What’s The Difference Between Prebiotic and Probiotic in Skincare?

Move over kombucha! Pre and probiotics aren’t just for your gut health anymore. Promising research of late shows that the benefits of friendly bacteria extend way past the intestinal tract — whether applied topically or taken orally. The gut-balancing act of prebiotics and probiotics in our diets has long been heralded by health and wellness experts, but on our skin it’s a relatively new revelation unfolding beneath the scientific microscope that’s puzzling over does this s*** actually work or is this total bulls***?  

The studies that have been done to date are good news for anyone with skin (so, you and me), revealing a vast breakout-busting ecosystem of antioxidant, anti-inflammation and antimicrobial benefits. To get ready for the influx of prebiotic and probiotic masks, creams and cleansers sure to hit the shelves as the next wave of skinnovation, we dove into the what, why and how of prebiotic v probiotic. Yes, there’s a difference between — and it’s more than just the prefix. (1, 2)


What is a Prebiotic v Probiotic?

Billions are already living on your epidermis

Probiotics are various strains of good bacteria and yeast hiding in plain sight, right there on the surface of your skin. To put these microorganism’s legion numbers into context, more bacteria live on your skin than cells make up your skin. Colonies of creepy crawly micro-critters might give you the heebie-jeebies but consider this: the intricate bacterial ecosystem forming your microbiome, a protective surface veil, can help reduce inflammation, redness, acne, dryness — even your skin’s natural ability to deal with external damage from sun exposure and pollution. (3, 4, 5)


Hold Up! You Lost Me at Microbiome...

How does it do all that all without going beyond the skin’s surface?

By keeping the peace, that’s how. When it's in a healthy state, your microbiome creates a calm environment by preventing bad bacteria from provoking an immune reaction in your skin, which is the first step toward inflammation and a precursor to conditions like acne, psoriasis and eczema. Your skin’s microbiome also produces natural antibiotics and antimicrobial peptides that take on bad bacteria (like the acne-causing kind) when the peace is disrupted. (6)


Gotcha. Back to the Difference Between Prebiotic v Probiotic

Probiotics eat prebiotics for breakfast

And lunch and dinner, if probiotics had meals. Prebiotics, usually in the form of carbohydrates, are the primary food source that stimulates probiotics to thrive and proliferate. They also promote a more diverse ecosystem of bacteria, which is key to healthy skin since different probiotics skin-assist in different ways and everybody’s skin needs are different. The more variety, the better the benefits. (7, 8)

Teamwork Make This Dream Work

Probiotics might bring all the benefits, but they don’t work well alone

The difference between prebiotics and probiotics makes them stronger. Probiotics are the microbes that bring balance to your skin, but without prebiotics to fuel them, they’re fragile and unstable. Plus, especially in skincare, there’s no best probiotic that solves all skin imbalances. Probiotic skincare should contain a mix of peptides, like inulin from chicory roots, and multiple probiotics, like lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.  9)

That’s Nice, But How Do Probiotics Benefit Skin, Again?

This buffet of skin benefits ranges for anti-inflammatory to anti-aging

Photo Source: Goop

Probiotics Prevent Inflammation

Applied topically, probiotics stage what’s called a bacterial interference. The keep skin calm by preventing skin cells from reacting to bad bacteria seen as a threat. This stabilizing effected, caused by disrupting the “attack” message that that skin cells send to the immune system, helps reduce flare-ups of acne or even rosacea. By preventing the immune system response, probiotics keep inflammation down and skin calm which has a ripple effect across other issues like redness.(10, 11, 12, 13)


Probiotics Are Anti-Microbial

More than calming, sometimes probiotics produce substances with antimicrobial properties that, essentially, drill holes through bad bacteria and kill them. This approach is similar to how antibiotics take on acne and rosacea, but which probiotic strains do it (and do it the best) is still being sussed out by science. (14, 15, 16)

Probiotics Provide Pro-Microbiome Balance

Adding the right cocktail of probiotics can help keep your skin’s natural microbiome healthy and working its hardest by balancing the microflora that makes it up. A balanced microbiome strengthens your skin against environmental threats like sun and pollution, enhances skin’s ability to self-maintain optimal hydration and restores pH balance to skin’s surface. (17)

Probiotics Strengthen The Skin Barrier

Probiotics play a role in strengthening the skin moisture barrier. Because probiotics help reinforce skin’s natural defenses against bad bacteria and have pH-balancing properties, they’re helping protect your skin from disruption that takes its toll on barrier function. Moreover, some strains have been shown to increase ceramide production which plays an instrumental role in maintaining a healthy moisture barrier. (18, 19)


Probiotics Help Prevent Premature Skin Aging

All these benefits add up to skin better equipped to take on the challenges of being your first line of defense while showing fewer signs of aging. A strong moisture barrier means less moisture loss. Less inflammation means more even, clearer skin. And a healthy microbiome means better protection from age-causing damage, like sun and free radicals. Plus, probiotics high in lactic acid can help reduce the appearance of wrinkles and exfoliate to improve dry or dull-looking skin. (20, 21)

Probiotics and Prebiotics Are the New Frontier in Skincare

But they’re also relatively unexplored, which means proceed with caution...or least level expectations
Prebiotics and probiotics hold untold promise for new innovations in skincare and product formulation. But the reality is they remain a comparatively understudied field with loads of data still to mine. Although most emerging research is optimistic and shows an enticing spread on the benefits buffet, the particularities of different prebiotic v probiotic strains and how they work on the skin specifically needs (and deserves) more attention. Everyone’s microbiome is different and may react differently to topical probiotics, so always patch test new products first. Here’s to hoping that more studies are in the works to help us better understand the difference between prebiotic and probiotic and how we can leverage them in our skincare routine.

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