In recent years probiotics have become a vital part of maintaining a healthy gut. Whether we’re knocking back kefir, adding sauerkraut to every meal, or popping some probiotic supplements – we just can’t get enough of those live cultures! Now, new research is showing that the positive benefits of probiotics may help not only our guts but our skin too!
Probiotics are types of ‘living’ friendly bacteria that are naturally found in cultured or fermented foods… Prebiotics are ‘non-living’ food ingredients… Essentially prebiotics feed and encourage the growth of probiotics.
Before we understand how probiotics and prebiotics may have a place in the beauty industry we need to get to grips with what they actually are and how they work! While they both sound quite similar, they both have completely different functions.
Are probiotics and prebiotics the same?
Quite simply, no! Although they both help to maintain a healthy gut when consumed they both have completely different responsibilities when it comes to enhancing the growth of friendly bacteria.
Probiotics are types of ‘living’ friendly bacteria that are naturally found in cultured or fermented foods such as kefir, sauerkraut, miso, tempeh, and kombucha but can also be taken as a supplement. These strains of bacteria are similar to those that inhibit our gut so by adding these strains of good bacteria you help to maintain a healthy, happy eco system. Prebiotics on the other hand, are ‘non-living’ food ingredients – such as fructooligosaccharides (FOS) and galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS) – which are naturally found in many foods including artichokes, onions, cabbage, garlic, and chicory root. These prebiotics reach the large intestines unaffected by digestion and work by ‘feeding’ the probiotics in our guts to help them flourish which in turn surpresses the colonisation of pathogenic (bad) strains of bacteria. Essentially prebiotics feed and encourage the growth of probiotics.
Bacteria and our skin
Thinking about your skin crawling in bacteria might make you feel a little grossed out, but the good bacteria living on our skin may be the key to keeping inflammatory skin conditions such as eczema, rosacea, acne, and psoriasis in check. A healthy person with an strong immune system and the correct balance of skin flora will have the ability to keep pathogens under control. However, if you’re unwell or the health of your skin is compromised in any way the body will not be as effective at protecting itself.
There are both good and bad bacteria on our skin and while scientists have known for a long time about the importance of a balanced flora in the gut, it’s only recently that they’ve begun looking at how this may also relate to skin problems. There are thousands of species of bacteria living on the skin but specific strains have been shown to thrive in certain parts of the body and it’s not always for the best! These findings help us understand why acne and blemishes generally appear on the face and neck.
When it comes to gut health if the balance of microflora is damaged it can lead to irritation and inflammation and the same could also hold true in terms of skin health…
“Surveys of the bacterial communities that live on the skin of healthy adults have revealed three distinct skin microbiomes, each with fairly strong patterns of microbial composition. The oily, or sebaceous, sites of the head, neck, and trunk (where exocrine glands secrete a mixture of lipids called sebum) are dominated by Propionibacterium, including P. acnes, which is associated with blemishes. Moist sites such as the crease of the elbow, below a woman’s breasts, or between the toes are frequented by Corynebacterium. And the dry sites of the body, the broad flat surfaces of skin like the forearm or leg that are exposed to different environments, are home to Staphylococcus species, in particular, S. epidermidis. These areas are also home to the skin’s most diverse microbial communities likely due to their relatively high exposure to the environment.”2
Bye bye acne?
Acne is a tricky one to solve. Scientists are yet to find the exact cause of acne as there are so many different factors such as digestion, hormones, allergies, and skin care routine which have all been linked to breakouts, both severe and mild. There have been vast amounts of research done into the factors which may affect the development of acne and while we’re learning more and more about zits we’re still unsure of the exact sequence of events that lead up to an acne breakout.
Factors that we know have a role in acne development:
- Excess sebum production.
- Over production of keratin (a tough protein) in follicles.
- Fast growth of a certain bacterium (Propionibacterium acnes).
- Immune responses.
As mentioned earlier studies have shown that Propionibacterium acnes has been found to be present when acne lesions occur so the theory is that by dealing with this bacterium acne can be reduced. When it comes to gut health if the balance of microflora is damaged it can lead to irritation and inflammation and the same could also hold true in terms of skin health, which when treated with prebiotics could translate into a clearer complexion as the prebiotics would feed the probiotics living on your skin and help them to thrive.
A natural answer for stressed out skin?
So we now know that prebiotics could potentially help with troublesome skin by feeding the healthy bacteria but what place do probiotics have in skincare? After a quick Google I discovered British probiotic skin care brand Aurelia who are already using probiotics within cleansers, masks, and creams to “stabilise the skin’s defence system to help your skin regain its natural balance, much like probiotics do for your gut.”. It’s clearly not just Claire Velo, the founder of Aurelia, who believes in the power of probiotics as her products have scooped up an astonishing 28 awards in just two years! Further research on the subject revealed the different ways that topical probiotics could potentially benefit the skin in three different ways:
- Calming: Research has shown that certain types of probiotics have a calming effect on skin cells that “may want to react to the presence of bad bacteria that they see as a threat.”.3 These calming signals helps prevent the skin cells going into attack mode which could cause an inflammation which could lead to acne or rosacea.
- Protection: Those of us who suffer from inflammatory skin conditions could potentially see benefits from topical probiotics as they’re said to have the ability send direct signals to the skin cells to prevent inflammation, also known as ‘bacterial interference’. By the sounds of it they essentially trick the body into focusing on good bacteria and not the harmful ones that increase inflammation.
- Antimicrobial: Dermatologist Whitney P. Bowe, MD, FAAD states that the substances probiotics excrete may have effective antimicrobial properties which can perforate bad bacteria and destroy them. Similar to the effects of antibiotics in the treatment of acne and rosacea probiotics could also help fight bad bacteria which may trigger inflammation.
Although it’s a strong theory, when it comes to probiotics much more research is needed to determine the exact strains of good bacteria that will help to balance the skin’s flora and how effective this method would be for treating problem skin. On the other hand, feeding your skin with prebiotics that will help the good bacteria already inhabiting the surface of your skin and aiding it to thrive and flourish actually makes a lot of sense to me so I’ll probably finish with the yogurt face masks for now and start the hunt for a face cream which contains some skin loving prebiotics instead – although I wouldn’t say no to some Aurelia Revitalise and Glow Serum!
- Geddes, L. (2009). Friendly bacteria keep your skin’s defences in check. In The New Scientest. Retrieved from https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn18184-friendly-bacteria-keep-your-skins-defences-in-check/ [Accessed 24 July 2015]
- Akst, J. (2014) Microbes of the Skin. In The Scientist. Retrieved from http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/40228/title/Microbes-of-the-Skin/ [Accessed 24 July 2015]
- Could probiotics be the next big thing in acne and rosacea treatments?. (2014). In American Academy of Dermatology. Retrieved from https://www.aad.org/stories-and-news/news-releases/could-probiotics-be-the-next-big-thing-in-acne-and-rosacea-treatments [Accessed 24 July 2015]