We are embracing a new beauty reality: vitality is overtaking anti‑ageing – that catch-all epithet – as skincare’s ultimate quest. It seems we’re growing out of our wrinkle fixation; what keeps youthful looks alive is the glow, we’re told. Enter the age of probiotic skincare – the cultivation of our skin’s friendly bacteria and beauty’s “new big thing”. An offshoot of the healthy gut/healthy body cult and its diet of fermented foods such as lactobacillus, kombucha and kefir, an increasing number of beauty products now contain ingredients engineered to keep our personal skin flora flourishing and our complexion radiantly healthy.
“Treating the body and the skin as an ecosystem is the new thinking of a new era,” believes Sue Y Nabi, an environmental engineer, former worldwide president of Lancôme and now founder of luxury probiotic skincare brand Orveda, which arrived in Harvey Nichols this year. “Bacteria, yeast and enzymes are to beauty what electricity is to modern-day cars such as Tesla. But as well as being renewable energy sources that are easily propagated without impacting the natural environment, they also have proven efficacy.”
Bugs and their bodily functions hit the limelight in 2012 when the American National Institutes of Health’s Human Microbiome Project published its results. The five-year study found that among the trillions of microorganisms living in the human ecosystem, more than 10,000 are microbial species that contribute to our survival. Imbalances in the gut – where “good bug” probiotics are outnumbered by “bad bug” pathogens – have been linked not only to digestive problems, but also to serious health issues including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, some cancers and even depression. Among the 1,000 or so strains of bacteria hosted by the skin, probiotics work as essential housekeepers, boosting cell immunity, maintaining a healthy surface barrier mechanism and regulating the balance of oil and moisture. However, over-zealous detergent-based cleansing, harsh exfoliating and chemical peels deplete the skin’s probiotic population, leaving it vulnerable to pathogenic strains and fuelling the theory that we’re just too squeaky clean for our own good. Studies link probiotic depletion to conditions such as dermatitis, psoriasis, eczema, rosacea and acne – all of which create inflammation, the driving factor of skin ageing.
“There was an era when stripping the skin with acids and peels was the trend,” says Nabi. “Then, over the past decade, dermatological brands became all about strengthening the skin barrier with various oils. Now, within the past five years, we’ve discovered a second barrier – the bacteria that live on our skin.” However, Nabi is quick to point out that while her vegan skincare range is free from parabens, mineral oils and the preservative phenoxyethanol, no live bugs inhabit her exquisitely scented potions either. In the silken, glow-boosting tonic/serum hybrid The Healing Sap (£125 for 125ml) and satisfyingly substantial Firm Brew botanical cream (£350 for 50ml) a complex carbohydrate potato ferment works as a prebiotic – or bug food – alongside marine enzymes and biofermented kombucha black tea to nourish the skin’s homegrown troops. In a further ingenious stroke, luminosity-boosting gallic acid in Orveda’s Visibly Brightening & Skin Perfecting masque (£250 for 50ml) is activated by the skin flora. “Rather than just wearing a mask, you’re turning your skin into a laboratory, real time,” explains Nabi.
While encouraging good bugs to populate is one thing, introducing live reinforcements to the skin is contentious. This month, US biotech company AOBiome brought Mother Dirt, a hair and body brand whose products contain live ammonia-oxidising bacteria, to Whole Foods Market branches in the UK. However, since the shelf life of products containing live bugs is unsurprisingly limited, other biome-based companies use bacteria fragments in their formulas. Marie Drago, a pharmaceutical doctor and founder of French brand Gallinée, uses a lactobacillus that has been gently killed by heat, keeping its cells intact and recognisable to the skin’s own bacteria. In addition, Drago includes prebiotic sugar chains from fibrous plants such as chicory, beetroot and yacón to feed the microbiome, while in the exceptionally soothing La Culture hydrating face cream (£35 for 30ml) an additional lactic acid produced by bacteria acts as a postbiotic moisturiser. Certainly, Gallinée’s La Culture hand cream (£12 for 50ml) is potentially the best my eczema-prone hands have tried; the Body Milk (£28 for 200ml) soothes my chronically dry legs, and the creamy foaming facial cleanser (£14 for 120ml) shifts make-up easily, while leaving skin feeling soft and moisturised. “We’ve had amazing results with sensitive and problem skin,” Drago says. “People tell me they don’t have to wear foundation anymore.”
For those wedded to wearing foundation, REN’s Perfect Canvas (£50 for 30ml) is a silicone-free primer par excellence, smoothing the skin surface instantly, pores and all. Its combination of prebiotic alpha-glucans and probiotic lactococcus lactis extract fuels healthy cell division and improves cohesion and hydration by boosting structural proteins. “Providing the right food for positive bacteria gives them a competitive edge, while probiotic fractions stimulate skin immunity, allowing structural proteins to thrive,” explains David Delport, REN’s head of education. Should flare-ups be the disruptors, probiotic spritzes such as Allies of Skin’s Molecular Saviour mist (£48 for 50ml) and Zelens Z Balance prebiotic and probiotic facial mist (£48 for 50ml) act as on-the-spot soothers, quelling redness with a refreshing, oil-free hit of moisture.
Certain probiotic ingredients such as lactobacillus ferment have, in fact, been quietly used as skin soothers by a range of popular skincare companies for some years. Among the first luxury British brands to actively pioneer probiotics was Aurelia, whose indulgent formulas – which include the Cell Revitalise night moisturiser (£58 for 60ml), replete with bifida ferment, milk peptide and essential oils – have scooped no less than 90 awards since its launch in 2013. New to the genre this year is Dior’s Hydra Life range – including the wonderfully refreshing Deep Hydration Sorbet Water Essence (£49.50 for 40ml), which contains natural ingredients that nurture the skin’s microflora as it moisturises – while L’Oréal-owned Vichy’s Slow Age cream moisturiser (£30 for 50ml) and serum (£30 for 50ml) have a probiotic complex to defend skin from the “exposome”, the collective of dietary and environmental factors and stress that aggress it daily. Also at L’Oréal, La Roche-Posay’s Toleriane soothing range for sensitive skin, which includes the Ultra Overnight cream (£17.50 for 40ml), incorporates a patented, bacteria-derived vitreoscilla ferment into its soothing spring water formulas, while Lancôme’s Advanced Génifique sensitive dual concentrate serum (£59 for 20ml) has a trio of probiotic ingredients, including lactobacillus to quell skin irritation.
Milk-derived probiotics and the carb-based prebiotics that feed them excel as anti-inflammatory agents. This also (semantic arguments apart) qualifies them with anti-ageing credentials, albeit indirectly. “Inflammation is the root cause of premature ageing,” says Nicolas Travis, founder of Allies of Skin. “So rather than stimulating collagen and elastin repair directly with peptides, pre- and probiotics improve the skin’s defence mechanisms and supply essential nutrients that support natural healing.” The company’s Fresh Slate brightening cleanser and masque (£38 for 50ml) contains lactobacillus ferment lysate filtrate, which helps soothe irritation and promote collagen production, while prebiotic diglucosyl gallic acid inhibits age spots by helping to block melanin production. Meanwhile, the antibacterial colloidal silver in the aforementioned Molecular Saviour mist helps combat pathogens that cause angry breakouts.
So is bug husbandry the future of beauty? Orveda’s Nabi certainly believes so. “The 20th century was about antibiotics and fighting bacterial infections. In the 21st century we’re beginning to understand that bacteria could be our best partner in health,” she says. For Gallinée’s Drago, the best is yet to come. “This science is still new and we’re discovering new strains of bacteria all the time. But we already know that they act as neurotransmitters, communicating with cells and regulating skin from the surface to its foundations.” Until recently, applying creams has been like oiling leather, she says. “Now we’re beginning to see skin as an ecosystem of live cells supported by live bacteria, so why not support them too?” Feeding your face is taking on a new complexion.