If you’ve ever had a breakout, you’ve likely tried to dry those suckers up with bacteria-killing washes and spot treatments. You know, because conventional wisdom (and lots of research) has shown that zits, particularly the big painful cysts, are often caused by P. acnes bacteria getting into your pores and going to town.
But now bacteria is trying to spin a comeback kid PR campaign, thanks to the rise of probiotics in everything—yogurts, supplements, and now, skincare products.
But for those of us who have acne, naturally you’d wonder: Wouldn’t those probiotics just make my skin worse? Luckily, Whitney Bowe, M.D., NYC celebrity dermatologist and author of The Beauty of Dirty Skin, is here to lay it all out for you (and me. Because I’m confused too):
FIRST OF ALL, WHAT ARE PROBIOTICS?
While you might automatically associate the word “bacteria” with things like food poisoning and Petri dishes, not all bacteria is bad for you. Enter probiotics, which are live, friendly bacteria that benefit your overall health and your skin. They help you digest food, combat against environmental damage, and strengthen the immune system, Bowe says.
Your body naturally contains tons of bacteria (both inside and on your skin) to help it function properly, says Bowe. This is called the microbiome. “There are more than one trillion bacteria in the skin, originating from approximately one thousand different species,” says Bowe. (!!!!)
WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH MY SKIN?
Two things, actually. Inside your body, the bacteria in your gut interacts with your immune system, which can affect your skin, Bowe says. “Certain inflammatory skin disorders like acne, rosacea, and eczema are thought to flare in those whose gut bacterial mix has been thrown out of balance,” says Bowe.
If your bod’s natural balance of bacteria gets thrown out of whack (say you’ve been on antibiotics forever to deal with back-to-back yeast infections), that can damage your intestinal lining. This allows irritating substances that are normally digested to float into your bloodstream, which sets off your immune system and can cause inflammation throughout the body, including redness and skin sensitivity.
Then, remember how Bowe said there’s a bunch of bacteria sitting on top of your skin, too? “If your skin’s healthy microbiome is disrupted by harsh cleansers and other abrasive skincare products, this discontent can result in breakouts,” explains Bowe.
The short version: If your bod’s natural bacteria balance inside or outside of the skin gets thrown out of whack, your skin suffers (breakouts, etc). But when your body’s “good” bacteria is healthy and thriving, Bowe says that’s when your skin will look its best.
WHAT’S THE BEST WAY TO USE PROBIOTICS FOR ACNE?
1. Eat probiotics: “As a first line of defense, I tell my patients to try to incorporate foods and drinks that are naturally rich in probiotics, like yogurt, kombucha, sauerkraut, and miso soup,” advises Bowe.
Eat probiotic foods every day in order to see lasting benefits because they pass through your digestive system pretty quickly. And pair them with prebiotics (nondigestible carbs that feed the bacteria, like bananas, onions, and garlic) for best results.
Foods That Are High In Probiotics
If you feel you’re not getting enough probiotics through your diet, then Bowe says a daily supplement is an effective option. “When you’re choosing probiotic supplements, diversity of strains and delivery mechanism are both key,” says Bowe.
Make sure that the label says there are at least 1 billion CFUs (colony-forming units), and check the strains listed. The more, the merrier! Bowe says these particular strains have been shown to help with acne:
- Lactobacillus paracasei
- Enterococcus faecalis
- Lactobacillus plantarum
- Streptococcus salivarius
2. Use probiotic skincare products: Probiotic foods helps your skin from the inside. Probiotic skincare, on the other hand, provides a protective shield from the outside, strengthening your skin barrier to keep your skin hydrated and prevent infection, breakouts, and irritation.
Probiotic Skincare Products
Some topical probiotic skin care products contain live cultures to sustain skin’s natural supply of bacteria, while some contain prebiotics. You can get a sense of what strains are in there by reading the ingredient label, although they’re not always listed in the same way that they would be on a supplement label.
3. Avoid bad habits—and foster good ones: Certain skincare products and rituals disturb skin’s good bacteria. “I tell my patients to throw away their loofahs and washcloths and toss all cleansers with the word ‘antibacterial,'” says Bowe. Only use sanitizer when regular soap and water is not available (say, music festival porta potty), she says.
Other lifestyle factors that can help your good bacteria flourish include dialing down stress levels, sleeping well, exercising, taking time to relax and restore, and meditating, says Bowe.