The Skin Microbiome and Cosmetics

Jan. 10th, 2020

Developing products that foster healthy skin microbiome is a new product development trend in the cosmetic industry, which is attracting the attention of the major players and niche brands alike. The sector is poised to take off but is still hindered by a lack of support regulations standardizing labeling and advertising claims and a lack of strong clinical evidence supporting the functional efficacy of these products. However, on the flip side, there is some proof in principle supporting the commercial feasibility of these products, case in point being the success of probiotic and prebiotic products commercialized of the back of gut microbiome research.

A microbiome is defined as the entire collection of microorganisms living either inside or outside of the human body. [1]After the U.S. National Institutes of Health carried out the Human Microbiome Project in 2012, Microbiome has been a hot topic in healthcare, skincare, and food, with estimates placing the global market value of the microbiome industry at $1.5 billion by 2025.

The role of the gut microbiome in health is now well established. However, information about microbes lurking on the skin is a relatively new trend in the medical and beauty industry. According to reports by Mintel, there has already been considerable commercialization of skin microbiome research by the cosmetics industry, with growth estimated at a global CAGR of 6% between 2016 and 2021. [1]

How are cosmetics enterprises commercializing skin microbiome research?

The skin is the largest organ and acts as the body’s first line of defense against toxic environmental factors, such as air pollution and U.V. light. The skin microbiome is considered an integral part of the skin barrier that plays a crucial role in maintaining skin health.

The cosmetics industry is leveraging the skin microbiome concept from three angles:

  • Probiotics: Products with probiotics which are “good bacteria,” to increase the number of favorable bacteria on the skin. [1]
  • Prebiotics: Prebiotics are a type of fiber that the human body cannot digest. They serve as food for probiotics, stimulating their growth. [2]
  • Postbiotics: Postbiotics refers to soluble factors (products or metabolic byproducts), secreted by live bacteria, or released after bacterial lysis, such as enzymes, peptides, teichoic acids, peptidoglycan-derived muropeptides, polysaccharides, cell surface proteins, and organic acids.[3] Experts believe that they can have a positive effect on skin health.

How about brand dynamics?

Some of the key players in the cosmetics industry, such as Unilever, Johnson & Johnson, L’Oréal, and Amore Pacific, have already turned their attention toward harnessing the full potential of the skin microbiome.

The major players: 

  • Unilever

Unilever entered the field of microbial skincare by its investment in Gallinée; the first personal care brand focused on human probiotics. This brand’s products include hand creams, body cream, foaming facial cleansers, creams, masks, and scrubs, which have efficacy in treating skin allergies and acne.

  • Johnson & Johnson

Johnson & Johnson is aiming to help people to build a healthy microbiome from early in life by selective elimination of harmful bacteria. It also invested in startups Xycrobe and S-Biomedic to explore the elimination of acne by promoting the growth of beneficial bacteria.

  • Amore Pacific

Recently, Amore Pacific and Givaudan, a global raw materials company, held a signing ceremony at Givaudan’s European Creative Center in Argenteuil, France. The two parties will launch a joint research project on the skin microbiome.

  • L’Oreal

L’Oreal is studying the skin microbiome, enzymes, and the Intestinal Microbiome, developing products for sun protection, wound repair, and cleansing. La Roche-Posay series from L’Oreal Group is designed to balance the Microbiome on the surface of dry skin. Lancome, another famous brand from L’Oreal Group, has been busy promoting its flagship product recently, the second generation of advanced genifique youth activating serum, whose nickname is Little Black Bottle in China. The product contains Bifidus Prebiotic, targeting the key signs of aging in just seven-days and improving radiance, tone, elasticity, smoothness, and firmness. [4]

Lancome: product’s ad for Microbiome

Startups are also targeting this segment:

Niche brands and startups:

  • Esse

Tests in Germany have shown that Esse’s world’s first preservative-free active probiotic extract can increase skin firmness by an average of 16% in 28 days.

  • Bebe & Bella

Bebe & Bella relies on patented probiotics and oral supplements to maximize the efficacy of its active ingredients. It has started a new anti-aging trend in the U.S.


MOTHERDIRT is the first brand in the world to use live bacteria in its skincare products. They are trying to enter China through cross-border e-commerce.


Key challenges to overcome

Although the field is attracting more and more attention and investment, and numerous players are joining the competition, leveraging the skin microbiome concept is still in its incipient phase. Some major obstacles will need to be overcome before it develops from a trend to a well-established vertical market. Here are the major stumbling blocks:

  • Lack of standards and regulations: Regulatory developments have understandably failed to keep pace with the rapid developments and commercialization of products in the sector. Different players use different terms to refer to the same principles or even the same terms to refer to different ingredients.
  • Second, strong clinical evidence is also lacking. Although a lot of investment has been made in the field, studies are still not strong enough to make functional claims on skin microbiome products.
  • In China, the situation is even more nuanced. The primary regulation on the limits of microorganisms in products is Cosmetic Safety and Technical Standards (2015). It regulates the limitation of microbiological indicators in cosmetics as follows:
Microbiological indicator Limit Remark
Total bacterial count (CFU/g or CFU/ml) ≤500 Eye-applicable cosmetics, lip care, and lip make-up and children’s cosmetics
≤1000 Other cosmetics
Molds and yeast count (CFU/g or CFU/ml) ≤100
Fecal Coliforms/g (or ml) Not be tested out
Staphylococcus Aureus/g (or ml) Not be tested out
Pseudomonas Aeruginosa/g (or ml) Not be tested out

Cosmetic Safety and Technical Standards (2015) places prohibitively strict limitations on products containing live probiotics in China. Most products would have a total bacterial count that exceeds permitted limits. This limitation is also why MOTHERDIRT is unable to enter China’s markets through general trade channels and must, therefore, use cross-border e-commerce.

However, certain skin microbiome beauty products have entered China’s market. How do they make it while avoiding breaking the regulation? We can take a product from Lancome, for example. This product named advanced genifique youth activating serum claims to contain Bifidus prebiotic, which can help balance users’ skin microbiome. Bifidus prebiotic is a food source for the commensal Bifidus flora that lives on the skin and does not violate microbial limits.

In conclusion, in China, prebiotics (food source for bacteria) and postbiotics (byproducts of bacteria such as peptides) can be used in cosmetics as long as they are in Inventory of Existing Cosmetic Ingredients in China (IECIC). However, if manufacturers want to add probiotics (real live bacteria) to cosmetics, they still need to control the number of total bacteria to 500 CFU/g or CFU/ml for eye-applicable cosmetics, lip care and lip make-up and children’s cosmetics and 1000 CFU/g or CFU/ml for other cosmetics.

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