For a long time, we have been told that bacteria is bad for you. We use cleansers to remove it from our complexions, spray our houses with disinfectant to prevent illnesses and obsessively wash our hands after touching anything on public transport in an effort to eradicate it from our bodies. But, it seems, we have been thinking about bacteria all wrong. The tide started to turn around a decade ago when scientists revealed that there was such a thing as good bacteria and that increasing or maintaining its levels within the gut could help improve digestion and combat conditions like IBS. But it’s not just the gut that can benefit from better bacteria, your skin can too.
There are 10,000 different microbial species that inhabit the human body and a large chunk of them reside on the skin. This collection of microorganisms is what’s known as the skin’s microbiome and despite its low profile, it is responsible for a great deal. The easiest way to picture your microbiome, without getting too grossed out, is to think of a tiny community of microorganisms living and working together on the surface of the skin to help protect your body and inner organs from harm. “The microbiome is the ecosystem of micro-organisms that live in and on you. Think about it as an extension of yourself or your own personal rainforest: lush, unexplored and vital for your wellbeing,” explains Dr Marie Drago, member of the French Society of Cosmetic Science, expert in skin’s microbiome and the founder of Gallinée Skincare. She believes that good skin health can be achieved if the bacteria living on the skin is tended to properly and shown the utmost care. If the skin’s protective barrier becomes compromised, bad bacteria and irritants can easily work their way into the body; at its optimum balance, skin’s microbiome can help prevent this from happening and can keep the epidermal barrier strong against external aggressors like pollutants. “Your skin’s bacteria helps to synthesise the acid mantle, the layer of protection at the surface, and occupies enough space so that no other bad bacteria can come and invade,” says Dr Drago. “Your microbiome is also really good at keeping your immune system in check: helping it to recognise pathogen bacteria, and also teaching it not to overreact to normal signals.”
So far, so good. But what happens when the levels of bacteria on the skin become unbalanced, with more bad bacteria than good occupying the surface? According to Dr Drago, too much bad bacteria can lead to breakouts, eczema, inflammation, sensitivity and premature ageing. To combat this, she recommends combining a healthy diet with products infused with probiotics and prebiotics. Sound familiar? These types of good bacteria are added to drinks and supplements to help balance your gut, and the same principle applies topically; “Probiotics are another name for good bacteria. A prebiotic is the name for their nutrients,” explains Dr Drago, “A healthy microbiome is a diverse microbiome, so try to feed your gut bacteria with a lot of diverse food, and lots of fibre.”
When it comes to skin care, products infused with prebiotics are still relatively new, like Medik8’s Balance Moisturiser which selectively feeds only the good bacteria to maintain a healthy surface environment. To encourage the growth of healthy bacteria, using products that contain probiotics, prebiotics or both can help to preserve and increase the amount of microorganisms living on your skin and their diversity. It’s even thought that applying new good bacteria to the skin in this way can kick-start your existing microbiome into action. However, the research into the impact of topical ingredients on the skin’s microbiome is starting to become a primary focus for many beauty brands. According to Dr Drago, science is already showing a clear link between microbiome imbalance and inflammatory skin diseases like eczema and acne, so don’t be surprised if more probiotic products enter the market over the next 12 months. But for now, the key is to be gentle with your skin, whether you are using probiotic formulas or not: “Don’t over wash the skin, use hot water or rub your skin too much. Avoid products with alcohol, perfumes or a high pH (such as normal soaps) too,” advises Dr Drago. It’s a bit of a balancing act, but the trick is to remove only the bad bacteria not wipe out the entire bacterial population because without the ‘bacterial’ you, there is no ‘you’ you.