Everything You Need To Know About Prebiotic And Probiotic Skincare

Every year new skincare trends emerge, and 2023 is no different. Currently, one of the biggest trends on the horizon seems to be prebiotic and probiotic skincare. Apart from Gallinée, which entered the market as a probiotic skincare brand, famous names like Vichy and La Roche Posay have also introduced products that contain the magical ingredients we usually associate with our gut health.

After realizing how important the microbiome is for our gut, experts in the skincare industry began investigating how to help the skin's microbiome remain as healthy as possible also. "The gut microbiome has been extensively investigated and has led to a greater understanding of the interplay between our microbiome and our immune system," dermatologist Dr. Catherine Borysiewicz tells Glamour. "Interest then turned to skin microbiome. We know that in common conditions such as eczema, acne, and dandruff, the delicate balance of microbes can be altered and distorted, and this, in turn, can have a significant effect on skin barrier function and immune responses. In turn, researchers are now interested in whether it is possible to target and manipulate the human microbiome to treat and stabilize skin diseases."

Because the concept of prebiotic and probiotic skincare is still new, there's quite a bit of confusion around it. To help lay things out, we are sharing everything you need to know about this new skincare trend.

What is our skin's microbiome?

Before we get into explaining prebiotic and probiotic skincare, we need to talk about our skin's microbiome. "Our skin has a complex combination of many microorganisms — like bacteria, viruses, fungi, and even mites — that live in symbiosis, called the skin microbiome," dermatologist Dr. Anar Mikaliov tells Byrdie. "The organisms prevent overgrowth of pathogenic microbes and produce molecules beneficial to the skin."

And yes, even though the idea of living organisms on your skin might freak you out, it's not only totally normal but also very necessary, so it's crucial not to disturb it. "You may not want to think of it, but your skin is not sterile," dermatologist Dr. Joshua Zeichner reveals to Byrdie. "It is loaded with organisms like bacteria and yeast that are essential for proper functioning of the skin itself." He adds that disrupting the microbiome can cause detrimental changes to the skin barrier's function, which can lead to dryness, premature aging, and acne breakouts.

The knowledge that your skin is covered in living organisms is powerful information to have as you think about your skincare routine. And it seems as if more and more brands are utilizing the science behind prebiotic and probiotic skincare to enhance the skin's natural microbiome.

What are probiotics in skincare?

Now that we understand just what the skin's microbiome is, we can get to probiotics, which are "living organisms that benefit the health of their host," according to spa, skin, and body specialist Heather Hickman (via Byrdie). "These good bacteria have been shown to strengthen the immune system and improve nutrition absorption," she adds. This is something you probably already knew, as probiotic supplements have been popular for decades. However, you might wonder just how they work in skincare. Since probiotics are live organisms, how would skincare products contain them? Luckily, experts have clarified this.

"Probiotics are live organisms, and no skincare products contain true probiotics since skincare products contain preservatives to prevent bacterial contamination and give a skincare product its shelf life. The same preservatives would kill any probiotics in the product itself," dermatologist Dr. Joshua Zeichner, M.D., reveals to Byrdie. "The latest generation of skincare products contain probiotic ingredients to help restore the skin microbiome."

Those ingredients include lysates or fermented extracts closer to postbiotics, microbiome scientist Dr. Elsa Jungman reveals to Byrdie. "They're often nutrient-rich and include soothing antioxidants, amino acids, polysaccharides, antimicrobial peptides, enzymes, vitamins, and more with skin benefits," board-certified dermatologist Dr. Anar Mikaliov adds.

What are prebiotics in skincare?

While incorporating probiotics into skincare is a concept that brands are still trying to figure out, prebiotics seem to be much easier to understand. "Think of your skin like a garden; prebiotics are like fertilizer aiming to help your skin flourish," microbiome scientist Dr. Elsa Jungman tells Byrdie. "Prebiotic skincare can help balance your microbiome, which in turn, can reduce redness and inflammation, reduce wrinkles and signs of aging, and keep the surface of your skin healthy."

Most prebiotic products in skincare contain plant-based carbs and sugars that the skin's microbiome lives off of and the best thing about prebiotics is that they only feed the good bacteria on our skin. "They're especially helpful if you have a bad bacteria overgrowth, such as acne (C. acnes is the culprit) or eczema (S. aureus is linked to eczema)," dermatologist Dr. Catherine Borysiewicz tells Glamour. "It's such a revolutionary way to see and treat these diseases."

Before applying any prebiotic skincare, the skin's pH needs to be taken into account. "The key for applying prebiotics into our skincare routine is to ensure that our skin is in the right pH to protect the natural barrier from breaking down and letting external toxins pass through it," double board-certified nutritionist Dr. Amy Shah, M.D., reveals to The Zoe Report. If the skin's acidity levels are in flux, you are at greater risk of developing skin irritations, inflammation, and other atopic disorders.

Are prebiotics more efficient than probiotics for skincare?

If you're debating whether you would benefit more from prebiotic or probiotic skincare, the answer isn't cut and dry, but most experts agree that prebiotics seem to be easier to find in products today. "A product claiming to be a probiotic would need to contain live microorganisms, whereas a prebiotic product can have plant-based ingredients that 'feed' or activate the skin's natural microorganisms," spa, skin, and body specialist Heather Hickman tells Byrdie. "Probiotics and prebiotics work the same on varying skin types, but the difference would be in the rest of the product formulation. For example, are the prebiotics in a cleanser for oily skin or a moisturizer for dry skin?"

Because prebiotics are much easier to incorporate into already existing skincare formulas, brands tend to add them over probiotics. And because prebiotics help the good bacteria that already live on your skin fight off harmful bacteria and also keep your skin's pH levels healthy, there is really no downside to incorporating them into your skincare regimen if you find products that work for you.

For added benefits, incorporating probiotics and prebiotics into your diet can increase the efficacy of prebiotic skincare products, according to Dr. Amy Shah, a double board-certified nutritionist (via The Zoe Report). Foods high in probiotics include fermented foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, and kombucha. And prebiotic food includes asparagus, bananas, garlic, leafy greens, and more.

What skin conditions can prebiotics and probiotics help?

Are probiotic and prebiotic skincare products something everyone can benefit from? Well, that depends. If you're one of the lucky few with already clear, tight, and dewy skin, we probably wouldn't advise that you change whatever you're doing. After all, if it works, stick to it. However, giving prebiotic and probiotic products a chance is a good idea if you have problems with your skin. "When the skin's microbiome is not balanced, the skin can display various inflammatory skin conditions like acne and atopic dermatitis," dermatologist Dr. Anar Mikaliov tells Byrdie. "The idea of probiotic skincare, similar to probiotics in food, is to add bacteria onto the skin to improve or perhaps restore the microbiome."

Board-certified dermatologist Dr. Joel Schlessinger tells LovelySkin that "certain types of non-cystic acne occur when the blemish-causing bacteria increase inflammation in the skin, causing breakouts." Probiotics can help immensely in this case, as they fight off that specific blemish-causing bacteria. "For those with acne, or skin conditions like rosacea and eczema, [probiotics] can yield calmer skin and better control over breakouts," dermatologist Dr. Francesca Fusco tells Vogue.

Apart from acne and redness, products containing probiotics or prebiotics are amazing for anyone with sensitive skin. "They lower the inflammation on the skin," pharmaceutical doctor Marie Drago explains to Glamour. "They also prevent 'inflammageing' [where inflammation provokes accelerated aging in skin]."

Masks with prebiotics and probiotics are currently very popular

While creating long-lasting skincare products with probiotics is difficult, creating efficient masks is much easier. Because of this, probiotic masks are a popular choice, but they are best when done by a professional esthetician. "Live strains are put through fermentation, which then releases secondary molecules that are collectively known as probiotic-derived bioactives," dermatologist Doris Day, M.D., tells Elle. "It's these molecules that have been through the clinical testing to prove they mimic the action of live bacteria in a more controlled environment, all while being stable."

According to Dr. Day, probiotic-derived bioactives have countless benefits, Not only do they strengthen the skin's barrier to protect against harsh environmental factors which may cause premature aging, but they also cause the skin to repair itself without further irritation or inflammation.

If this sounds like something you could benefit from, we recommend you consult your dermatologist or esthetician to explore adding prebiotic and probiotic mask options to your regular skincare routine.

What does the science say about this trend?

Prebiotics and probiotics in skincare certainly make sense — especially now that we are more familiar with the skin's microbiome. "Probiotics are the good guys, and prebiotics contain what the good guys consume to make sure they thrive and proliferate," Dr. Whitney Bowe tells Vogue. "Prebiotics also promote a more diverse array of bacteria, and diversity is key to healthy skin." In theory, that all sounds great, but how do these products really work in practice? According to experts, it's too soon to tell.

"The science right now has revealed promising leads, but nothing particularly solid," Tami Lieberman, an assistant professor at MIT's Institute for Medical Engineering and Science, tells Allure. "We have no idea about the dosage [skin needs], whether the active ingredient is active, and how long it will survive on your skin," Teo Soleymani, M.D., a dermatologist at UCLA Health, adds.

In fact, this seems to be a new field of skincare that not too much is known about just yet. "Scientists are just starting to discern what constitutes a normal, healthy skin microbiome," Alan C. Logan, an independent researcher and the co-author of "Your Brain on Nature," reveals to Elle. He adds that even though the products might not be where they're supposed to be just yet, it is clear that the "microbes residing on healthy skin make important contributions to the proper maintenance of the barrier to the outside world."

Do prebiotics and probiotics have a future in skincare?

Even though prebiotic and probiotic skincare seems to still be a hit-and-miss, experts are optimistic that using products incorporating these ingredients will be crucial in dealing with skincare problems in years to come. "In the future, I could have a probiotic [microorganism] that lives on my face that secretes sun [protection] when I go out into the sun," Tami Lieberman, an assistant professor at MIT's Institute for Medical Engineering and Science tells Allure. "You could imagine doing such things for any desired effect."

Experts believe this might be the key to healthy skin because all prebiotics and probiotics do is help the skin strengthen its defense. "By activating the skin's natural defense system and restoring equilibrium, probiotics ensure your skin is ready to fight the elements on a daily basis," Claire Vero, founder of Aurelia Probiotic Skincare, reveals to Elle. In fact, industry experts predict that the number of dermatologists and estheticians that turn to prebiotic and probiotic skincare to fight acne in their patients will increase immensely. "I predict that in the next few years, acne won't be treated with antibiotics but with probiotics," the founder of probiotic skincare brand Gallinée Marie Drago tells Elle. "It makes so much more sense to feed the good guys and starve the bad ones (in this case, the acne bacteria)."

Should you add prebiotics and probiotics to your skincare routine now?

Here's the thing — brands haven't figured out just how to make the best use of prebiotics and probiotics in skincare, but that doesn't mean that great products with this technology don't exist. "If you are looking for a pre or probiotic to target dry skin, look for a moisturizer with an oil-based formulation that will work with the prebiotics to support the lipid barrier," spa, skin, and body specialist Heather Hickman tells Byrdie. "Alternatively, if you are looking for a cleanser that will balance the skin without causing sensitivity or dryness, look for ingredients such as oat milk that will work alongside prebiotics to balance the skin and add nourishing lipids to soothe and reduce sensitivity."

The best part about prebiotic and probiotic skincare is that it can do no harm. In the worst-case scenario, it doesn't change anything, but in the best case, it helps your skin look its best, especially if you have existing skin issues. "Those with acne, rosacea, and eczema will [benefit] in particular due to probiotics' calming protective shield and antibacterial effect," Allison Marks, spa director at Arcona, tells The Zoe Report.

"Ultimately, prebiotics and probiotics help reinforce the skin's defense by strengthening the microbiome and protecting the lipid barrier, with prebiotic ingredients being more stable in a formulation," Hickman adds. 

You might already have some products that contain prebiotics

If you aren't too familiar with prebiotics and probiotics in skincare, you might be surprised to hear that you perhaps already own some products that contain them. "A lot of existing products already contain probiotic lysates or ferment filtrates, as well as prebiotics," dermatologist Dr. Anar Mikaliov tells Byrdie. Oat extract is one example of a prebiotic that is often used in skincare products today.

However, keep in mind that because of their sensitive nature and because they are more prone to going bad quickly, skincare products with prebiotics and probiotics should be kept in a cold place. This ensures that they will last long enough for you to see a payoff from using them. "With probiotic products, do refrigerate them and use [them] daily," celebrity dermatologist Kiran Sethi tells Cosmopolitan India. "You must use [them] for at least 3-6 months to see results."

As with any products, pay attention to expiration dates and never apply something that has expired to your skin, as chances are it will do more harm than good.

Can you help your skin's microbiome without using prebiotics and probiotics?

Since skincare products with prebiotics and probiotics are meant to help your skin's microbiome, you're probably wondering whether you can do something to help it without using specific products. The key to keeping your skin's microbiome healthy is to avoid harsh products and over-stripping your skin. "Many skincare ingredients contain harmful chemicals, exfoliants, fragrances, and much more that can damage the microbiome," microbiome scientist Dr. Elsa Jungman tells Byrdie. "If you are concerned about the health of your microbiome, consider switching to a more minimalist, microbiome-friendly proven routine."

Of course, from a young age, we have been taught to clean ourselves constantly, and many of us wash our faces with cleansers twice a day. Unfortunately, in an effort to keep our skin clean, we also get rid of all the good stuff that's on it. "With our over-clean modern lifestyles, however, this ecosystem is often damaged and can result in dry, stressed, sensitive skin," Marie Drago, founder of probiotic skincare brand Gallinée, tells Elle. The best thing you can do to ensure good bacteria stay on your face is to clean your face with gentle products and avoid exfoliating or washing it too much if it isn't necessary.