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Probiotics - Promising Cosmetic Ingredient or Marketing Tool?

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Maria Coronado Robles Bio

Fermented beauty products rich in nutrients and other ingredients such as vitamins, antioxidants, probiotics, Omega-3 fatty acids and beneficial enzymes, although trendy, are not new.

However, what makes probiotic breaking news in cosmetics is the way that the microbes are now being added to formulations which has a direct impact on product positioning in the market.

The long-established Crème de la Mer owned by Estée Lauder has been using fermented sea kelp in its formulations for decades, and premium brands such as Murad from Unilever and SK-II from Procter & Gamble, Sulwashoo from the South Korean cosmetics giant AmorePacific and SU:M37 from LG Household & Healthcare, have been marketing products containing fermented and probiotic ingredients for some years. Brands such as Oskia in the UK and Tula in the US also market products containing fermented probiotic ingredients.

Probiotic cosmetics on the rise

Many cosmetic companies are now adding probiotics to anti-aging creams and products specially designed for sensitive skin. While the term ‘probiotic’ is well established in food, where probiotics are considered as live microorganisms able to grow and form a colony that can have a beneficial effect, in cosmetics (a self-regulated industry) there is no standardised definition of probiotics. This makes it virtually impossible for consumers to understand what to expect from a product carrying the probiotic label.

There are technical barriers to incorporate live probiotics into conventional skincare products with a reasonable shelf life. Most products contain a large percentage of water, and preservatives are required to prevent spoilage and, as a result, products on the market generally do not contain live microorganisms. However, mainstream brands such as Clinique with its Redness Solutions line containing Lactobacillus Ferment have found a “smart” way to handle this problem by adding probiotic ingredients which are not alive or viable to form colonies to the formulation at the end of the manufacturing process. This is a cheap solution that does not require any real change in the preservative system or in the rest of the product. The species most commonly found in American and European products are specific strains of bifidobacteria and lactobacillus that mainly reside in the intestine and are specialised for digesting milk. Therefore, they are mainly used in food probiotic supplements but they might not be effective in topical probiotics since the skin flora is different from that of the gut.

Game changer companies

There is no doubt that probiotics are trendy and proof of this is the success of two brands, the South African ESSE and the North American Mother Dirt, which go one step further by marketing products containing live probiotics. According to Trevor Steyn, the CEO of ESSE, the company had a turnover of US$3.5 million in 2015 and is growing at an impressive 300% per annum. Currently ESSE markets two oil-based products - Sensitive serum and Probiotic serum (€70 to €150) - containing live microorganisms that have been inactivated by freeze-drying and stabilised by encapsulation. The probiotic bacteria are activated when they come in contact with skin moisture. The company is developing a new technology that will allow ESSE to stabilise live microorganisms in water-based cosmetic products and a new launch is expected by July 2017.

As a company, ESSE will remain focused on skin care but through its other brands would look to explore opportunities in key markets such as toothpaste, hair care and cosmeceuticals to treat skin issues such as acne, rosacea and eczema. Steyn expects that over the next 10 years the commercialisation of affordable technology that allows the characterisation of an individual’s skin microbiome will open up a new market for probiotics in cosmetics. For instance, consumers could quickly and relatively cheaply analyse the state of their skin’s microbiome and key symbiotic species could be reinstated with personalised probiotics to optimise skin health.

Mother Dirt markets cosmetic products such as the AO+Mist (US$49), a first of its kind containing live Ammonia-Oxidizing Bacteria (AOB). According to Jasmine Aganovic, President of Mother Dirt, the company is currently exploring the potential of the bacteria in the treatment of eczema, rosacea, and other inflammatory skin disorders. She is very enthusiastic about the potential benefits of AOB in this kind of application since the White House launched in May 2016 the “National Microbiome Initiative” with AOBiome, the scientific partner of Mother Dirt, taking part. This initiative will play a key role in translating findings in microbiome research to consumer products.


Products containing fermented and probiotic ingredients are mainly orientated to the premium beauty market. Keeping probiotics alive through manufacturing and distribution is challenging. Products need to be sold under aseptic conditions and it is necessary also to protect the bacteria from excessive light, moisture heat or cold. This causes a number of operational challenges and constrains the type of packaging that can be used. ESSE uses a recyclable double glass unit that contains a polypropylene bag in which the product is contained, while Mother Dirt uses pharmaceutical grade plastic packaging which is fully recyclable. AO+Mist marketed by Mother Dirt needs to be refrigerated until its first use while the skin care products developed by ESSE can be kept at room temperature.

Opportunities for ingredients manufacturers

The use of probiotic ingredients in formulations is contributing to the market success of some cosmetic products. Aware of this, suppliers are developing and commercialising probiotic ingredients such as Bonicel, the topical Probiotic derived ingredient of Ganeden Biotech Inc. Back in 2013, Ashland Care Specialties launched Skin’s Ecology, an initiative in support of new products that help to normalise microflora on the surface of skin. However, more scientific research needs to be performed to back up the probiotic claims in cosmetics products.

There is no doubt that ‘probiotic’ ingredients are becoming a revenue generator for many manufacturers of cosmetic products. However, taking into account the recent EU-wide ban on using the word 'probiotic' on food packaging, ingredient manufacturers need to be aware of the effect of potential regulatory changes that might come in place in the medium to long term and affect the use of probiotics in cosmetic formulations. So far, parameters such as the type of probiotic, the form in which it is added to formulation (alive bacteria, lysates, etc.), as well as the limits for these ingredients to market safe and effective products, is not yet defined by the cosmetics industry. Although future remains unknown, topical probiotic products are now on the rise thanks to the trend for wellness in the beauty industry.

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