The Big Little Trend: Where to Start with a Microbiome-focused Skincare Brand

In this blog, our Senior Innovation Consultant, Dr Katerina Steventon, looks at the emergence of microbiome-focused skincare products, change in consumer behaviour and future trends post pandemic. 

The science is embryonic and inviting many more questions than answers. Although this space can promise an unprecedented market opportunity, to start with in advanced markets like the US and Asia, it is a challenge for skincare brands to launch products and credibly communicate their benefits to the consumers.

Consumers are more aware of the term ‘Skin Microbiome’ than ever before

Consumer understanding of the Skin Microbiome is apparent since the breakthrough results of the Human Genome Project in the late 2000s. Both large and indie brands started to leverage the fact that millions of bacteria live on our skin and use the microbiome claims terminology providing consumer education to their benefit e.g., Dove, Johnson and Johnson, Aveeno, Ren, Tula Skincare, and Indie Lee. In the US media in 2020, Skin Microbiome was officially declared ‘the next big thing’ and consumers paying attention to nutrition and a healthy gut have transferred their knowledge of the ‘3 Ps: Prebiotics, Probiotics, Postbiotics’ to skincare. Today, many consumers know the basics:  their ​skin is home to microorg­anisms​ and that an imbalanced or unstable microbiome is bad.

New Positioning of the Microbiome Skincare

According to Aprinnova market research, we are on the verge of a major wave of new launches designed to support a healthy microbiome. Since 2016, referencing microbiome has grown with two distinct features of new launches. Brands focus either on a technology-based approach driven by promising new research such as specific prebiotics/probiotics based on early clinical trial results (e.g., Aveeno’s dedicated website showcases clinical studies promoting pre-biotic ingredients for diversity/balance of the microbiome related to skin moisturization). In contrast, a growing number of brands – more generally – develop products with the microbiome in mind, as everyone’s microbiome is impacted by their unique environment and genetics. A simpler approach is to select ingredients beneficial to skin that do no harm to the microbiome i.e., maintaining microbiome stability and diversity, characteristics of skin health. The microbiome diversity and stability are key to success.

Dr Elsa Jungman’s US brand is built on understanding that skincare routines have consumers using more products than ever, yet over 50% of women—and rising— have experienced skin sensitivity. The average woman applies 128 ingredients to her skin daily, including irritants, essential oils, fragrances, that affect skin microbiome and skin barrier. Dr. EJ is the first brand in the US to be certified microbiome friendly, using only the minimum of gentle ingredients and having a rationale for each of them in the formulation. 

As new standards (e.g., MyMicrobiomeoffer clarity, choosing microbiome friendly ingredients is a strategy to growth for new skincare launches for years to come.[i] Dr Kristin Neumann from MyMicrobiome shared with us her advice for new brands,

“When it comes to skin care, my advice is to follow the ‘less is more’ approach. Besides minimizing the skin care routine, product formulation should focus on using the fewest and mildest possible ingredients that are necessary for the specific activity. In our tests we see that the ingredients add up and become detrimental for the microbes when they are combined (e. g. preservatives, fragrance, essential oils and surfactants). It is the fine tuning between having a safe product and still being ‘microbiome-friendly’ but we saw that this is possible. Using ‘microbiome-friendly’ ingredients is a good start.”

Skin Microbiome Ingredient Innovation

Consumer behaviours are changing. A Givaudan survey stating that women ‘were scared by the skin microbiota’ has risen from 8 % (2018) to 27% post-pandemic. ‘Softening’ this fear may turn the perception into an opportunity, given that 43% of women care more about microorg­anisms than before. More than 1 in 2 believe in using cosmetics to take care of skin microbiota, a 22% increase from pre-pandemic. Givaudan take these statistics as a framework to formulate successful strategies for their ingredients to balance, protect and trigger skin microbiome.

  • “Balance to Enhance” refers to balancing the microbiota of sensitive skin to reduce immune system activations such as cytokine release. Using 16S rRNA sequencing, the most prominent bacteria involved in skin sensitivity was identified and new ingredients reduce its presence.
  • “Protect to Care” relates to protecting the existing microbiota by a biosurfactant, shown to be as effective at sebum removal as Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) without causing microbial dysbiosis.
  • “Trigger to Activate” leverages the microbiome for beneficial effects in skin, by activating melatonin to balance the circadian rhythm. The molecule is converted by the microbiota from a pre-cursor, binds to the melatonin receptor and triggers the same biological cascade as melatonin for a positive effect on the circadian rhythm, thus potentially improving sleep and protecting against digital stress.[ii]

Shift of Consumer Trends to Last Beyond the Pandemic

Whilst the pandemic has affected personal care retail and manufacturing, Mintel[iii] forecast changes in consumer approach in terms of ingredient safety, cleanliness and shelf life.

  • Clean Beauty: Prior to the pandemic, natural trends focused on avoiding preservatives and artificial ingredients, now concerns surrounding shelf-stability and sanitation will lead consumers to be more accepting these ingredients as long as brands provide evidence of safety and efficacy from both a health and environmental perspective.
  • Formulation: Ingredient safety and shelf life will be at the forefront, superseding naturals. The future of clean formulations will revolve around consumer safety and environmental concerns to improve shelf life, introduce waterless formulas with reduce the need for preservatives and give consumers the ability to control the shelf life on their own.
  • Packaging: Keeping products clean and safe will demand “touchless” formats i.e., spray and stick formats to mitigate risks of contamination to consumers rationing supplies and/​or unable to obtain alternatives making brands safe, dependable and transparent.[iv]

There are predictions of 2021 global consumer trends that go further to encompass behavioural drivers concerned with well-being, value, technology and environment. Appreciating humanity again and re-valuing beauty, e-commerce strategies need to – in absence of touch – engage all senses and offers new digital experience. Brands have an opportunity to build normality in uncertain times through skincare routines that combat stress and anxiety. Products bring protection, long-term value and rebuild trusting relation­ships.

  • Communicating stringent safety guidelines also helps instil confidence and attract new customers seeking assurance in their desire to reconnect with long-awaited retail experiences. There is a call for third-party experts, trained and trusted, to enhance beauty experience, validate claims and educate consumers about the future of holistic wellness with self-care.”
  • Long-term value. Advocating authenticity and clear supply chain transparency, long-term value in times of lower spending stems from product quality, functionality, convenience and purpose. Experiences will become more valuable than products, as many consumers re-evaluate what is essential to survival. Flexitarian trade up and down across categories, they will tune into what resonates – loyalty and lifetime customer value will be driven through individual lifestyle and needs.
  • Protection and care. As consumers emerge from post-pandemic confinement, they will re-evaluate priorities with eco-ethical consider­ations e.g., support for local businesses. The next evolution of ‘clean’ arises from combining ethics with safety for the conscious and careful beauty consumer focused on avoiding undue risk.”[v]

Also, Euromonitor International consider 2021 a pivotal year and looking at Global Consumer Trends 2021”[vi] confirm the triple bottom line: people, planet and profits as consumers to be more concerned about sustaina­bility than pre-pandemic.[vii]

Personal Care is an important sector for the UK economy with some of the world’s leading companies being based here, Unilever, RB, Procter & Gamble, Croda, Lonza, Walgreens Boots Alliance, PzCussons and others The use of consumer products makes a tangible real-world contribution to enhancing the quality of life and body confidence of people with cosmetic and clinical skin conditions. With more than 50% of the UK population suffering from a microbiome-associated skin complaint each year, there is a clear and pressing need for R&D and innovation. The recent Microbiome Strategic Roadmap published by the government’s Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN) calls to unlock research and commercial investment into establishment of a skin microbiome research and innovation collaboration network.[viii] Personal care credibility often suffers from inadequately substantiated claims, low IP and technology base comparative to healthcare. Evolutionary contagious associations make people unconsciously fear the microbiome. Taking this space more seriously when the stakes are higher, skin microbiome innovation may be a gateway to change.


[i] The Big Little Trend: Where to Start With The Skin Microbiome

[ii] Givaudan Projects Growth in Microbiome Care Despite Consumer Germophobia

[iii] Covid-19 increases demand for safe and reliable beauty and personal care products

[iv] How COVID-19 is Impacting Ingredients, Cleanliness and Shelf-life

[v] Mintel’s 4 Global Beauty Consumer Trends of 2021

[vi] Top 10 Global Consumer Trends 2021

[vii] 10 Global Consumer Trends of 2021

[viii] KTN’s Microbiome Innovation Network launches the Microbiome Strategic Roadmap

Dr Katerina Steventon, NBIC Senior Innovation Consultant