Not to brag, but I’ve had cystic acne for years — and recently developed my first case of eczema, to boot. “How can one woman be so sensual?” is a question that you are not asking right now. And the question I am asking is: “What the hell else can I do for my skin that I’m not already doing?”
A nutritionist pal suggested trying the OTC probiotic acidophilus, saying a cleaned-out gut was the key to clearer skin — and it turns out, she’s onto something. Studies have shown that probiotics, the living microbes that hang out in your digestive tract, effectively treat many skin conditions. Beauty companies from Clinique to Rodial have ridden that kombucha wave right into including probiotic ingredients like lactobacillus into their topical skin-care products.
Probiotics: A Miracle Treatment For Acne, Wrinkles, & Eczema?
Swallowing a bunch of bacteria sounds like something you’d do during a frat house beer bong game, but it’s actually very popular among the crunchy hippie crowd. When it comes to ingesting beneficial bacteria and fungus strains, you have some options: kimchi (which contains lactic acid bacteria), kombucha (which has yeast-fighting gluconacetobacter xylinus, among others), and yogurt, which contains regularity magic-maker lactobacillus acidophilus. Apple cider vinegar is not a probiotic itself, but feeds the probiotics already living in your gut.
There are also a number of probiotic powders to add to your morning shake (I’ve tried Dr. Frank Lipman’s Be Well Probiotic Powder — it was delightfully tasteless when mixed with greens and frozen fruit, but expensive.) and pills, ranging from Trader Joe’s generic brand to higher-end ones, like Hyperbiotics Pro-15 (which I am taking now), which actively claim to improve your complexion by “reducing inflammation.” Looking for something more affordable? Drugstore product testing site LabDoor has done the work for you and ranked the top 10 more-affordable options. So, what can probiotics do for your skin? Turns out, kind of a lot.
A Japanese study found that patients with very dry skin and wrinkles who consumed a lactobacillus plantarum supplement (made from breast milk) for 12 weeks “saw a significant reduction in wrinkle depth” and improved skin gloss. Skin elasticity improved by 13.17% after just four weeks and by 21.73% after 12.
Acne & Rosacea
The American Academy of Dermatologists is excited by the prospects of probiotics for acne and rosacea treatment. An Korean study of 56 acne patients found that drinking a lactobacillus-fermented dairy beverage reduced their acne lesion count and decreased oil production.
An Italian study of acne and rosacea patients found that those who took an oral probiotic supplement in addition to their regular acne and rosacea treatments had clearer skin than patients not taking the supplement. Promising stuff!
“Although I don’t envision probiotics ever being used as a standalone treatment for acne or rosacea, they could be used as an effective combination therapy with prescription medications or over-the-counter topical treatments,” says Whitney P. Bowe, clinical assistant professor of dermatology at Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York.
Uh oh...turns out probiotics won’t work for everything. “Initial studies of different strains of oral lactobacillus for both prevention and treatment of atopic dermatitis were encouraging, but follow-up reviews and meta-analyses have been conflicting,” wrote New York City dermatologist Reena Rupani in Dermatology Times. A Cochrane Collaboration review of 12 different studies that all focused on probiotics and childhood eczema from 2003 to 2008 found that there was no evidence that lactobacillus and bifidobacterium reduced symptoms. Damn.
So, Should I Just Rub Probiotics All Over My Face?
Okay, so science has pretty much agreed you can eat and supplement your way to better skin — but wouldn’t it be faster to directly apply probiotics to the skin? Not quite.
Many dermatologists recommend a DIY yogurt mask to soothe irritated skin, but the American Academy of Dermatologists says there’s “currently no research or studies that demonstrate the effectiveness of this home remedy.”
When it comes to probiotic-packed beauty products, clinical trials found that in cream form, the probiotic lactobacillus plantarum acted as an anti-inflammatory and decreasing the size of acne lesions, according a 2012 paper in the Journal of Cosmetic Science; an earlier study found that topically applied lactic acid bacterium streptococcus thermophilus increased the ceramides in the skin, improving moisture levels and firmness.
The AAD says that when topically applied, probiotics can confuse an overactive immune system, providing “bacterial interference” that will keep the skin from flaring up into an acne or rosacea breakout. So, is indeed evidence that topical probiotics do something great for the skin — but their reliability and value has yet to be determined.
Microbiologist Jane S. Tang dissected a number of the probiotic studies for a paper in Microbiology Discovery. She found that while plenty of credible studies support the theory that ingesting probiotic foods can be a great addition to a skin-care regimen, it’s really too soon to make that claim about store-bought, externally applied probiotics, like face creams containing lactobacillius.
“Probiotics in skin-care products are still fairly new,” says Tang. “There is definitely potential, but much needs to be done scientifically to show efficacy.” Tang does believe there are benefits to topical probiotics and to probiotics in toothpaste and mouth rinses, "However, currently, there are technological challenges to keep the microbes alive or their metabolite stable in various formula of topical products.”
And unlike foods, probiotic skin-care product are not regulated by the FDA. “Which is a big limitation,” says Tang. “There are no rules for labeling to ensure consistency and accuracy. Under these conditions, I would be concerned if the labels promise too much; anything that appears too good to be true usually is highly questionable. I probably put more trust in name brands as they have a higher standard to adhere to and not as likely to make bogus claims to attract customers.”
The verdict: Eat your kimchi and pop your probiotics according to your concerns, but don’t expect miracles from topical probiotics just yet.