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Q: What's the Difference Between Prebiotics and Probiotics?

By Mercedes Taylor

With a love for cosmetics from a young age, my curiosity knew that there was much more to the goop inside the jar than meets the eye. I graduated with a Bachelor’s of Science in Analytical Chemistry and moved to California to chase my dreams of becoming a cosmetic chemist, passionate in developing results-driven skincare. Now, I am the Product Innovation Manager for Youth to the People. My primary experience is in research and development, with a focus on both sustainability and the formulation of skincare, bringing natural ingredients to the forefront of the cosmetics market. I’m here to answer all your skincare questions. 

Question: What’s the difference between prebiotics and probiotics?

Answer: Prebiotic ingredients and probiotics are two different types of materials found in both diet and skincare. In our diet, prebiotic foods are typically things like celery, kombucha, or kimchi. These foods support our gut microbiome by providing food for the good bacteria that we need, helping the good bacteria to reproduce and keep our gut healthy and detoxified. Probiotics in our diet are things like yogurt and probiotic capsules containing specific types of healthy bacteria that help our gut break down foods like kale, broccoli, and other vegetables. A similar mechanism also works for our skincare. 

The skin is a complex organ, so discussing the microbiome layer of the skin is a complex discussion. The way we can support the skin’s microbiome in skincare is by providing it with different amino acids, ferments, and superfoods. Ferments in skincare act as prebiotic sources for the skin’s natural microbiome, enhancing the healthy microbes on the surface. Extracts from these fermented ingredients break down into more bioactive compounds like essential amino acids, potent antioxidants, and nutrients that act as superfoods for the healthy bacteria on our skin. The healthy bacteria consume these superfoods, which in turn keeps our skin protected from bad bacteria like P. acnes that can cause breakouts. Good bacteria also keeps skin balanced in its natural acidity and oil production, which in turn keeps us looking radiant and youthful.

Probiotics in skincare are a very interesting new form of skin enhancing and youth preserving ingredients because unlike skin microbiome enhancing prebiotics, probiotics put the good bacteria, like Lactobacillus, directly on the surface of the skin. In turn, those good bacteria rebalance the skin’s microbiome, protecting it against any bad bacteria that may cause troubles like breakouts, irritation, or redness. In any case, we always want to protect our skin by supporting the healthy bacteria on the surface. 

When it comes to the research in this area of cosmetics, specifically with cosmetic ingredients, it seems that a lot of it is backed by the same basic principles within health food. This research, although very new for cosmetics, shows that prebiotics are a really effective way to introduce the microbiome to the youth preserving actives we want in our skincare. Ingredients to avoid when it comes to our microbiome happen to include common “comedogenic” ingredients. Comedogenic ingredients are ingredients that have potential to clog pores, which are also known as “comedones”. This list has shortened over the years because of the way certain ingredients are formulated and the new research that develops about these ingredients. Most comedogenic ingredients happen to be animal-derived fats and oils with specific chemistries that oxidize. The process of oxidation can support the anearobic bacteria (the ones that don’t like oxygen) and help create an environment that supports this lack of oxygen. The fats and oils can be occlusive, or create a barrier-like film over the skin and if it’s not a breathable film (like most plant-derived oils and silicones) then it helps bacteria like P. acnes flourish.

Ingredients to look out for in skincare products that are supportive of the microbiome include ferments, filtrates, and amino acids, as mentioned, but also ingredients that are known as humectants. Humectants bring water to the surface of the skin from our environment. Since water is so important to us and our skin health, it also contributes a lot to our microbiome. Aerobic bacteria, like Lactobacillus, utilize humectants like glycerin to flourish on the surface, and in turn give back to our skin by producing water. When bacteria like Lactobacillus are flourishing, they will essentially take over the environment of anaerobic bacteria, like P. acnes. Anaerobic bacteria are threatened by oxygen and water in their environment, which is why we prefer to feed the good bacteria that produce these. It’s just another significant way to unlock our micrbiome’s potential as a youth preserving powerhouse!


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