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Probiotics, acne, and you

Gut health and your skin, explained.

Stephanie Papanikolas Avatar
by Stephanie Papanikolas
Updated on Dec 14, 2023 • 5 min read
Medically reviewed by Nicole Hangsterfer, PA-C
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Stephanie Papanikolas Avatar
by Stephanie Papanikolas
Updated on Dec 14, 2023 • 5 min read
Medically reviewed by Nicole Hangsterfer, PA-C
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

In this article

Good bacteria in skincare

Probiotics might seem like a new wellness trend, but these microorganisms have been around as long as wine and cheese. Fermented foods that contain this “good bacteria” have been used medicinally for nearly ten thousand years.¹ More recently, probiotics have popped up in skincare as a potential treatment for acne and signs of aging.

So what’s the real tea, and what’s just overpriced woo woo juice? I took a look at the science of probiotics and skin to find out — this is what I learned.

What's a microbiome?

Fun fact: your body is home to microbiomes, AKA a microscopic ecosystem of bacteria, fungi, and viruses. We all know about the bad microorganisms that cause, say, a global pandemic. But we’re also host to good microorganisms that can help keep our immune system in check.²

The gut-brain-skin axis

At first, I thought it was nonsense made up by kombucha companies. Turns out that a lot of people believe there is a link between gut health and skin.³ And after looking at some of the medical research, I might be one of them.

The gut-brain-skin axis was first proposed in the early 20th century, when dermatologists John H. Stokes and Donald M. Pillsbury suggested a connection between our emotional state and our skin. This is supported by a 2014 review of research, which claims that oral probiotics can impact both the gut and skin microbiome.⁴ Basically, evidence shows that skin is impacted by not only our mood, but other invisible forces inside our body.

What we eat and how we feel plays a role in our skin — and we’ve known this for a while. That said, there’s still a lot of debate about how this gut/brain/skin trifecta actually works.

Can probiotics really help skin?

More research is needed before we can make the official call on probiotic skincare. But, so far, what we do know looks promising. There’s evidence that certain types of probiotic bacteria can help in soothing skin and treating acne.⁶

Good bacteria in skincare

Don’t forget: “probiotics” are a group of living microorganisms.⁷ Which type of probiotic (i.e., bacteria strain) you use can make a difference. Here are a few specific probiotic strains that have been studied for their skin benefits:

  • Lactobacillus may help with acne.⁸

  • Bifidobacterium may help soothe dryness and irritation for sensitive skin.⁹

  • Enterococcus faecalis may help with acne.¹⁰

  • Streptococcus thermophilus may help soothe dry, mature skin.¹¹

Specific probiotic strains should be listed in a product’s ingredient list. In probiotic skincare, you may find some variation on the terms above (i.e., Bifida Ferment Lysate is a form of Bifidobacterium).

Prebiotics vs. probiotics

I noticed that, while looking at probiotic skincare products, I came across many products claiming to be prebiotic. So what’s the difference?

To recap: a probiotic is a living microorganism that can live harmoniously in our guts. On the other hand, a prebiotic is a food source that probiotic bacteria feeds on.¹² Think of it like a fertilizer for a garden of good germs.

Prebiotics are often found as dietary supplements that claim to promote good gut health. Prebiotic skincare products claim to work by feeding the good bacteria on your skin. But there’s even less research on prebiotics available, so I can’t say for certain what (if anything) these ingredients can do for your skin.

What are postbiotics?

Postbiotics are the byproduct of your body digesting both prebiotics and probiotics. Studies show that they support your immune system, reduce symptoms associated with irritable bowel diseases, and decrease the severity of certain allergies.

Healthy postbiotics include nutrients like vitamins B and K, amino acids, and substances called antimicrobial peptides that help to slow down the growth of harmful bacteria. Other postbiotic substances, called short-chain fatty acids, can help healthy bacteria flourish.

Do you need probiotic skincare?

Probiotic skincare might be worth a shot, but in my opinion, it’s not the best starting point for building a routine. While I don’t mind investing into a good skincare product, there are a lot of more proven ingredients that are often a more affordable option.

That said, you’re the expert of your own skin! Reading this far means you’re someone who does their homework. If you have a specific skin concern that you think probiotics might help, then go for it! Just be careful you don’t accidentally choose a product with potentially pore-clogging or irritating ingredients.

If that sounds like a lot of busywork, there’s another option: custom, prescription skincare, sent straight to your door. Your first month of Curology is free* (just pay $4.95 plus tax to cover S+H), so why not? Give it a shot! Start your free trial of Curology right now.

• • •

PS. We did our research so you don’t have to.

1. M. Ozen and E. C. Dinleyici. The history of probiotics: the untold story. Beneficial Microbes. (2015, n.d.).

2. Elizabeth A. Grice and Julia A. Segre. The skin microbiome. Nature Reviews Microbiology. (2013, January 3).

3. John J. Stokes and Donald M. Pillsbury. The effect on the skin of emotional and nervous states. Arch Derm Syphilol. (December 2013).

4. W. Bowe, et. al. Acne vulgaris, probiotics and the gut-brain-skin axis: from anecdote to translational medicine. Beneficial Microbes. (2014, June 1).

5. H. J. A. Hunter, et. al. The impact of psychosocial stress on healthy skin. Clinical and Experimental Dermatology. (July 2015).

6. Katherine L. Baquerizo Nole, et. al. Probiotics and prebiotics in dermatology. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (2014, October 1).

7. National Institutes of Health. Probiotics: What You Need To Know. National Center of Complementary and Integrative Health. (August 2019).

8. Katherine L. Baquerizo Nole, et. al. Probiotics and prebiotics in dermatology. Ibid.

9. Audrey Guéniche, et. al. Bifidobacterium longum lysate, a new ingredient for reactive skin. Experimental Dermatology. (August 2010).

10. Bong Seon Kang, et. al. Antimicrobial activity of enterocins from Enterococcus faecalis SL-5 against Propionibacterium acnes, the causative agent in acne vulgaris, and its therapeutic effect. Journal of Microbiology. (2009, February 20).

11. L. Di Marizo, et. al. Increase of skin-ceramide levels in aged subjects following a short-term topical application of bacterial sphingomyelinase from Streptococcus thermophilus. International Journal of Immunopathology and Pharmacology. (January 2008).

12. Cleveland Clinic. Prebiotics vs. Probiotics: What’s the Difference? (2020, March 25).

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Stephanie Papanikolas Avatar

Stephanie Papanikolas

Nicole Hangsterfer Avatar

Nicole Hangsterfer, PA-C

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