The impact of a pandemic on the skin microbiome

In May we attended via webinar, the ‘Microbiome Connect: Leadership Session’ to discuss the impact of a pandemic on the skin microbiome sector. Our Senior Innovation Consultant, Dr Katerina Steventon shares her highlights from the meeting held by Kisaco Research.  

The panel:

Moderator: Larry Weiss, CEO and Founder, Symbiome

The theme addressed a topical challenge – in the recent crisis, hand sanitizer is now the most in demand product on supermarket shelves, and good bacteria protection is slipping down the list of consumers’ priorities. All experts working in microbiome know that hand sanitizer has been a hot topic for discussion for some time now and now the shifting public perception of preservation of bacteria has required persistent education pieces. How will industry leaders approach this next hurdle for the skin microbiome and marketing their products?

The experts invited work at the forefront of the industry, advancing science and clinical reach of probiotic skincare brands. Having met Trevor at the 2019 Kisaco Skin Microbiome Congress in London I can first hand appreciate his passion for the science and engagement with clients. Since 2015, his company has focused on different strains of Lactobacillus species. They also offer microbiome sequencing to consumers through salons and spas. Mother Dirt is a Boston based pioneering company and ELSI Beauty is based in San Francisco.

Discussing current consumer perception of probiotics, the panel confirmed that the hand washing message is simple but the probiotic skin health message is more complex. It entails microbiome topics addressing natural defence mechanisms – with membrane disrupting lipids and bacterial produced antimicrobial peptides – and is key to influence the right consumer perception of these technologies. It is essential to build trust and carefully execute goodwill tactics with consumers during this crisis for the brands to thrive when the markets recover. Staying at front of mind and visible by using digital strategies and building social media presence, being relevant to their audience in challenging times, is key to success.

Sterile vs. clean consumer messages 

The average consumer finds it difficult to differentiate between viral and bacterial infection, people bundle all microorganisms together. There are conflicting messages in the media. A straight-forward and simple ‘wash your hands’ message is easy to follow, fuelled with fear of the contamination and hopes for the antimicrobial hand gel efficacy. There is a difference in the skin being sterile and being clean, not always apparent to the consumers.

Skin microbiome changes may be transient after washing but it is frequent, repeated over-washing and overuse of surfactants that disrupts skin barrier function. The population rise in atopic dermatitis has been reported.  In essence – good bacteria can support healthy skin and ‘washing it all away’ is not beneficial.

Is it the right time to tell the ‘probiotic – good bacteria’ story?

The panel felt that it was difficulty to convey an explanation of this in layman’s terms to consumers. What consumers ultimately want is a visible difference in their facial skin. Claiming a ‘shift in skin microbiome’ is not as compelling as ‘wrinkle reduction’. Similar to ‘certified organic’ claim, the microbiome claims are very nice but ‘how well will it make me look’ is what the consumers ask. Nowadays, consumers often disconnect from ‘% reduction claims’ and there is a need for emotive claims – Mother Dirt as a brand is using these to market successfully.

Stewardship of the probiotic terminology 

For Esse, using terminology such as ‘Live Probiotics vs Live Bacteria’ has worked better to start with. However, they feel that this scientific terminology used by research-based brands and substantiated by early science needs to be carefully translated into claims and consumer conversation. For example, there is a range of ingredients on the market and inactivated lysate is a post-biotic, not a probiotic. It may be only semantics but correct terminology is to be upheld and easy explanation of mechanisms as well as the effect on the skin is beneficial to the consumer. At the end of the day, however, consumers are looking for a result, not necessarily education, and brands have to work with the limitations of consumer understanding and technology. Marketing host-affecting immune boosting probiotics? The science is embryonic. It is imperative for this scientific community to have stewardship of terminology, considering its meaning and consequences and being rigorous with marketing.

Regulatory path

It was agreed that the regulatory path for probiotics is difficult, in Europe this is increasing momentum in the gastrointestinal tract but not in skincare. In the US, the FDA are still grappling with the guidance. Influencing regulators is key. Esse succeeded in gaining agreement in the EU countries with some compromise. They do not print efficacy claims on the packaging even when the data is available; they were able to explain that the allowed 100 cfu per ml is actually 1 bn; having a GRAS status species is beneficial, as gaining this for e.g. S. epidermidis would not be easy. It is important to engage with and provide a valid scientific argument to educate the regulators. It is their safety requirements that regulate substances and their claim substantiation requirements that regulate words. Testing final products for shift in microbiome has to support the ‘microbiome friendly’ claim. Esse through their salon sequencing service, understand the effect of a product on the personal skin microbiome.

Cross contamination and probiotic product use 

Cross-contamination is strictly considered when formulating and manufacturing with probiotics. The brands have different approaches with a) no preservatives with sterile filling and tamper proof packaging or b) low pH and the use of sacrificial ingredients with bacteriostatic or antibacterial peptides, restricting water or nutrients. Esse pack their products under nitrogen, seal the anhydrous formula and encapsulate their probiotics are in a prebiotic coating. They have other technologies in the pipeline but not on the market yet. Purity of the microbial culture affects re-grafting of the microbiome on healthy skin.  

Future trends for health skin microbiome 

The panel discussed what the future trends might be and agreed new prebiotic substances have more potential in shifting the skin microbiome. At present, pre-biotics – the nutrients for skin bacteria, are usually oligosaccharides. However, skin lipids e.g. fatty acids derived from sebum, in particular sapionic acid, are to be considered. ‘Each substrate is a prebiotic for some species and the purpose of a product and design has to be beneficial for the right bacteria.’ The probiotic story of sapienic acid should be explored – a result of long evolution, it is metabolically difficult for the body to make. Potentially a ‘primary shifter for skin microbiome’, yet at present we rinse sebum off to cleanse. Gaining deeper understanding of this substrate and paying respect to nature and evolution will be the future direction of research for these skincare brands.

Register to watch the full recording of this webinar here.


Dr Katerina Steventon, NBIC Senior Innovation Consultant