“After high school it will go away.”
This is what I told myself about my acne in high school. Then it was “after college.” And after college I found myself in a vicious cycle; I was buying the latest and greatest skin-cleansing product that promised the moon, but it came with side-effects like “dry skin” and “irritation” (exactly what I wanted to avoid!). This meant I had to purchase even more cleansing products to mitigate the harmful effects these initial cleansing products had, and all-told I had an arsenal of over 10 skin-care products in my apartment bathroom at age 24.
Something had to change.
Now, did poor lifestyle habits and alcohol use play a role in my skin health? Absolutely. But none of the advertising I faced everyday me how important diet and exercise are to skin health. So I kept following the advertising and kept pouring chemicals onto my skin, because, well that’s what you do to get good skin! Right?
Skin Care Marketing
If you look at the marketing out there, we’ve been told that in order to have clear skin, you have to buy products that contain, among other things;
- Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs)
- Beta-hydroxy acid (salicylic acid)
- L-Ascorbic Acid
- Hyaluronic Acid
- Copper Peptide
More often than not, what you’re really buying (other than a bottle of very hard-to-pronounce chemicals) is just the latest marketing ploy; “You need moisturizer XYZ with hyper-cooling scrubbing beads developed by NASA!”
Your Skin Knows What It’s Doing
Your skin knows what it’s doing, and it knows how to keep itself healthy. I decided to do some serious research in an attempt to wean myself off chemically-laden skin cleansers and moisturizers. I learned that when I give my skin what it needs, it does an excellent job at maintaining a healthy look and feel. In doing the research I decreased my skin care product count from 10 to 2. One of the biggest keys to healthy skin I learned in my research? Healthy bacteria.
Yes, that stuff you’ve been vigorously trying to scrub off your face for all these years, is actually the good guy. But not all bacteria is good for your skin. Probiotics, and in particular Lactobacillus, L. acidophilus, and B. bifudum, are what you want. But what are probiotics, and how can you use them to improve your skin health?
What Are Probiotics?
The human body is a giant, complex ecosystem. There are literally trillions of microorganisms in your body, right now. In fact, the number of microorganisms in your body outnumber your human cells 10 to 1.
- These microorganisms are so small that even though they outnumber your human cells 10 to 1, they only make up 1-3% of your total body weight.
- Second, we have to dispose of the notion that all bacteria is bad for us. Bacteria does not equal “germs”; this is simply not true. We are made of bacteria, and without it we would not last very long in this world of ours.
Probiotics are “good” bacteria that assist in things like digestive system function and compete against “bad” bacteria that cause illness and weaken the immune system. Probiotics can be found in food (kimchi, Greek yogurt, sauerkraut), capsule form and even probiotic-enriched soaps.
However, before we resort to probiotics, let’s look at exactly why traditional cleansers are so hard on your skin in the first place.
The Dangers of Traditional Cleansers to Your Skin
Before the invention of cosmetics, before marketing, before even the industrial revolution or agricultural revolution for that matter, our skin had a natural way to stay moisturized. The Natural Moisturizing Factor (NMF) is a highly water soluble layer that lives just beneath the outermost surface of your skin- the Stratum Corneum (SC). The SC is where your dead skin lives, and it plays a crucial role in the moisture content of your skin.
What Is the Natural Moisturizing Factor?
NMF is made up of primarily amino acids and their derivatives such as pyrrolidone carboxylic acid and urocanic acid along with lactic acid, urea, citrate and sugars and accounts for roughly 30% of your Stratum Corneum by weight. The NMF actually absorbs atmospheric water, which is just one of the ways it does such a great job at keeping your skin naturally moisturized.
How Do Traditional Cleansers Affect the NMF?
Once your skin cells die and end up on your Stratum Corneum, they lose their nucleus and cytoplasm, leaving them hard, dry and be difficult to get off your skin with water alone. So cleansers use chemical surfactants, such as sulfates, to help better wash away this dead skin along with oil and dirt. By over hydrating dead skin and binding to dirt and oil, surfactants make it easier to rid your skin of these “unwanted” factors. That means the soap gets deep into your pores. But that is not necessarily a good thing; chemicals in your pores can actually wreak havoc on your skin’s NMF. The result? Dried out skin that feels as if it’s being stretched over your body.
That is not how healthy skin is supposed to feel.
Moreover, many traditional cleansers pay no attention to or grossly underestimate the importance of pH for skin health and moisture retention. The skin’s natural pH is around 5.5, and any cleansers outside the 4.5 – 6.5 pH range will significantly impact your Stratum Corneum’s ability to retain moisture as it naturally would. To add to this laundry list of offenses, traditional cleansers also strip your skin of its natural bacteria and biome.
Clearly, we need some help finding a better way to care for our skin.
How Do Probiotics Help with Skin Health?
In large part, your skin health has to do with what is termed the “gut-skin axis”. The reasoning is simple; probiotics improve digestive health, and digestive health is directly related to the health of all the body’s organs, including skin.
The Gut Biome
Dr. Whitney P. Bowe, MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist and clinical assistant professor of dermatology at Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York, says the stress and diet accompanying our modern lifestyle have a significant impact on the health of our skin. The lack of fiber in processed foods coupled with regular stress leads to high levels of bad bacteria in the gut. If the conditions are right, this bad bacteria can pierce the gut biome and enter the bloodstream, causing skin flare-ups (among other issues).
The Evidence of Probiotics on Skin Health
A study involving 56 patients with acne saw healthy decreases in both their acne and overall skin oil production over 12 weeks simply by drinking a beverage containing the popular probiotic Lactobacillus.
Similarly, a study done on Italians suffering from acne and rosacea treated half the participants with an oral probiotic while the other half received a placebo. The result? Those who received the probiotic saw improvements in both acne and rosacea symptoms compared to those who received the placebo.
How Topical Probiotics Affect Skin
Dr. Bowe goes on to detail how topical probiotic treatments, such as probiotic soaps, can affect the skin. One aspect is the “shield” probiotics form. When someone gets acne or rosacea, their skin is actually reacting to their natural surface-level bacteria as foreign objects, and thus inflammation, redness and irritation occur. Topical probiotics can actually run “bacterial interference” and prevent the body’s natural overreaction to these non-foreign invaders.
Dr. Bowe also says probiotics have antimicrobial properties, which means they kill bad bacteria that lives on your skin- likely a result of this “good” bacteria competing with “bad” bacteria for resources.
What to Look for in Probiotics
- 5 – 10 Billion Colony Forming Units (CFUs) per serving – This indicates how many organisms per serving are capable of reproducing and forming colonies.
- Probiotics That Will Survive Your Acid Stomach Environment – Spend a little more to get probiotics that are specially formulated to survive the acidic environment in your stomach.
Topical Probiotics (Soaps, Creams)
Other than a balanced pH, choose a topical probiotic that has few to zero additives, perfumes or artificial colors. Just because ingredients are FDA-approved does not mean they don’t cause side-effects. For instance, triclosan was a common ingredient in soaps up until 2016 when it was found to alter hormone regulation and potentially contributed to antibiotic resistance and harmed the immune system.
In particular, avoid:
- Phthalates – A common ingredient in topical creams and soaps, phthalates are a known endocrine disruptor. The most common phthalates are di-(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP), dibutyl phthalate (DBP), di-isononyl phthalate (DINP), di-isodecyl phthalate (DIDP) and benzyl butyl phthalate (BBP).
- Fragrances – Do your best to elect a fragrance-free topical probiotic, as fragrances have been tied to allergies, respiratory problems and even cancer.
- Triethanolamine (TEA) – Known to cause allergic reactions, itchy skin, watery eyes, scaling, blisters and burning sensations.
While I did this without the supervision of my dermatologist, I highly recommended you consult your physician about probiotic use, especially if you plan to take oral probiotics and are regularly taking prescription medications.
At the end of the day, do your research, invest in good products, and give your skin the tools to do what it knows how to do.
Adam Durnham is a freelance blogger that specializes in beauty, mental health, and wellness. He currently lives Detroit, Michigan with his dog Beignet.