A primer on your skin's 'microbiome' — because beauty's next buzzword is here

We talk to a dermatologist on how being mindful of your microbiome can lead to better skin.

We talk to a dermatologist on how being mindful of your microbiome can lead to better skin

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"Microbiome" has become a big beauty buzzword these days. More and more beauty brands are betting on the biome, you could say, when creating new launches. But what is it exactly? And how can it affect our complexion?

"[Microbiome] means the microbes that live in a particular environment, otherwise known as the biome," explains dermatologist Dr. Julia Carroll of Compass Dermatology in Toronto. "A lot of the literature on microbiomes comes from the gut microbiome — that was originally where [the medical community] started using that word. But now, with the genetic sequencing that we can do, we're discovering microbiomes all over the place in the body." 

While the idea of the skin's microbiome might not be new per se, skin experts and many beauty fans are now paying more attention to it thanks to the recent trend of piling on serums and lotions, doing multiple cleansing steps and using different types of acids (often too frequently!) all in the name of achieving a clear, Instagram-ready complexion. It has us wondering if all these products may be disturbing our skin without us even realizing it.

So, what's contained in the skin's microbiome? Basically, these microbes consist of fungi, viruses and bacteria that all fight to live on the surface of the skin, much like how our gut contains both good and bad bacteria.

Some dermatologists were talking about the skin's microbiome for 30 years before sequencing was possible, says Dr. Carroll. "I don't use that word [specifically]," she says when asked if she talks about the microbiome to her patients, "but I do have it in the back of my mind … One of the things I'll do is review their products and see if that's affecting them … I'm always looking to see how the product and the skin are working together."

Dr. Carroll also explains that one's microbiome frequently changes. "It's different from person to person … If you're around certain people all the time, you probably have more in common when it comes to your microbiome," she says, because your environments will be so similar. 

"The microbiome can affect things like eczema, acne, how sensitive your skin is. So it can either make your skin barrier better or worse, depending on [the amount] of certain bacteria or virus or fungi that are around." 

Dr. Carroll predicts that in the near future, dermatologists might be able to run tape tests or do swabs of the skin's microbiome to determine which specific products would be good or bad for your complexion. 

But what does this all mean for your skin here and now? "I think a lot of people are talking with the microbiome when it comes to products, but I don't know if we know the whole story yet," says Dr. Carroll. "But, I do think that products that tend to be more gentle, closer to the pH of the skin, those products are going to be better, in general for the microbiome."

"I think it's difficult to say that one particular product is good for the microbiome or everyone's microbiome," she continues. Dr. Carroll is also wary of harsh cleansers and over-cleansing in general, as this can strip the skin of the good bacteria that can be found in our microbiome. "We don't want to be washing off and getting rid of the microbiome because it does have a function."

The jury may be out on how, or how much, specific products and skin care routines affect the skin's microbiome, but we know skin care enthusiasts will be curious. So if you want to experiment with products designed with microbiome in mind, these are the latest releases you might want to try. 

Launched in 2013 by Elena Brei, NuVsio is a Canadian line of skincare products that are designed to work with the skin's microbiome. Brei, who suffered from severe acne, was studying water treatment and water purification when she noted that minerals found in North America could have an impact on skin health. She tried some mineral blends on herself before passing the formula along to friends and family. NuVsio incorporates a host of minerals that the brand says help polish and cleanse the skin without upsetting its microbiome. 

Active Mineral Facial Treatment Gift Set, approx. $147, NuVsio

Earlier this year, Swiss beauty brand Valmont relaunched their line of cleansers with the skin's ecosystem in mind. By combining glacial spring water and a few choice pre- and probiotics (the prebiotics help to feed the probiotics), the company believes it has perfected a selection of cleansers that won't strip the skin of the good things that live on it. 

Valmont Bubble Falls Cleanser, $90, Valmont and Holt Renfrew

In June, skincare brand Dermalogica launched their Age Bright Clearing serum, a new formula that's said to help clear up adult acne and brighten the complexion while fighting the signs of aging. It contains salicylic acid, niacinamide and white shiitake mushroom extract to help treat and prevent blemishes, and help any dark spots caused by them to fade away. The brand says its Age Bright Complex works with the skin's microbiome to do all this without disrupting the skin's delicate environment. 

Dermalogica Age Bright Clearing Serum, $89, Sephora