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Probiotics, Prebiotics, & Your Skin

Did you know that prebiotics and probiotics aren’t just good for your gut, they could also be good for your skin? It’s true! You may be used to thinking of probiotics for digestion and other internal issues, but it turns out that they can help with creating clearer, healthier skin as well!

Although this is still a relatively new area for researchers, initial indications are that probiotics can be effective when it comes to treating certain skin conditions. What do you need to know about probiotics for the skin? Read on for answers!

What are prebiotics and probiotics?

Simply put, probiotics are microorganisms that control the growth of harmful bacteria in your digestive system. You can think of them as “good” bacteria, giving you health benefits. These benefits often include increased lactose tolerance, the suppression of diarrhea, and the reduction of irritable bowel syndrome symptoms.

Prebiotics, on the other hand, are non-digestible carbohydrates that stimulate the growth of probiotic bacteria in your gut. In other words, they’re food for probiotics. They help the good bacteria thrive. So prebiotics and probiotics work together to keep your digestive system healthy.

These good, healthy bacteria — up to three lbs. of them, or 100 trillion cells’ worth! — reside inside the human microbiome. Basically, your microbiome is the collection of microbes that live in and on your body. There are many different types, and everyone’s microbial makeup is different. You can actually think of the microbiome as a separate organ in your body. The functions of the microbiome impact aging, digestion, your immune system, and even your cognitive function. Your microbiome also helps to regulate brain chemistry through the central nervous system, meaning that it affects stress, anxiety, and memory.

How can you harness the benefits of probiotics for your skin?

Probiotics, by stabilizing the gut microbiome, may help improve the health of your skin and GI tract. Bad bacteria can cause inflammation, which in turn can contribute to your acne or other skin problems. So, getting rid of those bad bacteria may help clarify your skin.

If you’re using probiotics in order to improve the texture and clarity of your skin, you have the option of taking them topically, rather than getting them in the form of nutritional supplements. This way, the probiotics work directly on your skin, rather than affecting them from the inside out.

More and more companies are offering probiotic-based skin care products, designed to increase cellular turnover, improve circulation, reduce inflammation, balance the microbiome, and create a defense against toxins. One of these companies is Mother Dirt, which has formulated products that reenergize the body’s microbiome with all of those “good” bacteria. Brands from Eminence Organic Skincare to La Roche Posay to SLMD Skincare have begun to include probiotics in their formulas. 

Another of these companies is Columbia SkinCare, which offers a Probiotic Concentrate and a Probiotic Complex designed to work with regular skincare routines. Melanie Edwards, Director of Columbia’s Spa Division, point out that regular skin products target human cells, as compared to bacteria cells. There are antibacterial ingredients in many skincare products, but most are prescription remedies, and many over the counter topicals don’t focus on these antibacterial properties.

Many traditional skin care products, notes Edwards, don’t address the part of the skin that’s made up of bacteria cells rather than human cells — but probiotics do. And, because skin conditions such as acne, eczema, and others are bacterial issues, probiotics can address them more effectively than regular skin care products.

“Bacterial cells are essential to the health of the skin,” she says. “They defend your skin against infection inflammation, and disease. When you use probiotics topically, you basically address this other 10%, if you will, of the skin. If you look at how probiotics actually work on the skin, they help to balance the microbiome…they reinforce and enhance and feed the good bacterial cells in order to address any bad bacteria.”

But do probiotics really work? And if so, how?

The truth is, the jury’s still out on whether or not probiotics will be the skincare solution they’re hyped up to be.

Board-certified cosmetic dermatologist Dr. Ranella Hirsch of Boston says, “Probiotics is an area with many opinions. Some believe they are of benefit, and other clinicians are more skeptical.” As for herself? She expresses “uncertainty as to exactly how to harness probiotics’ theoretical benefits.”

It’s important to note that not all probiotics are created equal — certain strains of probiotics work better for some conditions than others, and everyone’s microbiome may react differently to the effects of probiotics. So, what works incredibly effectively for one person may be disastrous for another person — similar to the trial and error that those with severe skin issues are used to facing.

Scientists have not yet extensively studied probiotics and their effect on the skin, so there is much work to be done. However, research to date has been positive. Oral probiotics have been shown to be effective in reducing atopic dermatitis (a type of eczema) in infants and in lowering inflammation levels in acne. Probiotics have also been associated with healthier skin and hair in mice.

While researchers don’t yet fully understand the mechanisms by which probiotics improve health, they do know that prebiotics and probiotics may help regulate the T cells that are so important in creating an immune response. They also believe that probiotics can speed recovery in the skin barrier, produce bacteriocins to inhibit bacterial growth, and release organic acids with antimicrobial properties.

While all of this is positive, we have to remember that the human studies that have been performed to date are small in scale and specific to certain conditions. Scientists do believe that understanding the mechanism of action in prebiotics and probiotics could lead to effective new therapies for the skin, so it’s clear this is a growing field with a lot of potential.

In other words — stay tuned!

Dr. Ashley Steffens, a dermatology resident at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine (SIU), helped contribute to the accuracy of this story.

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