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More than 1,000 strains of bacteria thrive on our skin. “An ecosystem of microflora – a combination of good and bad bacteria – is key to healthy skin,” says Dr Lionel Breton, L’Oreal’s advanced research scientific director. They are as essential to skin as other bacteria are to our gut and immunity, and we are born with these bacteria.

“Their diversity develops from birth until we are three years old, before stabilising. They decrease when we are between 60 and 65 years old,” Dr Breton adds.

Balancing the skin ecosystem

As with any ecosystem, maintaining the balance of skin bacteria is important. “Unstable microflora cause different kinds of dermatosis,” says Dr Breton.

Many things directly affect the skin’s functions: illness, stress, using products that affect skin pH, and hormonal changes. All these can tip the equilibrium of skin microflora.

Balanced skin microflora is key to healthy skin, say some beauty brands.

Take the P. acnes bacteria, for example: It’s categorised as bad bacteria, not because of what it does – which is to feed on sebum and dead skin cells – but because it causes acne when it has too much sebum and accumulated dead cells to eat. Extra food means the microorganism multiplies faster. Multiplying faster means there’s more of it. More of it means it can form an army to invade skin, giving you acne.

Pseudomonas aeruginosa is another mainstay of skin, and is technically good bacteria because it produces an antimicrobial substance that keeps another type of bacteria (staphylococcus aureus) in check, thus preventing skin infections. But again, when there is too much of the former, it becomes bad, giving us rashes.


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Probiotics may look scary under the microscope, but when used in skincare, it helps to maintain healthy skin.

Is literally applying micro-organisms to our skin beneficial?

Cosmetics brands believe that the answer is not only yes, but it's also necessary because of the lives we live and the environment we live in now. There are three main ways to include probiotics in skincare. One: natural fermentation. South Korean skincare brand Su:m37 is big on it. The brand even has its own Natural Fermentation Research Institute. Like winemaking, it takes time, and is not artificially sped-up. “Natural fermentation produces 166 times more good bacteria than artificial fermentation,” says  Joyce Teh, president of The Face Shop Singapore (The Face Shop owns Su:m37). “These large numbers of good bacteria are highly synergised, greatly enhancing the active ingredients’ effectiveness.”

Two: Add bacteria without fermenting. Elizabeth Arden and local player Allies of Skin do that. Elizabeth Arden’s Superstart Probiotic series – which started with a pre-serum and now includes a whipped cream-to-clay cleanser and a biocellulose mask – has lactobacillus complex to support the skin’s natural defences. And Allies of Skin uses antimicrobial lactobacillus ferment to combat acne and breakouts.

 

Three: Use a microorganism that mimics probiotics. Biotherm, part of the L’Oreal Group, was one of the earliest adopters of balancing skin microflora. Its products all have Life Plankton – from the French Pyrenees, it reportedly soothes redness and discomfort, and accelerates cell renewal. Dr Breton says: “We use a fragment of the bacteria to mimic the probiotic profile adapted to the skin microflora. It literally functions like probiotics.”

So what's the difference between a fermented product and one with probiotics?

Fermentation is the chemical process in which probiotics – bacteria – break down organic molecules like carbohydrates. The after-product may have cultures that are deactivated, so that the product doesn’t keep fermenting. An example would be  Fresh’s Black Tea Kombucha Facial Treatment Essence, which has deactivated probiotics to keep skin balanced. Other skincare products filter out the cultures – for example, SK-II has Pitera, minus the yeast. In skincare, “fermentation increases active ingredients like proteins and amino acids, which are beneficial to skin,” says Joyce Teh of The Face Shop Singapore.

Where to find them

Good bacteria in skincare do what probiotics do for our gut: keep the microflora healthy, which supports skin’s immunity. And you can find them in these products:

 

 

ALSO READ: WHAT KOREAN WOMEN EAT FOR GREAT HAIR AND SKIN & THE SENSITIVE SKIN SOLUTION YOU DIDN’T KNOW YOU NEEDED

 

This story was originally published in the June 2018 issue of Her World magazine.