Prebiotic skincare— we've all heard about the benefits of prebiotics when ingested but do they work when applied topically? A balanced, stable microbiome is fundamental for healthy-looking skin. Prebiotics work with the skin flora and provide beneficial bacteria to improve complexion. Read more to learn more about the benefits of prebiotic skincare.

Skin is complex—it is more than just an arrangement of specialized human cells which provide protection from the external environment. Our skin barrier is host to a diverse and intricate network of resident microorganisms (commensals)—bacteria, viruses and fungi—which exist mutualistically with us, the host1,2. Studies regarding the skin microbiome have been established over many years, demonstrating the need and importance of these microbes for our overall skin health1,3. The cosmetics industry has realized that there is a need to go beyond just enhancing the appearance of our skin, by targeting one of the key intrinsic mechanisms which facilitates our skin health—the microbiome.


Skin microbiome

This natural ecosystem of microbes exists harmoniously, acting as our primary defence against external aggressors4. These communities of microbes are capable of keeping resident populations in check, preventing the growth of unwanted microorganisms and stimulating the immune system to trigger innate responses against pathogens. An imbalance, or dysbiosis, of the microbiome has been attributed to the disruption of the skin barrier and the aggravation of chronic skin diseases such as acne5–7, eczema8–10, rosacea11,12 and psoriasis13–15.

So, why is all of this important to know? Based on existing scientific research regarding the benefits and intricacy of the skin microbiome, a need was observed by the cosmetics industry to protect and support this ecosystem of microorganisms which inhabit our skin. There are several ways to go about this, but one of the most promising aspects is the introduction of prebiotics into topical products.


Prebiotic skincare

Many of us may have heard about prebiotics and their role in keeping our gut healthy, but in skincare, the concept may sound foreign.

Typically, prebiotics are ingredients that support and enhance the microbial community which exists in our gut, therefore augmenting the health benefits to the host. This notion of prebiotics in the gut can be applied in the context of skin and its microbial inhabitants, where they can stimulate and support the existing arsenal of microbes16.

Carbohydrates such as sugar alcohols (like glycerol, xylitol and mannitol), oligosaccharides, inulin and glucomannan can all act as fuel sources for selective, beneficial bacteria on our skin. These fuel sources would therefore encourage the growth of probiotic or beneficial bacteria on our skin which results in the following:

  • Competitive inhibition of potentially pathogenic microorganisms due to an inability to colonize the skin17,18

  • Utilization of these carbohydrates to produce acid (such as succinic or lactic acid) which results in a low pH, preventing potential pathogens from growing or by reducing pathogen-associated inflammation19

  • Release of antimicrobial peptides from resident flora or from our own immune system to inhibit pathogen growth20–22

While published data in vivo regarding the effects of prebiotics is limited, there are a few studies which show promise. In one report, it was found that glycerol (prebiotic) fermentation by Staphylococcus epidermidis (commensal skin bacteria) produced short-chain fatty acids (chiefly, succinic acid) which inhibited the growth of, and inflammation by Cutibacterium acnes (pathogenic factor in the development of acne) both in vitro and in vivo19.

Glucomannan is a prebiotic derived from konjac root with in vitro and in vivo studies, demonstrating great promise as a topical agent to improve the health and condition of skin. In one study, a spray of 5% glucomannan was examined on female volunteers with active acne lesions. This treatment demonstrated improvement in mild to moderate acne as well as augmenting standard dermatological treatments for severe acne and therefore demonstrated efficacy as a well-tolerated biotherapeutic agent23.

In persons with atopic sensitive skin, glucomannan in combination with collagen tripeptide F was used to address many of the issues associated with this condition. At the end of the clinical trial, the overall skin health of the patients was favourable versus the placebo, with marked improvement to skin barrier function, hydration and regulation of bacterial populations24.


The outcome of topical prebiotics

Published findings regarding prebiotics in topical applications remain in its infancy. However, from the studies highlighted earlier, it can be appreciated that these types of ingredients show great potential in cosmetic application

One of the highlights of incorporating topical prebiotics is that they may add another dimension to your skincare arsenal. Going beyond targeting concerns such as blemishes, dark spots, wrinkles or dehydration, the use of prebiotics could support an established network of microorganisms on your skin which contribute significantly to its overall health and appearance.



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