moisture barrier. 
Lancome Advanced Genifique Sensitive Dual Concentrate ($120) contains lactobacillus casei, bifidobacterium longum and saccharomyces cerevesiae, which are said to soothe inflammation, strengthen the barrier function, and plump skin. The serum also has antioxidants, and is meant to be used as an emergency fix during periods of skin sensitivity.
Burt’s Bees Intense Hydration Eye Cream ($52, Sephora) contains lactobacillus, plus clary sage to hydrate and help skin retain moisture.
Dior Hydra Life Balancing Hydration 2-in-1 Sorbet Water ($83), a new addition to the Hydra Life range, has mineral powders, prebiotic fermented sugar, and moisturising jasmine water.
Elizabeth Arden has added Cleanser Whip To Clay ($48) to its Superstart probiotic range. It has a probiotic complex, plus pink and green clays to unclog pores, and glycerine for moisture.
Porcelain Intensive HA+ Hydrating Serum ($198, at Porcelain Face Spa and Porcelainfacespa.com) has lactobacillus ferment, hyaluronic acid and six other hydrating ingredients, and is oil free.
La Roche-Posay Lipikar Baume AP+ ($39.90) has vitreoscilla filiformis, a probiotic grown in its signature thermal water, and prebiotic aqua posae filiformis. Both are said to restore the microbiome balance and moisture barrier for less itching and reduced inflammation. It’s suitable for the most sensitive skin.
IDS Probiotic Mask ($71, Robinsons The Heeren, Isetan Parkway Parade, and Isetan Tampines) is a clay mask with lactobacillus ferment and minerals, formulated for oily and blemish-prone skin.
Esse Probiotic Serum ($220, at Juneberries Haven, Flare Wellness, Ecorganics and Organics Beauty) has 50 million live lactobacillus microbes per drop, and is made from 90 per cent natural ingredients.
Su:m37° Water-full Radiant Hydrating Glow Serum ($160) contains a mix of probiotics made from ferment, plus yeast and herb extracts for brightening and firming.
Garnier Light Complete White Speed Yoghurt Sleeping Mask ($19.90), which can be used every night, has bifida ferment lysate from soy yogurt, plus vitamin C and lemon essence for brightening.
Allies Of Skin Molecular Multi-nutrient Day Cream ($109, Alliesofskin.com) has anti-pollution ingredients like moringa, fermented ingredients and lactobacillus ferment. This story first appeared in Female’s April 2018 issue.  Like this? Check out the long lasting brightening cushion compacts for a luminous complexion, the 16 niche fragrance houses to know and the best 9 sheet masks for your body.