The Microbiome: Our Greatest Challenge or Best Opportunity?

Is the microbiome our greatest challenge, the best opportunity we've had, in a long time, to innovate and renew ourselves?

In December of 2011, I covered a Microbiota Conference. At the time there was no coverage of this topic in the world of skin care and cosmetics. To my surprise, though, many brands and heavy players were there. Johnson & Johnson (J&J), Henkel, Firmenich, etc., to name a few.

Lips Are Sealed

When I approached them, all agreed that the study of the human microbiome was a game-changer; something we couldn’t avoid taking into account. But when I asked why no one was talking about it to consumers, I was told that consumer panels showed these same consumers were not ready for it. The notion of commensal bacteria was well-accepted when talking about the digestive track but it was considered disgusting when talking about the skin.

The thing was, the microbiome was not going anywhere. We had known for a while that we had a huge microbial population living on our skin. We had even developed the concept, to some extent, during the 1990s with commensal feeding sugars such as Bioecolia (Solabia).

With the emergence of microbiome science, we were starting to understand the formidable importance of these hosts. It was foolish to believe we could avoid talking about it for very long. The industry was just at a loss for the right words to develop based on this scientific concept. Again.

Well, somebody else did it. In the years preceding the conference, the press had started tackling the topic. In the years following, we saw a flurry of coverage in the popular press, but also an explosion of publications for treating every link between the microbiome and the brain–gut connection; or with auto-immune diseases (i.e., in the gut but also on the skin); or the impact of obstetric practices on the microbiome, etc.

Let’s not make the same mistake we made at the onset of the parabens crisis by ignoring consumers' needs for information.

The consumer was becoming more aware of the presence of microbiota in and on their body and, as has become usual, started demanding more information, more answers, more solutions to know how to deal with this new knowledge—visibly paramount to their health.

The media was doing its job of informing, paving the way for our industry to step up to the plate and position itself as the expert it is with all things relating to skin, including the skin microbiome.

Inform, Educate and Take Risks

Our industry is based on science and technology, and I believe that the beauty industry benefits greatly from opportunities such as new discoveries. However, with those opportunities come responsibilities: informing, educating (which unto itself is both a responsibility and opportunity) and, last but not least, innovating. This brings these discoveries (and the technologies they give rise to) to the consumer. It's about taking that risk.

By taking a risk, I don’t mean in terms of consumer safety. As players in human health, our primary responsibility is safety. No, by taking risks, I mean in terms of those involved with bringing innovative concepts to market and communicating about them. Yet, regarding the microbiome, on our end of the spectrum….deafening silence. No one wanted to talk about skin microbiota. Until very recently.

In all fairness, not everybody was silent. Sanex played maverick by staging bacteria on human skin as alive and vibrant actors of its health. A little later, Induchem, through Libragen, introduced its Brightenyl ingredient and the notion that skin microbiota could transform actives or compounds into active metabolites. These could be considered like a new layer on the skin. They cleverly named it “the stratum microbium.”

Some were even as daring as to use probiotics.1 AOBiome boldly introduced a microbial active for cleansing routines, but this is still a pretty isolated initiative.

'Probiotic' and Fermentation Stragglers

The rest of the industry followed, more timidly, by calling microbiome-targeting products probiotics, which are essentially fragments of bacteria. This has actually become quite common and we should be careful with this trend, as it introduces confusion on an important notion. We played that game with stem cells and the results are mixed. One thing is for sure: our customer doesn’t understand the difference between what she does to her own stem cells and ingredients that come from plant stem cells. And we can’t hope to build healthy marketing strategies upon this kind of knowledge or understanding.

Another trend is to use fermentation products and to, again, confuse the issue with the microbes we have on the skin. We all know these kinds of ingredients have been around for a long time. And if the communication is properly carried out and, in effect, educates the consumer about our ability to produce ingredients with the help of bacteria, this is a good thing. Consumers are actually now confronted with this notion of a biofactory across various forums. And let’s be real, this is most likely what the future holds.2

'In 10 years, we should have a cartography of bacteria’s adhesion and growth capacity on the skin. . .allowing for biofilm production of this or that bacteria.'

Wanted: Tools, Methods and Guidelines

The introduction of live bacteria into a skin care regimen is still largely considered a risky endeavor, and I believe justifiably so. Yet despite a flurry of timid initiatives on the supply side of things, the industry remains essentially silent about skin microbiota. Without going into breakthrough launches, featuring products carrying live bacteria (as in the AOBiome example), there is room for plenty of new products, strategies and stories. But we do and say basically nothing, at least from a consumer’s point of view.

Why does an industry that is obviously concerned with this topic, and a clear leader for the research, remain mute? Not because we underestimate the importance of skin microbiota. Judging by the attendance at the too few events on the topic, and the number of teams working on the subject, there is a clear understanding that it is an important matter. Indeed, I don’t think that I have visited a single brand in the last six months that isn’t working on this.

There are three main reasons why this remains essentially the industry’s problem child: 1) technological reasons and the issue of tools, 2) methodological reasons and 3) the issue of guidelines and best practices, along with strategic reasons and the issue of communication.

Getting a Read on the Microbiome

Despite what many believe, the science of skin microbiota is still in its infancy. Most of the work done on skin microbiota is conducted by this industry. In fact, of the more than 4,000 publications about the microbiome, only a mere 200 cover skin microbiota. The overwhelming majority of work is about gut microbiota, which is why it gets so much press coverage and why therapies are already emerging.

As such, this budding science lacks many things. To explore, you need to develop new tools. For years, we have focused on reading the microbiome. Sequencing that enormous genome took most of our initial resources—and again, bear in mind that most of the work was done on gut bacteria. The ability of our fast-growing computer processors also allowed for the science to emerge.

But as was the case with the human genome, it is one thing to have a cookbook and read the recipes; it is another to understand what the dishes actually taste like. We are only now starting to understand the functionalities of the skin microflora. Following are a few of the hurdles with which scientists are faced.

Sampling. “To measure function in the skin microbiome is very difficult in a finite area,” says Kim Capone, Research Fellow of J&J, “because there isn’t always enough bacterial RNA to look at.”

Yes, you read right. There are billions of germs on our skin, but the skin is a large organ and it is not very densely populated. So sampling and studying is a challenge.

Skin models. Then there is the issue of skin models. Models integrating the microbiota are just starting to come of age.

“In a previous publication this year, we described a 3D skin model,” explains Valérie André-Frei. She's in charge of R&D scouting and communication at BASF.3 “It is the only one that offers a co-culture of two germs in order to study the competition and test the effect that ingredients have on the balance between them.”

Skin microbiota is complex unto itself: not only is it hugely diversified and fast-moving, it also evolves with age, and again, reacts to what makes our bodies react.

Complexity. The fact that the skin microbiota is the outermost layer on our body further complicates things. It is sensitive to internal body physiology, but also to external skin treatments, humidity, temperature, oxidative stress such as UV, pollution, etc.

Furthermore, skin microbiota is complex unto itself: not only is it hugely diversified and fast-moving, it also evolves with age, and again, reacts to what makes our bodies react. Since the science is very young, all these aspects have yet to be explored. According to Capone, we also need to understand the microbiome better.

J&J is at the forefront of studying the microbiome. The company has published extensively on the microbiomes of infants and babies, but also on those of healthy adults. In 2013, the group published on the role of the skin barrier in modulating the potential of microbiota for causing disease.But we also need to understand the impact of the formulas we use on skin microbiota, and vice versa. That means ingredients must be screened for this aspect of their functionality and toxicity, too. BASF is already active in this field.

Ingredient Interactions

"There are some basic things we can gradually implement,' says Valérie André-Frei, Ph.D., BASF manager of external collaborations for personal care North America. “Especially for studying the impact of raw materials and formulas on the skin microbiome.

"The first thing to do is screen all existing products through the microbiome prism," André-Frei explains. "On the products that were tested before 2013, when the ban on animal testing came along and rendered tox screens more complicated, we have more toxicological data and clinical experience; and for some, we should be able to highlight benefits on skin eco-flora.

"To better answer to emerging lifestyle and geographical needs, we can also test the evolution of the skin and its microbiome with humidity levels or pollutionon which we already have established a clear link. Of course, we progress slower on the skin than the gut microbiome field does but we can draw some analogies."

Exploration can begin now, without the need for many new technologies in the toolkit. 

Then there is the entire repurposing strategy, applied by Givaudan, which asks what the flora does to ingredients and existing formulas. If we start looking at everything we have, there is huge potential for discovery. While both of these directions of research require resources, they are not extremely difficult to pursue with the current state of the art.

But BASF sees even further, for example, by exploring the adhesion potential of bacteria.

“In 10 years, we should have a cartography of bacteria’s adhesion and growth capacity on the skin. We can then design ingredients that would be selectively targeting the enzymatic apparatus allowing for biofilm production of this or that bacteria," explains André-Frei.

The bottom line is: exploration can begin now, without the need for many new technologies in the toolkit. Establishing the impact of surfactants on bacterial populations, for example, doesn’t require much.

Best Practices

Along with the elaboration of tools and a thorough exploration of the microbiome comes the need for guidelines and best practices. And as J&J's Capone points out, "There is a consortium of scientists proposing a Unified Microbiome Initiative5 to address that issue, on a global level." 

But the industry also needs industry-specific groups in order to tackle best practices and issue guidelines, so as to advise regulators.

"In the last decades, and thanks to broad preliminary studies, we have introduced mandatory testing for 26 new allergens, heavy metals, pesticides, [etc.]..." explains BASF’s André-Frei. "Now it’s time to think about developing standardized tools to prepare future microbiome-specific testing."

One reason we do not push products addressing the skin microbiota is because we are unable to talk about them in a simple manner.

Best practices should address the microbiome at all levels of the R&D and manufacturing process. This is because taking it truly into account will affect everything from ingredients, formulas and compounding, to conditioning/filling, packs, etc. It is also in the industry’s best interest to organize and work together on some key points and outlines, as there will be a need for communicating and educating the consumer on this especially sticky topic.

Let’s not make the same mistake we made at the onset of the parabens crisis by ignoring consumers' needs for information and letting this issue run on its own, with unfounded rumors spreading and wreaking havoc in an space that's already difficult to address. Getting together to agree on a research direction and the publication of good science can help.


Beyond the technical challenges, which as we have seen, do not prevent us from doing something about the skin microbiota, lies another huge hurdle: communication. One reason we do not push products addressing the skin microbiota is because we are unable to talk about them in a simple manner. 

We live in a society largely shaped by a Pasteurian view of the world, where bacteria is first and foremost a cause of disease and something to be avoided, cleaned up or eradicated. We are petrified by the idea of having to include the word bacteria when talking about the skin, or about a product containing it and destined to be applied to the skin. The opportunity of the microbiome is real but in order to tell stories, we need stories to tell.


Introducing new stories, concepts, regimens or gestures; repositioning skin care; and maybe pioneering a new notion of homeostasis are all opportunities that studying the microbiome affords us—even in its infancy, with the information that we already have or that which we can easily collect (see above).

Not all stories need to be based on purely technological advances, or even on new knowledge. Nor do they require manipulating the skin microbiota. They can be based purely on gaining an understanding of how the skin microbiota functions, and on taking some basic steps to help preserve that fragile yet robust balance between our bodies and their microbial partners. Building these stories will come with great challenges, but they are also compelling and beautiful, which is what makes them unique.

In a follow-up paper, we will explore a few examples of the avenues we can take and how we may want to communicate about them, in addition to educational opportunities, to position ourselves as the industry that knows about skin microbiota.







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