Beauty in Bacteria

19th May 2017

Most people associate probiotics (good bacteria) with maintaining a healthy digestive system, but it’s recently been suggested that great skin also depends on those microscopic microbes too. Is it time to rethink your daily skincare routine? Lisa Botwright investigates…

Beauty companies generally fall over themselves to bring a new spin to their skincare launches. They’ll try and persuade us that their brand new products, containing ingredients sourced from, say, Amazonian rainforests, volcanic eruptions, NASA endorsed trips to Mars etc, will offer the most ethical credentials, the highest potency and the most magical results compared to any of their competitors.

So when press releases began arriving in my inbox about a new development in skincare, rather than raising any interest, I raised my eyebrows. I quickly dismissed probiotic skincare as another fad.

Two things happened though, that made me change my mind, and I’m really glad I did. In fact, I really think there’s something in this new concept… I’m even feeling quite evangelical.

The first thing is the legitimacy of the science behind it. If you’re interested in nutrition, then you’re probably already sold on the need for good bacteria in the gut to combat digestive problems, to help us extract nutrients from our food and to help us maintain a healthy weight. Things like antibiotics and processed food can harm our microflora balance, but we can help ourselves by eating, amongst other things, live yoghurt, bananas and green leafy veg. What’s not so well known is that there are trillions of bacteria living in and on our skin too and that problems are going to occur in the same way if these are out of sync.

But why is this big beauty news all of a sudden, I wonder, until I hear about The Human Microbiome Project. Just as advances in DNA sequencing have been generating huge leaps in our biological and medical knowledge, another ambitious project, set up in 2008, has been working to map and understand all the microorganisms living in the human body. It’s the clever germ-nerds involved who identified that our skin – which is, after all, an organ – plays host not just to bad blackhead-causing bacteria, but also to good bacteria ‘that serve as personal groomers, eating through sweat and oils’.

Esse, who have produced the world’s first live probiotic serum (see tester’s review, right) explain that ‘without [the right balance of] microbes, your skin can’t perform its basic functions and the rate of skin ageing increases sharply’.

Curious to try the products out after absorbing the science, I contact three leading probiotic skincare manufacturers – Esse, Gallinée and Aureli – to find out more.

“I’m a massive fan of probiotics in my diet… that’s how the whole Gallinée story started,” enthuses founder Claire. “I have some autoimmune diseases and food intolerances, and after reading some scientific studies about pre- and probiotic diet, I was able to stop my treatment. I really think probiotic skincare is going to be a revolution in beauty, as we start seeing our skin as a breathing and living ecosystem.”

Each brand has its own blend of signature ingredients. Aurelia, a company that’s won a string of awards since its inception in 2013, explain: “We use a non-live probiotic from bifido bacteria in the form of a glycoprotein (a molecule which helps cell-to-cell communication), which we then combine with milk proteins to protect and restore your skin from within.”

When the tester products arrive, I sniff suspiciously, half expecting a whiff of sour milk to emanate but, oh my goodness, how wrong I am. Each individual product is gorgeous. Aurelia’s cleanser, in particular, smells amazing and feels silky-smooth. Esse’s foaming cleanser is a cloud of gentle heavenliness and the exfoliatior is one of the best I’ve ever tried. And this is where I come to the second reason for my probiotic u-turn. It works. This is seriously lovely skincare.

I’m lucky enough to have pretty normal skin, and I wonder how the probiotics would work on problem skin. I look around for a second, third and fourth opinion and dish out the samples to two of my colleagues and to my teenage daughter, all of whom have different concerns. What would they think?

The Gallinée tester, my teenage daughter who suffers with terribly sensitive skin, finds the cleanser instantly calms her redness – and my Esse tester can’t wait to show me how much her combination skin has cleared up in just a few days. Would you buy it? I ask her. “I’ve already asked for replacements for my birthday,” she grins. The Aurelia tester is enthusiastic too. “I love it. I’m using it really slowly as I don’t want to finish it…”

Products tested: Aurelia Miracle Cleanser, £38, and Revitalise & Glow Serum, £57

Tester’s skin type: Mature, with a lingering tendency to a little greasiness on the cheeks

Comments: The cleanser is a thing of glory – really creamy, and so gentle. The skin feels wonderful after you’ve massaged the product in and then used the soft bamboo muslin to wipe it away. The serum smells stronger (it took me a while to get to like it) and feels quite drying, but the results have been excellent. My skin feels great, and the blemishes are much reduced.

Products tested: Foaming Facial Cleanser, £14, and Hydrating Face Cream, £35

Tester’s skin type: Teenage, very sensitive, tendency to mild rosacea

Comments: “My mum has bought me so many different cleansers, but they all seem to make my skin flare up. This is the only one I’ve found so far that doesn’t make my cheeks red and itchy afterwards. The foam feels really light and keeps my skin clear. I’d like to carry on using it. The moisturiser makes my skin feel nice too; I’ve never used a cream every day before, but I’ve been using this one regularly.”

Products tested: Esse Deep Moisturiser, £40.02 and Microderm Exfoliator, £27.45

Tester’s skin type: Young adult, sensitive, combination (dry forehead, oily cheeks)

Comments: “The exfoliator smells really nice and has a lovely grainy texture. When I washed it off, there was no gritty residue and my skin was really smooth. I felt it brought the life back to my face and made my skin glow. The moisturiser was just the right texture, not too thick or thin, and I saw a big difference straightaway. It quickly eliminated the dry, flaky patches on my forehead and helped to balance out my skin.”

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