The beauty industry's latest fixation doesn't start with your skin — but with your gut. One of the less glamorous parts of the body, sure, but brands have recently started paying close attention to the connection between the health of the stomach and the appearance of skin. Whether it's ingesting probiotic-packed foods, drinks, and supplements, or applying topical products that promote good bacteria, your quest for problem-free skin should begin in the belly.
First, the basics: Probiotics are live bacteria or yeast that live in our digestive tract and help aid digestion. Lacto-fermenting is the method of introducing lactic acid-producing bacteria (lactobacillus strains) into foods. Although our stomachs already do this to break down sugar and carbohydrates and turn them into energy, Carla Oates, otherwise known as The Beauty Chef, says, "Often, we are stripped of these microbes through environmental sterilization, and eating foods that have no microbes because they've been washed and sprayed with pesticides."
Oates, who's been researching the implications of gut health for some time, started with lacto-fermenting foods after reading several academic papers that made the connection between the gut and the skin. "It's where the center of your immune system lies, it's where we make nutrients, metabolize hormones, neutralize pathogens, make neurotransmitters... Everything from our skin to the way we feel, our energy levels and overall health, our weight, blood sugar levels — it really starts in our gut," says.
Looking to miso in Japan, kefir and sauerkraut in Eastern Europe, and kimchi in Korea as examples of fermented foods that are eaten to preserve gut health, Oates says the results were astounding. "My skin was glowing, my tummy felt better, my toilet habits more regular, nails stronger, hair more lustrous; I felt a better energy and overall wellbeing," she says. "It was my 'aha!' moment where it all just came together."
As well as introducing those foods to your diet and supplementing any extra probiotics we may have lost through eating processed foods and living in urban environments, Oates suggests cutting out dairy. "It's highly inflammatory and hard for your digestive system to cope with," she says. "It can contribute to leaky gut, which is where you have a permeability in the lining of your gut wall and toxins and undigested food particles will go straight into your bloodstream, causing inflammation and allergic reactions. In turn, that also puts incredible stress on your liver, and we want our liver to remain extremely efficient to be able to get rid of excess hormones and all of the toxins in our environment and food."
By founding The Beauty Chef in 2009 with her first product, Glow Inner Beauty Powder, Oates decided to take her personal experience to the masses, hoping to help others discover clear skin and overcome eczema, acne, and other issues. Containing 24 organic, bio-fermented, and probiotic superfoods, the supplement can be added to smoothies, cereal, or mixed with water. Now, her offering includes bio-fermented probiotic elixir tonics for fighting environmental aggressors, collagen shots, and detox powders — all of which contribute to her cult following.
Appearing on the beauty scene more recently is Gallinée, founded by French pharmacist Marie Drago. After being diagnosed with pyoderma gangrenosum and Crohn’s disease, and following a three-month antibiotic course, Drago tried a probiotic diet in an effort to relieve her digestive symptoms, having read a study that appealed to her inner scientist. While her digestive symptoms did indeed ease up after around 10 days of eating gut-friendly food, she presses the fact that she isn't advocating a "miracle cure" for any kind of illness or disease; she's only sharing her personal experience. “Everyone is different and something that worked for me doesn’t mean it can work for everyone, but for me the changes were quite dramatic,” Drago explains. “I also found it had a very positive impact on my anxiety.”
Like Oates, when Drago looked further into the microbiome, she came to realize how much we were tampering with our own through the trappings of modern life. From antibiotics to pollution to over-cleaned vegetables, she found that "our modern lifestyles might be destroying a very important part of our own ecosystem, with serious consequences."
At an adult acne panel talk hosted by Cult Beauty recently, Oates referenced a group of studies exploring what is known as "the farm effect." "They sampled children who grew up on organic farms and had been exposed to soil, and found that they had incredibly rich microbial diversity," she explains. "They were really healthy, robust children who had less allergies and less skin problems. Then they took samples from children in urban environments like London, living on a very conventional English diet, and they had very low microbial diversity with a much higher rate of allergies, eczema and skin issues." While Oates isn't suggesting we all run out to our nearest city farm and eat the soil there, both she and Drago founded their brands on academic concerns linking modern life and an unhealthy gut.
Rather than exploring digestibles, Drago worked with a French university to test products on the skin, and Gallinée was born. Like Oates' lacto-fermentation, “probiotics used in cosmetics tend to come from the lactic acid bacteria family (lactobacillus). They have a soothing effect on the skin, as they seem able to modulate inflammatory response from the skin,” Drago explains. “So they will be good on sensitive skin, or to prevent aging. It’s all due to the anti-inflammatory effect of probiotics, that seems to reduce inflammation mechanisms triggered by the immune system overreacting. Less inflammation means less skin damage, so in effect preventing skin aging.”
Though she's launched a select range of topical products, from a super soothing and calming hydrating face cream to a cleansing bar that promises to work wonders at reducing redness for those with acne and rosacea, Drago also believes a probiotic diet is key. “I think it’s a nice combination when using my skincare,” she says.
Of course, what works for one person may have no impact on another, and it's irresponsible to claim that anyone can heal autoimmune illnesses or cure longstanding diseases through a microbiome-friendly lifestyle. But with probiotic foods having proved a healthy gut staple in many cultures across the world for thousands of years, and our contemporary urban environments giving rise to a larger number of skin issues, balancing the "rainforest" that lives in your gut — and on your skin — could well lead to the glowing, clear complexion you've been striving for.