What is your microbiome? A Wellness Trend Taking on Post Covid Urgency, Wall Street Journal
Probiotics aren’t just good for your gut: How hyping “good” bacteria can boost immunity and protect your skin
Call it a sign of the times: Microbiomes—the network of bacteria, fungi, viruses and other microorganisms (or microbiota) that our bodies play host to—have been getting more attention of late. Though they’re known for aiding digestion, their role in healthy immune function may be what’s currently boosting their reputation. “With the emergence of Covid, we’re all becoming aware of just how important it [the microbiome] is,” says New York–based dermatologist Whitney Bowe. A recent study by the Chinese University in Hong Kong that compared data from 27 recovering Covid-19 patients to healthy samples found that microbiome imbalance was linked to the severity and length of Covid cases. (Those with Covid lacked certain types of good bacteria.) Researchers at the University of Connecticut are continuing to examine the link between the Covid vaccine and the microbiome.
The intestinal, or gut, microbiome is best known, but other areas of the body, like the mouth, skin and vagina, have their own as well. And now there’s a renewed push from beauty brands in their messaging around the microbiome and the health of your skin. “We’re very much gearing up for this [the microbiome] to be the next hot topic,” says Michelle Connelly, vice president of merchandising and planning at beauty store Credo. While popular awareness of the gut microbiome has been growing for the past decade, a broader understanding of the skin microbiome and how it connects to the gut is in its early stages. “Consumers are familiar with the concept that they should take probiotics as an internal supplement,” says Connelly, “but the connection to skin care is still vague.”
A properly functioning skin microbiome, composed of bacteria known also as skin flora, is critical to skin’s health: It fortifies the skin’s barrier, trapping moisture, shielding against infection and environmental aggressors and reducing inflammation. When the microbiome is lacking in good bacteria, the skin’s barrier function is compromised. The result is what Bowe calls “leaky skin,” her riff on the term “leaky gut,” a colloquial expression for increased intestinal permeability. “Leaky skin becomes dehydrated, and all those irritants and allergens and pollutants and pathogens are able to penetrate and trigger inflammation,” she says. Bowe says inflammation can manifest in various ways, showing up as acne, eczema or accelerated aging. And it’s often the cause of what people identify as “sensitive skin,” which, according to a 2019 Frontiers in Medicine study, 60 to 70 percent of American women and 50 to 60 percent of American men report having.
“Consumers are familiar with the concept that they should take probiotics as an internal supplement, but the connection to skin care is still vague.” — Michelle Connelly
Diet, chronic stress and environmental factors like UV light and pollution all impact the skin’s microbiome, as do skin-care products. “Today we have never used so many products and yet our skin has never been worse,” says Elsa Jungman, founder of the Dr. Elsa Jungman skin-care line. “The more we interfere with our microbiome by cleansing and layering skin care, the more we get rid of those essential nutrients for it to function properly.” Overcleansing and overexfoliating can have particularly detrimental effects. Bowe calls out W with high pH or harsh sulfates. “They strip the skin of the healthy fats our microbiome needs to survive and thrive,” she says. Mechanical face brushes and grainy exfoliants are also major disruptors. Using too many products with highly active ingredients, like retinol and various acids, can pose a problem as well. “They can disrupt the skin barrier and negatively impact the microbiome if you overuse them, layer them or use them too frequently,” says Bowe, who tells patients to follow a formula of “push, push, recover, recover.” “On the first push night you exfoliate with something like an alpha or beta hydroxy acid, on the second you use a retinol, and then on nights three and four you just focus on nourishing and repairing with things like glycerin, jojoba oil and squalene.”
A number of brands have made supporting the microbiome a central tenet of their formulations. Beekman 1802 features goat milk as its marquee ingredient because, the company says, it has a pH level similar to that of human skin and won’t disrupt its acid mantle, the oil, sweat and acid film on the skin’s surface that, with the microbiome, acts as a shield. “This might sound weird coming from a skin-care company, but the very best thing you can do for the health of your microbiome is to do as little
as possible,” says founder Brent Ridge, a physician who specializes in the field of aging and geriatric medicine. Beekman 1802 sought out a Microbiome-friendly accreditation—a test by MyMicrobiome, a company co-founded by microbiologist Kristin Neumann, that examines whether products maintain the skin’s balance. Ridge hopes the certification helps provide clarity for consumers. Jungman’s line was granted the same accreditation, and now Jungman, who holds a Ph.D. in skin pharmacology, is developing a swab test with microbiologist Kelly Haas so consumers can check their skin microbiome at home and get personalized reports.
“This might sound weird coming from a skin-care company, but the very best thing you can do for the health of your microbiome is to do as little as possible.”
But it’s not just about slapping on products with probiotics, or beneficial bacteria, says aesthetician Kristina Holey, who frequently incorporates gut analysis into her treatments with clients. “In skin care we focus this laser light on one thing and we say this does everything, but it doesn’t work that way,” says Holey’s frequent collaborator Marie-Veronique Nadeau, a chemist. “It’s about creating the environment in which probiotics can thrive.” And that goes more than skin deep: The concept of what is commonly referred to as the gut-brain-skin axis holds that these systems are interconnected. In her book Younger Skin Starts in the Gut, L.A.-based naturopathic doctor Nigma Talib speaks to how food and lifestyle can impact our microbiomes. “Stress, alcohol, commonly used medications, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and our diets can determine whether our bacteria is mostly formed of healthy bacteria, or the opposite,” Talib writes. She points to an Ohio State University trial using mice, published in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity in 2010, that showed inflammation-producing bacteria thrived during periods of stress.
“Skin cannot live on skin care alone,” says Rachel Behm, founder of the new brand Layers. Behm specifies the importance of eating a diet that supports healthy microbes, including a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fermented foods, and limiting refined sugars, artificial sweeteners and processed carbs. “A recent study [of 647 participants in Germany, published in the British Journal of Dermatology] showed that if you alter your diet you can actually directly change the microbes in your skin,” says Bowe. “The science surrounding the microbiome will change the entire way we think about the skin and take care of it.”