In the 90s, we knew that eating fat was bad for you, skincare products should always be oil-free, and bacteria were tiny creatures we absolutely wanted to avoid at all costs. Turns out, we were wrong about all three—and that last one really messed us up. As a country, we took way too many antibiotics, which has led to some pretty scary antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, as well as a general imbalance in our gut health. Now, of course, we know that maintaining the “good bacteria” in our gut microbiome is critical for keeping our digestive systems on track—which is necessary for our overall health, too.
But as it turns out, your gut isn’t the only part of your body with a microbiome: your skin microbiome needs to be maintained in a happy equilibrium, as well. To better understand the skin microbiome—and figure out who should be using skincare rich in probiotics—we checked in with Bernice Kwong, M.D., a dermatologic oncologist at Stanford University.
Are Probiotics Good For Your Skin Generally?
It may sound strange, but your skin microbiome is actually the home of a whole little ecosystem that needs to maintain a balance in order to stay healthy. “On your skin, you don’t just have resident bacteria, but also fungi, mites, all these different things—and they are, hopefully, living in perfect harmony,” Dr. Kwong says. “The thinking behind probiotics is that they might prevent the ‘bad’ bacteria from outcompeting the ‘good’ bacteria and causing problems.”
If you’re anything like me, once you get past the weirdness of envisioning tiny mites, bacteria, and fungi dancing on your skin’s surface and singing kumbaya, you immediately feel protective of them and want to ensure their little community is thriving. But how do your skin’s inhabitants get thrown off to begin with? Well, there are two main ways: your skin’s microbiome is directly linked to your gut microbiome, so if your tummy’s microbiome is out of whack, you might see the results on your face, too. However—and this won’t shock you—your skin can also be affected by what’s happening with your skin, so if you use harsh, pH-imbalanced cleansers, you can kill off the good bacteria living there, too.
An imbalance in your facial flora can result in a bunch of problems and result in a number of common skin conditions, including dryness, itching, acne, and redness. So what do probiotics do for your skin? If your bacterial imbalance is off, applying topical probiotics or incorporating probiotics into your diet may be the way forward (maybe both).
“There has been so much antibiotic use topically and orally in recent history, and in my clinical practice, I’ve noticed that there are so many skin conditions that arise from the imbalance of microorganisms,” Dr. Kwong says. “So we need to consider the question of how we can reinstate harmony here. While we don’t have enough data to know whether topical probiotics really work yet, so far, it seems safe.”
What Are The Potential Benefits Of Probiotics For Skin?
While the jury is still out and we need more data to determine exactly how great probiotics can be for your skin, there have been some recent studies that give us a lot of hope for a variety of skin conditions.
Probiotics—specifically, lactobacillus—have been shown in trials to decrease dryness and make skin texture more even. A subsequent study showed that topical probiotics helped decrease the skin’s moisture loss (which is critical for everyone, but most moisture retention is especially important as we age) and also reduced skin sensitivity. As someone with dry, sensitive skin that tends to get uneven in certain places, my ears definitely perked up for this one.
Studies have also shown that using probiotics can help balance out your skin’s pH levels and restore the balance of free radicals, which can minimize the appearance of aging. And as anyone who has ever gotten chastised by their dermatologist after a beach vacation knows, sun damage can result in everything from age spots to fine lines—and there’s early evidence that probiotics may be helpful in reversing some of these effects, so that’s a big win, too.
If You Have Cancer, Should You Incorporate Probiotics Skin Care Into Your Routine?
While it’s not the most satisfying answer, the true answer is “maybe.” There just aren’t enough high-quality studies yet to fully determine whether topical probiotics are great for skin care for cancer patients. However, a 2019 meta-analysis of all the studies available at the time led researchers to a pretty hopeful conclusion: topical probiotics appear to be an effective way to treat certain inflammatory skin diseases, and may have a promising role in skin cancer and wound healing—but again, more studies are needed to really confirm the results.
“When your immune system is lowered, there’s a higher chance of the bad bacteria becoming overgrown and causing disease,” Dr. Kwong says. “So the theory behind probiotic use is that we may be able to give skin back that lost ‘good’ bacteria so it can regain balance. However, we need more studies to determine if this will work or not.”
If you do choose to use probiotic-rich skincare, you should keep it away from broken skin, however. “Keep it to non-damaged areas, so the bacteria can populate where it’s supposed to be populated,” Dr. Kwong says. While there have been some promising studies on probiotics and wound care in cancer patients, those are almost all studies on orally-ingested probiotics, and Dr. Kwong thinks using topical probiotics on broken skin is simply too risky, so why test it?
What probiotic skin care should you be using?
While we’re excited to keep an eye on the research and look forward to learning more about how good bacteria can keep our skin healthy, products that come packed with certain bacterial strains—especially Lactobacillus—have been identified as among the most potentially helpful. While you can certainly DIY up your own yogurt masks—which can be a fun, if messy, adventure—you might also want to look into professionally crafted probiotic skin care, which has been formulated and balanced to make your skin (and all its tiny inhabitants) healthier.