August 10, 2022

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Does probiotic skin care work? Products, uses, and more

Probiotic skin care involves using products that contain live microorganisms to improve the health of the skin. The idea behind this is that it helps maintain a beneficial balance of microbes, helping to reduce the symptoms of skin conditions.

Research on the effectiveness and safety of probiotics in skin care is very preliminary. Early studies indicate that oral probiotics may help with some health conditions, which has led scientists to study whether they may also be useful as a topical treatment.

However, some scientists argue that doctors do not yet understand the skin microbiome well enough to safely use topical probiotics as a skin treatment. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also does not regulate topical probiotics.

This article discusses probiotic skin care and the research supporting its use. It also examines potential risks and suggests other factors to consider when shopping for skin care products.

Probiotics are live microorganisms that are beneficial to human health. Probiotic skin care involves applying these microbes topically in the form of products such as creams or treatments.

The concept of probiotics dates back to 1900, when Louis Pasteur discovered them as the source of fermentation in foods such as yogurt. In the human body, probiotics make up part of the microbiome, which is the collection of microorganisms that naturally inhabit the digestive tract, skin, and other parts of the body.

The microbiome contains a huge variety of species. Some of these microbes are beneficial, while others can be pathogenic, or disease-causing. An imbalance in the amount of “good” and “bad” microbes is known as dysbiosis.

According to a 2019 study, the composition of the skin microbiome in healthy skin differs from the composition of the microbiome in diseased skin. Research from 2021 also reports that dysbiosis within the skin microbiome can result in the emergence and worsening of skin conditions.

Because of this, scientists and cosmetic companies have become increasingly interested in how probiotics might restore balance to the skin microbiome.

Some common species of probiotics that people may find in skin products include:

  • Lactococcus
  • Bifida
  • Streptococcus thermophilus
  • Saccharomyces
  • Lactobacillus
  • Leuconostoc

Almost any skin care product can contain them, including:

  • deodorants
  • creams
  • balms
  • serums
  • cleansers
  • gels
  • masks
  • exfoliants
  • foundations
  • soap bars
  • primers

However, it is important to note that while many products may list microbes on their ingredients label, it is not always possible to know whether or not these microbes are alive.

Many companies use preservatives in their products to prolong their shelf life and ensure they are safe to use. Preservatives work by killing bacteria. This means that, in many cases, the probiotics may be inactivated.

A 2021 review looked at the body of research exploring the use of topical probiotics in skin care. Although some studies suggest these may have benefits, research is still in its early stages. Most research on probiotics focuses on oral probiotics.

Atopic dermatitis

People with atopic dermatitis (AD), or atopic eczema, have a higher amount of the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus in their skin microbiome, according to a 2017 study.

The authors of the study tested the effects of applying the probiotic Lactobacillus johnsonii to the skin of 31 participants with AD. Analysis of the data indicated that it reduced the number of S. aureus and decreased AD symptoms.

Older research from 2003 investigated the effect of S. thermophilus on AD. After a 2-week application period involving 11 participants, the results suggested that the probiotic reduced redness, scaling, and itching.

Visible signs of aging

A 2016 study reviewed the effects of probiotics on the skin in clinical trials and animal experiments. The results indicated that their benefits include:

  • restoring acidic skin pH
  • reducing damage from UV light
  • reducing oxidative stress
  • improving skin barrier function

This may mean probiotics can reduce some of the visible signs of aging, such as sun damage. However, more research is necessary.

Wound healing

Some studies suggest that topical probiotics may promote wound healing, but the results vary significantly.

Older research from 2005 evaluated the effect of the probiotic Lactobacillus plantarum on preventing infections in wounds. After investigating it in test tubes and in mice, the authors concluded that it might inhibit infection development and improve tissue repair.

More large-scale human trials are necessary to see if it affects people the same way.

Acne

A 2020 paper states that topical probiotics may help address a loss of microbial diversity that previous research has found in people with acne. They may also reduce levels of Cutibacterium acnes on the skin, which is a type of bacteria that lives in hair follicles and is strongly associated with acne.

However, at the moment, this is only a theory. There are currently no randomized controlled trials that prove probiotic skin care targets C. acnes.

Psoriasis

Data on probiotic treatment of psoriasis is limited, but studies investigating oral probiotics for the condition show promise. Authors of research from 2019 listed psoriasis as a skin condition that they believe oral and topical probiotics may help.

A 2019 review analyzed six clinical trials to explore the safety of topical probiotic treatment for AD. It found no significant side effects.

However, as with other types of skin care, there is always a risk that some people will have hypersensitivity or allergies to the ingredients. This may cause:

If this occurs, or the product burns or stings, a person should wash it off and stop using it.

Even though the probiotics in skin care may not be alive due to preservatives, it is difficult to know for sure. For this reason, people with compromised immune systems should avoid topical products that may contain live cultures, as well as probiotic foods and supplements.

Gaps in research

It is important to note that experts are still learning about the skin microbiome. A 2021 paper argues that because scientists do not have sufficient knowledge, using topical probiotics could have unforeseen consequences.

Some species, or groups of species, may be capable of damaging the skin microbiome rather than helping it.

Microbes do not affect the body in isolation. Communities of microbes can have different effects when they coexist. Because this ecosystem is complex and differs from person to person, disruption can be potentially harmful.

The authors of a 2021 study urge scientists to conduct more research to understand how the microbiome as a whole interacts with human health, rather than only looking at individual microbes.

It is also difficult for cosmetic companies to create products that still contain live microbes due to the need to keep the product sanitary using preservatives.

An alternative approach could be to use prebiotics in skin care instead. These are ingredients that feed the beneficial bacteria that already live on the skin. This requires no live cultures to be present in the product and does not introduce new species.

If a person decides to try probiotic skin care, they can do so by following these tips:

  1. Start with a leave-on product, such as a moisturizer, from a reputable brand. A probiotic cleanser or soap will have less chance to work as these products are only on the skin for a short amount of time. Look for products that a third-party company has independently tested for safety and purity.
  2. Try one new product at a time. Introducing multiple new products may make it difficult to tell which one is helping or if any are causing side effects.
  3. Patch test the new product on a small area of skin first. If no symptoms develop within 24 hours, a person can try it on their face.
  4. Apply the product to the face and monitor for any signs of irritation. If there are none, keep using the product for a few days to see how it feels and whether it has any effect. It can take time for skin care to make a difference.

Probiotic skin care involves using probiotic-containing products to try to alleviate certain skin conditions or improve its appearance. Some species of probiotics that people may find on skin product labels include S. thermophilus, Lactococcus, and Lactobacillus.

The FDA does not regulate probiotic skin care, so there is currently no recommendation on which types of probiotics are beneficial to the skin and little way of knowing if the probiotics in a product are alive.

Limited studies that examine specific species have suggested topical probiotics may be well-tolerated by many, but more research is necessary to fully understand if they could treat skin conditions and, if so, which species work best.

It is possible that probiotics could cause negative effects if they disrupt someone’s skin microbiome. People may want to ask a dermatologist for advice on the best products to suit their skin, particularly if they have a condition such as AD or acne.

Learn more about creating a dermatologist-recommended skin care routine here.