Bacteria and Beauty: Microbiota's Game-changing Potential in Product Development

  • Many large brands are already actively studying the skin microbiota, looking at implications in skin development as well as to more fully understand body odor.
  • There is a concept to apply the principles of prebiotics, stimulating the growth of bacteria, to beauty products.
  • Learning how to interact with the metabolism of bacteria that lead to bad odors, so as to avoid the need to use bactericidals, is one long-term goal.

Do you know that only 10% of the cells in your body are human?

It's hard to believe, but if you took an inventory of any healthy human being's cells and analyzed each cells’ genome, only 10% would carry the same human genome. Turns out, humans are mostly made of bacteria—plus some fungus and viruses. As unappealing as this may sound, we have to come to terms with the fact that humans, in our own bodies, are not alone. A human is only partly human. A human being exists only because it is unto itself an ecosystem. Or rather, a multitude of ecosystems.

Think of the body as a planet with many different climates and geographies. Each part of the body is colonized by different bacterial, viral and sometimes even parasitic populations. The reason why humans function the way we do is, of course, physiology—the way our own human cells’ molecular biology allow them to work, how they're organized in tissues or organs, and so on—but the way humans function is also positively impacted and aided—and even made possible—by the bacteria in and on the body. We live in symbiosis. For each body part, this population is called the microbiota, while the microbiome is the multitude of genomes represented by this huge and diverse microflora.

Microbiota, In Brief

The study of the microbiota is a field emerging from the successive coming of age of genomics, which allows a close examination of bacteria from a genomic standpoint, as well as a staggering amount of data and analytics. And we're just at the beginning. There is so much data generated from this field that even with the best analytics tools, it is still very difficult to even know where to start.

In December 2011 at the Microbiota conference held in Paris, a number of scientists explored the topic of microbiota. Specialists in genomics, in vaginal flora, in human gut microbiome, in skin health, in olfactory sciences, and on and on, talking about the new findings this research generates in human health, nutrition and beauty. Although still in its infancy, the microbiota field of study is developing rapidly and holds huge promise for the future. Already, researchers are finding the microbiota impacts diseases such as obesity, diabetes, atopic dermatitis and even stress. The bacteria in the gut or on the skin actively participate in the health of the immune system, which is paramount to general human health. The microbiota fight bad bacteria but also educate the immune system, balance food metabolism, and regulate many processes.

In the beauty industry, many large companies and brands are already actively studying the skin microbiota. Researchers are looking at everything from the microbiota of babies, to learn about its implications in skin development, to adult skin microbiota, to better understand acne, as well as to more fully understand body odor and more. For now, direct applications of the research are not yet ready for product development implications, but a host of studies are being performed that are getting the industry much closer to actual realizations.

Experts and Their Research

At Johnson & Johnson, France-based research fellow Georgios Stamatas, PhD and his team study the skin microbiota of babies. Using sophisticated tools such as genomics and biosequencing, they are seeking to understand the process of baby skin maturation, with the goal that the findings will add new elements to the fundamental understanding of baby skin, in addition to an understanding of preservation of both products and microflora.

“The study of microbiota will also answer other questions on the nature of commensal microorganisms, their evolution and their impact on skin health," Stamatas explains. "It will give us indications on how to preserve the product while preserving the precious microflora. We will now have to find a balance between the safety of the product and its efficacy—how to preserve the good bacteria upon application while keeping the bad bacteria from contaminating the products or the skin.

“The study of microbiota brings to light the fact that everything we do affects the body, and that practices like overcleansing, for instance, the obsession with keeping clean may be detrimental to our health,” Stamatas continues. “It forces us to rethink the development of products that are mild and gentle so as not to disturb the normal skin development and equilibrium.”

Stamatas also studies the impact of the mode of delivery on the baby’s skin’s future. Whether a baby is delivered naturally or via C-section will impact the nature of his microflora. They've learned that C-section babies may be at greater risk of developing some allergies or asthma, and the practice of cleaning up babies right after birth has some negative impact as it affects the lipids that are on the skin and how skin gets colonized. “It also seems that the diversity of the microflora helps develop healthier skin," Stamatas also observes.

At Henkel, the focus is on acne and body odor, and Henkel microbiologist Rainer Simmering studies how to move away from antimicrobials that are unselective and kill all skin bacteria regardless of their function, and how to rebalance the skin microbiota using antimicrobials with selective action.

Simmering's idea is to apply the principles of prebiotics—stimulating the growth of bacteria—to beauty products. The use of prebiotics in cosmetics is not new (Solabia currently commercializes a complex aimed at strengthening the skin’s flora and has had similar products in its catalog since the mid 1990s), but it is evolving with the ability to evaluate their efficacy by monitoring the details of the bacterial populations, going above and beyond simply observing dermatological clinical outcomes.

Simmering’s team also works on body odor, and there the metabolism of bacteria comes into play. First, they very accurately identified the make-up of the bacterial populations present in both men and women and studied the differences. Then they correlated flora and odor and further analyzed the DNA and RNA profiles of these populations. What they found is that the most predominant bacteria might not be the most active ones, leading them to simulate complex microbial mixtures and test different formulas in order to identify the one that fought bacteria most homogeneously so as to maintain a well-balanced bacterial flora.

The innovation in that research is threefold: it facilitates long-term effectiveness against body odor, it allows gender specific claims, and it offers a triple action aimed at bacteria reduction, enzyme inhibition and fragrance performance.

Focusing on Odor

Also at the Paris Microbiota event, Firmenich's Christian Starkenman presented research undertaken to gain a better understanding of the role of bacteria in malodor. His focus is on decrypting the interactions between bacteria and precursors of thiols—an organosulfur compound responsible for some of the more pungent qualities of onion, garlic and human sweat.

In human adults, smell associated with sweat originates from apocrine glands located in the armpit, and the odor results from the degradation of the excretion of these glands by bacteria in armpit. (Note that these glands aren't solely located in armpits, but that hot and humid environment allows for a much greater bacterial activity.) The sweaty odor of humans is also comprised of acids, thiols and steroids, and to find the precursors of the particularly pungent sulfur compounds, Starkenman literally uses liters of sterile sweat collected from his colleagues after they spend time in an exercise room or sauna. His long-term goal is to learn how to interact with the metabolism of bacteria that leads to bad odors so as to avoid the need to use bactericidals.

Starkenman also works on bacteria found in the mouth, which also has a wet and warm ecosystem, and discovered that sulfur compound precursors in onion, grapes and bell pepper are slowly transformed in thiols in a similar way as compared to armpit malodors. With this, he presented an interesting hypothesis that if the same bacteria are present both in the mouth and in the armpit and can transform certain molecules, the compounds produced will be the same in both places. One of these compounds is a thiol, which is unique to the human species, and the precursor of thiol should be present in breast milk. Therefore, by tasting that compound early in life, a baby is equipped with a chemical/sensorial imprint that tells her that she is human. This hypothesis was confirmed by the work of food chemist Andrea Büttner.

Starkenman’s research clearly goes beyond the scope of fragrance and deodorants, but because such research is in its infancy, it seems to be going many directions, with an abundance of both data and potential applications. “Microbiome research is extremely important," Starkenman says. "We now finally can analyze it fully; it is producing huge amounts of data and, in truth, we are not sure yet what to do with it. The future will be a new way to classify living organisms, based on their bacterial ecosystems.”

Marie-France de la Cochetière—a researcher at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research (Inserm), a public scientific and technological institute that operates under the joint authority of the French Ministry of Health and French Ministry of Research—agrees. “The greatest challenge that we face today is to remain focused and pursue concrete objectives," she says. "We have to ask one question and keep at it. There are so many ways to exploit the microbiome—phylogeny, metabolism, host response, cellular response, etc.—that it is easy to get lost. What the microbiome tells us, or rather reminds us of, is that all the inhabitants of our body are interconnected; the interactions between the diverse bacterial flora are a very important area of research, but we don’t know yet how to study them very well.”

Where the Research Goes Next

As of the writing of this article, no products issued from such research have seen the light of day. But discovering the importance of the microbiome is bringing about a small revolution in human health sciences. It reminds us that everything is a question of ecosystem. In the same way that humans evolve in an environment that we have to take into account not only for its preservation but for our own sake (as epigenetics have demonstrated), we realize that we ourselves are ecosystems of our own and that we need to think in those terms when considering our health.

It is clear that it is highly beneficial, if not critical, to maintain health for all the cells that constitute "us," and that implies computing in the presence of billions of bacteria that are interdependent and have, with our body and the human cells that constitute it, the same interdependent relationship. (And, of course, are impacted by the environment in which we chose to live.)

It forces us to question our use of bactericidal products—antibiotics especially—in foods that we ingest daily, and even to reconsider the preservation of certain products. But it also emphasizes that everything humans do has consequences: what we eat, the air we breathe, our level of stress. These all impact us in two ways: through our human cells through the epigenome and also through our microbiome, the guardian of many aspects of our health.

Moving ahead, there will be major hurdles to the implementation of bacteria-friendly products.

In the case of probiotics, how do we market a product with living organisms in it? How do we handle that from a regulatory standpoint? How do we practically formulate these products, and most of all, how do we talk about it to consumers? Many consumer studies show that although the use of bacteria in food products is now widely accepted, the notion of microbial flora in the body is linked to its presence in the colon. When asked about skin microflora, most panelists are turned off.

However, the skin microflora is not going anywhere. It is here, and there is nothing we can do about. Our role in the beauty industry is to educate consumers about that fact, showing how positive these findings are in the sense that they open doors to new, more effective, more gentle treatments and products. We have to help consumers to understand that these little microorganisms they host are part of themselves—permanent guests that they have to treat with deference because so much depends on them.

Opening up communication on this topic is an opportunity for the beauty industry to help open a debate around a fact that is now a common trend to most civilizations: We are all interconnected and our physiology is a reflection of that fact. In the same way that we have to take care of our environment for our immediate benefit and for the generations to come, we have to foster a healthy ecosystem for our wonderful, delicate and superbly designed human cells, including those of our skin.

The next Micriobiota event is scheduled for Feb. 5–6, 2013.

Marie Alice Dibon, PharmD, is the principal at Alice Communications, Inc., helping companies in the life science sector to develop innovative technologies.

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