Health & Grooming

Culture club

Are probiotics the key not only to good digestion but also to youthful skin? Antonia Whyatt talks to the experts backing the power of bacteria skincare.

December 28 2009
Antonia Whyatt

The sleekly backlit marble skincare counters at Harrods and Selfridges, stocked with eye-pleasing arrangements of £200-a-pop serums, masques and lotions, are familiar territory to any woman on the perennial quest for perfect skin (read: almost every woman you know). But consider that the secret ingredient in the miracle creams of the near future might have been found in a local pharmacy, somewhere between the Fibrelief and the Nurofen. For years, the backstage weapon of beauty queens and models looking to erase puffiness and dark circles has been a liberal under-eye dabbing of none other than a haemorrhoid cream called Preparation H.

It’s an urban myth turned real phenomenon that piqued the curiosity of Dr Gregory Brown, the man behind the ultra-science-based boutique skincare line RéVive: “There was this old wives’ tale on the modelling circuit about Prep H, which by all appearances and testimonials actually worked. This was backed up by stories I heard from body builders, who practically bathe in the stuff because they insist it gets rid of stretch marks. So I decided to do a clinical study.”

What he found amazed him: a 55 per cent improvement in wrinkle depth and skin discoloration on the 35 women he trialled – similar results to those he achieved in preliminary testing of the RéVive line (which is formulated with the scarce and fantastically pricey Epidermal Growth Factor, or EGF). “It turns out that the active component in the Canadian formula of Preparation H is a yeast probiotic called Bio-Dyne,” says Brown. Also known as Live Yeast Cell Derivative (LYCD), Bio-Dyne was removed from the US formulation of Preparation H in 1995, and while not as concentrated in efficacy as EGF, Brown believes Bio-Dyne can similarly stimulate healthy cell division and regeneration. “I don’t know how it works yet, but I know that clearly it works.”

Although it’s still early days, the idea is that probiotics (beneficial bacterial organisms) and prebiotics (essential fuel for those organisms) can help improve the bacterial balance of the skin in the same way they are believed to improve the balance of bacteria in the digestive system. There is some evidence to suggest that in the stomach and intestines, probiotics assist in the breakdown of food into essential vitamins and nutrients. In fact, many doctors believe our skin is a mirror to our digestive systems, evidencing the crucial role probiotics play in overall health. “Rosacea, eczema – these are [epidermal] symptoms that reflect what’s happening internally,” says Dr Saulius Alkaitis, a Los Angeles-based molecular biologist, ethnopharmacologist and founder of his eponymous skincare line. “If you have a butterfly-shaped rash on your cheek, that’s likely a sign of too little acid in your stomach; once you correct that, it disappears.

“We’ve recently discovered that we have 400-500 species of bacteria in the body,” Alkaitis continues. “In the crook of your arm you’ll have one species, and on the inside of your forearm, a completely different one.” On our skin, probiotics maintain the acid mantle (pH balance), which acts like an epidermal ozone layer. Everyday products can contribute to the skin’s becoming imbalanced: sulphates from shampoos and cleansers, alcohol, glycerine and harsh astringents all strip the skin. In fact, irritation is now considered one of the key culprits in premature ageing, as the body’s response to irritation is to create both DNA-damaging free radicals and a collagen-digesting enzyme.

Though they share similar roles, the species of bacteria in our guts are very different from those on our skin; so concocting elaborate face masks of Yakult and Activia won’t do much to counter the progression of ageing. But developments are promising. Thanks to studies released this year by the British Dermatology Association that substantiate the efficacy of non-pathogenic bacteria’s healing powers on skin, the stage is set for much progressive research across the whole skincare category.

Meanwhile, a handful of boutique companies are ahead of the game. One of them is Nude, the UK-based line of natural products started by Ali Hewson (the wife of U2 frontman Bono) and Bryan Meehan of Fresh & Wild, both of whom swear by probiotics and have made them the line’s cornerstone. “We’ve found that they balance, hydrate and calm any complexion. When probiotics metabolise prebiotics, they release water and break down the omegas and other essential nutrients in our products; they’re actually feeding the skin,” says Meehan. And customers are buying it, literally and figuratively: Nude’s arrival at Barneys New York two years ago occasioned “It” bag-calibre queues, and cult products such as Nude’s Miracle Mask (£38 for 40ml) can still generate waiting lists.

As this article was being written, the company’s marketing manager excitedly rang up to say that a new study showed that probiotic technology activates cellular repair disrupted by UV radiation. (UV light effectively scrambles cellular “communication” so that cells “forget” what to do, and causes cells to malfunction. This affects general skin health and function, resulting in anything from loss of radiance and hydration to loss of elasticity, and the wrinkles and sagging that attend it.)

So far, so vanguard: probiotics would seem a one-size-fits-all solution to the whole pantheon of our ageing woes. But there are still some tricky hurdles to negotiate. Foremost, if the probiotics are actually alive, as they’re supposed to be for maximum efficacy, surely they’re too active – and biodegradable – to be sitting around in a non-airtight jar? The short answer is yes, and solutions to this issue are next on the agenda for Nude and RéVive. Nude’s current solution, besides packing all products in air-tight pump containers, is to “snap- freeze” its probiotics, which it claims deactivates the reproductive systems at the optimum point of their lifecycle, preserving potency. If this seems counter to the whole point (ie, they’re no longer living), Meehan hastens to point out Nude’s probiotics are biomimetic: “When they go on the skin they stimulate the same responses as live probiotics.”

“It’s live probiotics that count,” counters Dr Alkaitis, whose entire line uses ingredients which are biologically active (and edible). “Only a product made with living ingredients can interact with each individual’s skin and help it reach, and maintain, its equilibrium.” Don’t be put off by the Birkenstocks-and-beads rhetoric; Alkaitis means business and his products’ effectiveness has converted supermodels (Gisele, Karolina Kurkova), super-facialists (Anastasia Achilleos) and many beauty editors. He’s solved the issue by freeze-drying the probiotics in his Universal Mask (£54 for 100ml). “Micro-organisms can be put into a state of suspended animation this way,” he explains. “When the conditions become correct for them to grow, they wake up and begin doing their job again.” In other words: just add water.

Does it work? Imelda Burke, the owner of Content Beauty/Wellbeing, London’s leading organic and natural apothecary, swears that Alkaitis’ mask is the only thing she’s found that quickly, and completely, restores jet-lagged skin. “I have clients who de-plane and come straight here to have the facial with this mask.”

Meanwhile, RéVive’s Dr Brown is exploring another benefit: probiotics as a viable anti-acne treatment. “Most products use benzoyl peroxide to kill the anaerobic bacteria that causes breakouts, but it can also accelerate ageing. Probiotics also kill anaerobic bacteria” – and without the damaging irritation. A study published this year in the Journal of Dermatological Science backs up Dr Brown’s research that pre- and probiotics reduce the levels of acne-causing bacteria; and The British Journal of Dermatology has also published new research showing that (non-pathogenic) bacteria soothes and treats eczema and therefore irritated skin.

Right now Dr Brown is using probiotics in two of RéVive’s products, Acne Reparatif Acne Treatment Gel (£75 for 30ml) and Masque des Yeux (£120 for 30ml), and is working on what he’s dubbed a “Beauty Bug” – probiotics in which he hopes to insert a human gene coded for specific skin growth factors, from simple complexion enhancement (calming redness) to regeneration (stimulation of healthy cell turnover). “The great thing is that [the Beauty Bug] wouldn’t dissolve, unlike most active ingredients in a cream; instead, the bacteria would reside on the skin’s surface, continuously growing and literally churning out the genetic code your skin needs. The technology is there; it’s just the where and the when.” Not just food for thought, but for perfect skin.

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Skincare