Few areas of cosmetic research emphasise the fact that skincare is becoming more technical yet more nurturing than the surging interest in the microbiome – the bacteria-rich layer that sits atop the surface of the skin. Many scientists view the microbiome as a “new organ”, which is not just an inhabitant of the body, but actively engaged with it.


In a nutshell, the microbiome is comprised of over 100 billion bacteria, fungi and microbes that inhabit the skin’s outer layer. These micro-organisms outnumber human cells in the body by a ratio of 10 to one and make up about one to three per cent of the body’s weight. The numbers are impressive, but the importance of the microbiome is linked to how the bacteria interact with each other to maintain the necessary balance and diversity required for the healthy functioning of the skin.


Huge Growth Potential

The stakes and potential profits from gaining a better understanding of the microbiome are huge and provide enormous opportunities in beauty, skincare, haircare and wellness. According to Marie Drago, the founder of Gallinee, a skincare range based on prebiotic and probiotic formulas which was bought by Japanese cosmetic giant Shiseido in September –   “The microbiome changes the way we look at the treatment of acne, as well as other skin problems such as eczema, atopic dermatitis and even anti-ageing”.


To give an idea of just how lucrative microbiome research could be, the global anti-acne market is currently worth US$10 billion, and the world-wide anti-ageing market is valued at US$120 billion. The scalp is also a target for microbiome research, notably for the formulation of anti-dandruff treatments with global sales of US$8 billion. Major studies have also found that the skin microbiome could minimise the effects of UV exposure by providing immune protection in the skin’s cellular micro-environment.


Probiotics and prebiotics are the hero actives in the majority of products formulated to achieve a balanced microbiome because they are safe as food for micro-organisms. In spite of probiotic-based skincare being touted as one of the major skincare trends of the year, there is nothing new about research into how topically applied probiotics have a beneficial effect on the skin.


The live bacterial culture consumers associate with gut health was first mentioned as a therapeutic skin treatment in a medical journal published in 1912. A landmark study in the 1990s confirmed that S. thermophilus, a probiotic usually found in yogurt, increased ceramide production in keratinocytes, the cells that strengthen the lipid barrier of the skin and make it more resistant to dehydration. By the early 2000s, many household name cosmetic and skincare companies such as Johnson & Johnson, L’Oreal and Unilever were studying probiotic technology. But the industry is only scratching the surface and advances in technology, bioinformatics and AI are unlocking new knowledge on the human microbiome every day.


Blurring the Lines Between Beauty and Wellness

What has thrust discussion about the microbiome into the spotlight in a major way in recent years, though, is the blurring of the fault lines between beauty and wellness. Up until recently, consumer focus groups revealed that people were comfortable talking about bacteria when linked to the digestive tract but didn’t like the association with the skin. Another reason that marketers and cosmetic companies held back was because of the difficulty about talking about the microbiome in simple terms and how prebiotics and probiotics can be used in skincare. But 70 per cent of consumers worldwide are now aware of the microorganisms residing on the skin, according to a study by Givaudan, the world’s largest fragrance and flavours company.


Dr Roshini Rajapaksa, a gastroenterologist and founder of the pioneering Tula probiotic skincare brand in the US, which was bought by US multinational Procter & Gamble in early 2022, believes the time has arrived for major strides to be made. “People have started to understand that probiotics are essential to overall wellness; what’s new is making the connection that they can really improve their skin as well”.


A new Swedish study from the prestigious Linkoping University, published in the International Journal of Cosmetic Science in November this year, proved the point. In a double-blind trial, volunteers aged 23 to 45 years were asked to use microbiome supporting (MS) skincare products on one cheek and benchmark (BM) products on the other cheek for three weeks. Following analysis of each person’s microbiome, the MS products produced improvements in the microbiome and biophysical parameters to boost skin health, while the regular skincare only improved roughness.


High Global Interest Across Age Groups/ Personalised Beauty

Interest is high across multiple age groups globally, says Mintel, the global market research company. Nearly 50 per cent of consumers in the US are interested in trying probiotic skincare, with Millennials leading the charge. But there has also been a surge of enthusiasm amongst consumers aged 55-plus as to how the microbiome relates to ageing.


The microbiome we inherit changes as we get older, due to key factors including use of antibiotics, fluctuating hormone levels and physiological ageing. Scientific studies on both Asian and Caucasian skin have shown that disruption of microbiota on the skin can lead to premature ageing, leading many beauty brands to target the anti-ageing market. A major Chinese study also found that pollution also affects the microbiome and is linked to how the skin looks and a greater incidence of skin issues such as pigmentation. Many inflammatory diseases of the skin such as atopic dermatitis also have a disruptive microbiome component.


The recent hyper-hygiene practices during the Covid-19 pandemic also played havoc with the skin’s protective mantel. Many consumers in major markets such as the US and China, the world’s two largest beauty and personal care markets, have sought out microbiome-focused skincare to nourish, soothe and replenish the skin.


Personalisation has become one of the super-trends of today’s global skincare market. The Benchmarking Company, the international beauty and personal care research firm, reveals that 8 out of 10 surveyed consumers in the US have purchased personalised skincare. Because the microbiome is unique to each individual, the personalisation opportunity for microbiome-based skincare is enormous and key to on-going development of the category.

With global interest in microbiome-based products soaring, certification standards similar to those in the organic sector have emerged to reassure health-conscious consumers. MyMicrobiome, based in Germany, was the world’s first and independent microbiome certification standard and measures the impact and efficacy of the product on the skin’s microbiome. In June this year, Labskin launched its “Microbiome-Friendly + Seal of Approval” in the US market.