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Raise Your Skin IQ By Learning Microbiome Terminology

microbiome terms

Much new research is going on about the skin and gut microbiome and how they affect skin health. In order to understand this research and interpret the often misleading marketing claims of skin care products that claim to target the microbiome, you need to be familiar with the terminology. This article will cover four important terms and how they relate to your skin’s health. Keep an eye out for future blogs that explain more microbiome research.

Microbiome vs. Microbiota

We can’t see everything that lives on our skin. In fact, there are trillions of microorganisms that inhabit our bodies, both inside and out. For the most part, these organisms are harmless and are sometimes even beneficial. In some cases, an unbalanced microbiome may contribute to flare-ups of unwanted skin conditions, such as acne, rosacea, and eczema.

By definition, a microbiome is a group of tiny living things – called microbes – that live in a particular environment, or biome. Therefore, the microbiome of your skin includes both the microorganisms living on it, as well as the unique characteristics of your skin, which is their environment. Some microbes may be beneficial in a particular environment, but harmful in another. For example, the same microbes that may be beneficial in your gut or mouth may not be beneficial to have on your skin, and vice versa.

Microbiota is the term used to describe the collection of living things, or microbes, that live in or on an environment. The difference here is that this term only includes the microorganisms and not the characteristics of their environment. There are also many different strains of each particular bacteria, so even though one strain might be beneficial for your skin, another strain of the same microbe may not. You are born with particular microbiota throughout your body and on your skin. However, unlike the genes you were born with, microbiota can be changed. The only way to add beneficial microbes to a particular microbiome is to administer probiotics.

What is the Difference between Probiotics and Prebiotics?

Probiotics are living microorganisms that can provide beneficial qualities when added in a sufficient amount. For example, by taking an oral probiotic supplement, you can add good bacteria to your gut and reap the health benefits.

A few examples of things that are not classified as probiotics include:

  • The microbes that are naturally found in your body and on your skin. The term “probiotics” specifically refers to only those bacteria that are ingested or applied for the purpose of gaining a health benefit.
  • Microbes that are no longer alive.
  • Fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, and kimchi that contain an unknown amount of beneficial bacteria.

The term “prebiotics” is often used alongside “probiotics,” so it is important to understand the difference between them.

What are Prebiotics?

Think of prebiotics as food for probiotics to help them thrive in a particular environment. However, the same prebiotic is not necessarily beneficial for the microorganisms living in different environments. Prebiotics can cause growth of both beneficial and non beneficial microbes. I like to think of prebiotics a fertilizer that can cause the grass as well as the weeds to grow.

Fermented foods are not technically considered probiotics, since they contain an unknown amount of beneficial bacteria.

How Does Bacteria Affect Your Skin?

There is a lot of misinformation out there about how skin care products may or may not affect your skin’s microbiome. Although a particular product might claim to contain probiotic or prebiotic ingredients, there is not a lot of good data on efficacy when used topically.  One reason is because we do not yet know enough about what bacteria and microbes are beneficial and which are harmful to the skin.. Different skin types and conditions will create a different environment for these microorganisms which will also effect which microbes are beneficial and harmful.

We are just beginning to learn about the role that the microbes play in skin health. Studies have shown that people with eczema do not seem to have as many good bacteria that act as natural antibiotics for the skin. This means that the skin is unable to ward off bad bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus, which could contribute to symptom flare-ups like itching, flaking, and redness. Although there is not currently a topical eczema cream designed to add beneficial bacteria that may help to control populations of bad bacteria, treatments like this should be available in the near future.

There are other things you can do to protect your skin’s natural microbiome, such as:

  • Not using harsh soaps and sanitizers that strip away your skin’s barrier and negatively affect the microbiota that live there.
  • Not eating “junk” foods that are high in sugar, saturated fats, and that are heavily processed. Research shows that what you eat affects your body’s microbiome, good or bad.
  • Managing stress. Chronic stress can negatively affect your skin’s microbiome.

The Bottom Line

Probiotics and prebiotics in skin care are becoming more and more popular, but it is important to understand what these terms mean and what their limitations are when placed in skin care formulations. Right now, I recommend sticking to oral probiotics until we have more data on how they can be used topically. Stay tuned for more blogs that will further discuss the research into the microbiome and the skin and how topical products and ingredients may or may not help.

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©2018 MetaBeauty, Inc.

October 8, 2018 Skincare