Science or pseudo-science?
A 2019 article by the International Journal of Cosmetic Science says that from a regulatory standpoint, there is no harmonized definition of probiotics in cosmetic products, which in strict terms refers to the use of live bacteria.
Since most cosmetic products contain a “large amount of water and preservatives which are used to prevent bacterial growth and spoilage”, most probiotic skincare contain “deactivated” bacteria in the form of “bacterial fermentation or cell lysates (in which the bacteria is broken down into a more stable and dead form)” rather than live bacteria.
So when South African cosmetics company Esse Skincare released a probiotic serum in 2015 that claims to have “one billion live probiotic microbes per millilitre” to “rewild the skin”, it alarmed regulators in the European Union.
Import standards bar products that contain more than a certain amount of microbes per milliliter to prevent microbial contamination. The company had to engage with regulators to get clearance.
But as the race towards microbiome skincare heats up and claims get wilder and more difficult to verify, several questions arise: Just how effective – and safe – are some of these products?
Dr Rachel Ho, who frequently blogs about trending skincare products, says the onus is currently on the beauty companies to ensure their products are safe and live up to their claims.
“I am uncertain about the benefits of including a billion live microbes. Probiotic skincare is very trendy, and so companies just hype it up,” she says.
However, the medical director of La Clinic says preliminary studies have shown that using probiotics in skincare may help improve skin inflammation such as acne and eczema as well as vanquish free radicals which accelerate ageing.
“The studies behind probiotic skincare are not as robust as studies supporting other active ingredients. So, while a few small studies suggest that using probiotics can help with acne, it’s not enough for doctors to recommend probiotic skincare over retinoids,” she says.
Moreover, knowledge about probiotics has been limited to specific species and strains.
“In other words, the benefits of probiotics are strain-specific, so simply using any probiotic product – which may not contain strains that are beneficial – may not be useful,” she says.
Dr Angeline Tay, a microbiome team leader working with Dr Chopra, also says that while “non-living” microbiome actives have shown a lot of promise, a personalized approach, rather than a one-size-fits-all formula, could take efficacy to the next level as skin microbiome differs from one person to the next.
Her advice? “One could adopt a skincare routine that avoids harsh cleansers and instead incorporate products containing prebiotics, probiotic ferment extracts and postbiotics.
“These ingredients can help improve the balance of microbes on your skin microbiome, reinforce your skin’s natural barrier and contribute to a healthier skin ecosystem.
“Till then, the scientific community is working hard towards the next generation of microbiome powered cosmetic and dermatological solutions.”