Your Probiotic Beauty Questions Answered

The technical hurdles in topical probiotic formulations are being overcome through a range of formulation techniques.
The technical hurdles in topical probiotic formulations are being overcome through a range of formulation techniques.

Our free on-demand webinar, “Naturally Functional: Top Probiotic Beauty Trends”—sponsored by Sabinsa and now available for free on-demand viewing—generated a range of audience follow-up questions. Our editors consulted with industry experts to gather answers and provide some resources for further research.

Q: How can bacteria or probiotics survive in products, especially those containing preservatives; e.g., are preservatives selective enough to leave the “good bugs” alone?

A: Keeping probiotic bacteria alive in a formulation is difficult because bacteria are often stabilized through freeze-drying processes. According to industry sources, preservatives are less of a threat to live probiotics’ well-being than moisture and temperature. Often, preservative systems can be crafted to address “bad” bacteria without harming the “good.”

Mother Dirt’s AO+ Mist live probiotic spray, cited in this webinar, is designed to be refrigerated. The brand’s site explains:

You should keep the AO+ Mist refrigerated until you first start using it. Once you start using the product, you can keep it at room temp, somewhere convenient like your bathroom counter, for example. After 4 weeks at room temperature, the bacteria start to lose activity. Think of the refrigerator as a way to pause or slow down the loss of activity. You’re welcome to keep the AO+ Mist in the fridge even after you begin using it in order to stretch the life of the product beyond 1 month.

Since the [Mother Dirt] Shampoo, Cleanser, and Moisturizer do not contain live bacteria, they do not need to be refrigerated. The Shampoo, Cleanser, and Moisturizer are sterile until your first pump. Because our product formulations are unpreserved, you should discard the Shampoo and Cleanser after 8 weeks of use, and Moisturizer after 6 months of use.

If able to keep bacteria dry within formulations, chemists could potentially develop room-temperature-stable probiotic cosmetic products. Micro-encapsulation is one potential pathway, protecting bacteria in the presence of moisture by enveloping it in a protective layer until activated by the user. Oil-based preparations can also decrease the level of water/humidity present in formulations, therefore keeping bacteria alive.

Q: How might probiotics be delivered to skin via a body wash or hair mask? Would the bacteria be washed off? How many would remain?

A: The formulation contents and type of microorganism used are key factors for probiotic delivery and retention, our experts point out. Different microorganisms require varying amounts of time to adhere to the skin or scalp; some can do so very quickly. Another factor is the condition/microenvironment of the application site, which can help or hinder application and retention. (Experts point out that skin houses a “reservoir” of bacteria that has resisted wash-off.) Yet, even a small amount of delivered probiotic can thrive and generate the desired positive effects.

Q: Is there any innovation in prebiotic skin care for children?

A: While there is an immense array of ingestible probiotics for children, largely focused on gut health, there are just a handful of topical skin care offerings available.

As mentioned in the presentation, Atopalm Probiotic Moisture Pact, a K-beauty innovation for children, includes Bifida ferment lysate to diminish skin sensitivity, fortify the skin barrier and moisturize the skin. Other ingredients include grapeseed, safflower, jojoba seed and sunflower seed oil, as well as green tea.

BabyBiotics, meanwhile, describes itself as a “Topical Probiotic Body Care for Children of All Ages.” The brand claims that its formulation can be applied to address eczema, diaper rash, acne, dermatitis and more. The brand notes, “The probiotic formula ‘as is’ has an expiration date of two-plus years.”

Q: What are the challenges prebiotic skin products may have in comparison to probiotic skin care?

A: Prebiotic ingredients and formulations are tasked with “feeding” the good bacteria on the skin, while probiotic materials and formulations—assuming active bacteria are involved—must be properly preserved/protected, delivered and activated in order to support probiotic activity (see above). Prebiotics by definition do not contain live material and are therefore less subject to the challenges faced by living organisms (temperature fluctuations and moisture exposure).

Q: How does fermentation fit into the probiotic skin care discussion? I see the term Lactobacillus ferment. Is this a probiotic?

A: A ferment refers to a substance that has undergone fermentation. Lysates are fluids derived from the breaking down of cellular walls and typically comprise contents of both cell walls and the interior content of those same cells.

Brands claiming a probiotic status often comprise ingredients such as ferment lysates, meaning these cellular materials have been subjected to fermentation with the purpose of enhancing their actives. These materials do not comprise living bacteria and therefore are not technically probiotics. (The webinar presentation segmented products by marketer claim, rather than ingredient status; ex: use of ferment lysates vs. live bacteria.) 

Emerging research on lysates in the area of topical skin care includes Audrey Guéniche, et al.’s, “Bifidobacterium longum lysate, a new ingredient for reactive skin,” published in Experimental Dermatology in 2010;

Q: Are active ingredients proven to boost the skin microbiome?

A: Product innovation in microbiome-focused topical beauty/personal care has ramped up even as suppliers and researchers work to secure clearer answers to the impacts and synergies of actives, live bacteria and other materials on the health of the microbiome.

Several suppliers have claimed in vitro results from the application of microbiome-friendly active ingredients; for instance, reporting the reduction of levels of “bad” bacteria and the boosting of skin barrier strength to improve hydration and reduce skin sensitivity.

Meanwhile, Mother Dirt has promoted the results of a four-week clinical study showing that its AO+ Mist improved skin clarity by 35% among consumers with problem skin, improved the look and feel of rough and bumpy skin by 35% among dry skin types, and reduced shine by 22% among users with oily skin.

Other research has focused on assessing skin microbiome health not by appearance but by microflora diversity, as seen with JooMo. In early 2018, the brand shared the results from clinical trials conducted with the Medical University of Graz in Austria.

The study in question involved 30 volunteers broken up into three groups: one used skin care products marketed as natural, another used conventional skin care products and the final group used JooMo’s microbiome-friendly products. Kit Wallen-Russell, one of the brand’s founders, explained that the “natural” and conventional products used by the first two groups both contained some portion of synthetic materials.

The researchers took a skin biodiversity baseline at the start of the trial, then tested that same skin midway through the research and again at the conclusion. Skin health throughout was measured by the biodiversity of the skin microbiome. The more diverse a microbiome becomes, the stronger the skin barrier and the greater the overall skin health. The study concluded that JooMo’s products, which contain raw thyme honey, orange juice, organic sea salt and unrefined raw cane sugar, significantly increased microbial diversity and, as a result, skin health, in two weeks or sooner, per the study.

JooMo’s study points to another key element that researchers, brands and suppliers are investigating: what constitutes a healthy microbiome and how do you measure it? A paper from Hidi H. Kong, et al., “Performing skin microbiome research: A method to the madness,” asks the same question (J Invest Dermatol.; 2017 Mar; 137(3): 561–568).

The researchers noted that while skin health and the microbiome have been investigated, the sector lacks a common language, established study design and validated methods. This can impact everything from skin sampling and sample processing to DNA sequencing to data analysis and beyond. The authors concluded:

Studies of skin microbiome research have the potential to improve our understanding of host-microbial interactions. A byproduct of the expansion in the number of published skin microbiome studies is the need to understand how studies interrelate. Several scientific communities have developed minimal standards to improve the overall quality of different fields of research (Yilmaz et al., 2011). Minimal standards will contribute to the development of robust studies in skin microbiome research.

Q: What are the regulatory requirements to market cosmetics with live microbes?*

A: As with other cosmetic categories, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration polices cosmetics claims, for instance disallowing structure/function claims ( However, it does not otherwise approve or review ingredients or finished products prior to market, excepting certain key prohibited materials or color additives.

In the European Union, cosmetics are covered under the EU regulatory framework, which regularly updates on emerging segments, such as nanomaterials. Current regulations are detailed here:

*Legal disclaimer: This content is intended as informative editorial, not legal advice. Please consult with relevant legal counsel and/or regulatory experts regarding key regulatory issues.

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