Microbiome-targeted skincare

Our Senior Innovation Consultant, Dr Katerina Steventon was one of the speakers at the Cosmetics Business Future of Clean Skincare event which took place on 15 September. We’ve put together some key points from her presentation surrounding microbiome-targeted skincare.

The core R&D focus and drive of skincare brands is to impact the environment that affects our skin – sun protection, hydration, anti-pollution, blue light, etc. The skin microbiome story and widening awareness first appeared 20 years ago and translated  across from  from wound healing. Recently, following the intensive research in gut microbiome and in our health in general – it has got an expansive life of its own. There is more research into the specific microbiome niches, into the diverse skin areas and mucosal areas.

Brands are leading with a marketing story having only a partial, sometimes even an embryonic understanding of fundamental research – only a few companies are ahead of the game. For consumers, microbes have always been perceived as ‘a concern if they are a threat’, therefore the stakes are high – perhaps soon for skin these will be comparative to sun protection and skin cancer risk. Transforming the negative ‘antimicrobial’ story into a positive ‘working with your own microbiome’ is a powerful concept.

The ingredients to make a product microbiome-friendly

“Microbiome-friendly” is a claim, pioneered only recently by Unilever – the company feel confident to substantiate this claim if ever challenged by the scientific scrutiny of regulatory agencies – I believe this is backed with a decade of largely unpublished internal knowledge and expertise.

Some start-ups, in particular, in Europe or the US, have smart and relevant technologies in early stages of development. They are building market presence. Ingredient suppliers e.g. the Swiss based skincare team of DSM lead the conversation around this area – they acknowledge we still know little about the field and ‘Skin microbiome requires different approaches due to the structural complexity or the layers, the dynamics of desquamation and relatively small microbial concentrations. This differs to intertriginous niches e.g. axilla, feminine hygiene etc.

In terms of technologies:

  • Pre-biotic and post-biotic technologies can create the environment for a specific flora to flourish.
  • pro-biotic (live bacteria) strains may help to maintain skin health by shifting the dysbiotic, unhealthy state to a beneficial microbial balance.
  • Sacrificial ingredients or fully anti-microbial ingredients in formulations and preservatives play a role – In essence – each and every ingredient in a formulation matters. The effect differs from person to person as well as the surface e.g. from forehead to the axilla.

Current trends

Branding-wise we see many diverse trends – these may present a unique offering t but scientifically are not always correct or relevant. There are nuanced approaches to innovation that add granularity to the umbrella claims of ‘microbiome friendly’ and ‘microflora balancing’ products.

  • 1) Adding Lactobacilli sp. (first microbe we encounter after birth),
  • 2) quorum-quenching strategies (that limit bacterial communication and, therefore, virulence),
  • 3) introducing a post-biotic into the environment (to care for skin microbiome per se, rather than the skin itself),
  • 4) new developments in pre-, pro- and post-biotic innovation for a specific environment,
  • 5) developing proprietary bacterial strains and
  • 6) last but not least bioavailability of specific technologies.

Microbiome-friendly formulations call for true personalisation, but the industry have a long road ahead in this respect. By now we have understood that only the superficial epidermal microbiota, described as a “microbial fingerprint”, is unique to the individual. It depends on their lifestyle and genetic predisposition.  The deeper dermal microbiota is universal to healthy people, functionally distinct and in direct contact with the immune response of our body. However, it is the superficial flora the skincare products enhance or suppress.

Through our work here at NBIC, we highlight that the microbiome in moist skin areas lives as a community, therefore a creating a biofilm with different properties than a singular microbial cell. As we learn more about the species, their concentrations and specific strains, the way they communicate, their synergies or antagonistic behaviours on different surfaces – the brands will have to develop their technology narratives. My role as as an innovation consultant is to connect the R&D of this growing segment of the industry with the best research academics to help them substantiate their product claims. We have to aim for excellence in science and technology, not only in medicine and healthcare but also in personal care.

How can brands educate consumers about the microbiome? 

Brands need to be honest about the infancy of research in the skin microbiome space with the consumers. They have to be transparent about how they address the gaps in our understanding and solve specific issues e.g. in terms of axilla health malodour and yellowing, or scalp health and dandruff. Skin microbiome is not just a passing trend – there is an enormity to this research area like few others. Fundamental questions require an answer first, as the area has a large impact not only on skin health and ageing but also wellbeing of our bodies in general.

Most companies are balancing cosmetic and therapeutic interests. They are learning from the world of dysbiosis e.g. acne or eczema to better understand what ‘healthy means’. Prebiotic and post-biotics are easier to get scientifically substantiated in terms of claims. However, each and every case will be scrutinised by the regulators and given the complexity, difficult to prove. In probiotics, the same bacterial strains can be employed in either pharma or cosmetic applications, depending on the length and cost of the regulatory path to commercialisation – in particular doses that engraft into skin and persist for longer durations.

Timing is key

Recent changes post-COVID play into new patterns of consumer behaviour around the microbiome.

People have more personal responsibility for individual health. The timing is right and there is a momentum for advancing this space, bringing consumers’ participation along on this difficult yet exciting exploratory journey. We have learnt from the recent crisis that consumer messages must be very simple to be clearly understood. Conveying the complexity of skin microbiome challenges is hard; visualisation of the mode of action is often powerful.

More research is imperative, and the UK government have recognised this by aiming to boost the collaboration between academic research and the industry. They are funding the work we do at NBIC, we are an innovation hub for partnering. The KTN Knowledge Transfer Network Personal Care Microbiome Strategy Road Map is to be published soon. I would like to appeal to start-ups, indie brands as well as large corporations to seek scientific collaborations, advance this field and provide benefit to the consumers with truthful communication and efficacious products. Please contact me at katerinaS@biofilms.ac.uk.

Listen to the full webinar here. Please note you will be required to register and fill in the fields to access the recording.




Dr Katerina Steventon, NBIC Senior Innovation Consultant