You’ve heard about the health benefits of taking probiotic pills and eating fermented foods. A healthy gut microbiome depends on a happy microbial balance and that means incorporating probiotics into your diet.
But what about using probiotics for your skin?
Instead of fighting painful skin rashes like eczema and psoriasis with antibiotic creams and steroids, what if you could resolve them with … topically applied bacteria.
That’s right. The word is out about the benefits of topical probiotics for your skin microbiome. And the more we learn, the more researchers, practitioners, and even beauty industry insiders are getting on board with beneficial bugs.
In this article, we’ll examine the role of topical probiotics for your skin, the emerging science behind them, and a few ways you can start to experiment with topical probiotics today.
Probiotics for your skin… not just for your gut
In part one of this series, we learned that microbiomes aren’t isolated to your gut.
In fact, there are different microbiomes all over your body, from your armpits to your nasal cavity to your colon. When these microbial populations are balanced, they can help fight pathogens and inflammation, neutralize toxins spewed out by bad bacteria, and block nasty exogenous compounds.
When a microbiome is out of balance – that’s when health issues arise.
A balanced skin microbiome will:
- Maintain an ideal skin pH
- Overpower non-beneficial bacteria and guard against fungi, viruses, and other pathogens
- Produce protein toxins called phenol-soluble modulins that stop the proliferation of bacteria that cause chronic skin rashes, S. aureus and Group A Streptococcus
- Help with wound healing
- Protect your skin from harmful UV radiation
- Protects your skin from allergens
- Help maintain skin moisture
What happens when your skin microbiome is unhealthy
Just like your gut microbiome, your skin microbiome needs to maintain a delicate balance of beneficial and non-beneficial bacteria. When you disrupt this balance, “bad” or non-beneficial bacteria, fungi, viruses and other pathogens get the chance to thrive.
One example is Staphylococcus aureus, a bacteria found in large concentrations in chronic rashes – especially eczema. S. aureus is also well-known for developing antibiotic resistance, which is likely why those antibiotics aren’t working for your eczema. (1)
Fungi like Malassezia can also take over. This one contributes to conditions like atopic eczema, dermatitis, pityriasis (tinea) versicolor, seborrheic dermatitis, or folliculitis, and can exacerbate into systemic infections. (2)
Other signs of an imbalanced skin microbiome include:
- Eczema (atopic dermatitis)
An imbalance in skin microbes can affect your immune system
The microbes that exist naturally on your skin can also affect your immune system.
Skin-associated lymphoid tissue, or SALT are lymphocytes (immune cells) that work in tandem with bacteria to communicate with the lymph nodes inside your body.
Think of these immune cells as the front lines of your immune system. They constantly communicate with the rest of your body to determine the right immune response, depending on possible outside invasions/assaults.
But the main way SALT works is in a delicate balance with the microbes on your skin. So you can imagine the issues that can arise if your skin microbiome is out of balance and bad bacteria are on the rise. (3) An unhealthy skin microbiome can affect your entire immune system.
Ways your skin microbiome goes out of balance
How can you protect your skin microbiome? The first step is to understand what creates an imbalance in the first place. Just like your gut, your skin microbiome is easily damaged by everyday products and habits. Here are the main offenders:
Antibiotics and steroid creams
While these come with good intentions, antibiotics and steroid creams can exacerbate skin rashes. Whether taken internally or externally, antibiotics wipe out all bacteria indiscriminately, creating opportunities for bad bacteria to take over. This results in inflammation and a host of other symptoms that can take years to resolve.
Steroid creams suppress your skin’s immune response and constrict blood flow to your skin cells. This may help with symptoms in the short term, but restricts nutrients and oxygen from your skin in the long-term, which will inhibit healing. Plus, steroid creams come with their own host of side effects.
Environmental and chemical exposures
Your skin is meant to serve as a protective barrier, but it’s not immune to the harsh chemicals you’re exposed to on a daily basis.
Pollution in the air and water, plus the many toiletries we slather and spray on our bodies can decrease microbial diversity and give bad microbes the chance to thrive.
And while soap can be harsh, even water alone can cause problems!
I never forget the horrifying moment when I discovered at the beginning of my eczema journey that water could burn my poor skin so badly. It ultimately caused me to wear disposable gloves on my hands (which were affected) to avoid constant handwashing.
One of the reasons this happens is because of the significant pH difference between the skin barrier and water itself. Plus there is a litany of chemicals and drugs in tap water that can also irritate your skin.
Low thyroid hormone decreases circulation, which slows the flow of nutrients and oxygen to your skin cells. That means your cells have a harder time repairing, and regenerating.
Reduced circulation also reducing waste removal from the skin leaving the cells to swim in a more toxic environment.
When cells don’t have what they need for healthy turnover, old skin cells stick around longer, pile up, and cause rashes and infection. Less thyroid hormone also prevents skin cells from creating the necessary energy to turnover efficiently.
Overuse of hand sanitizers and antibacterial soaps
Antibacterial soaps, gels, and lotions are a lot like antibiotics – they kill everything, not just the bad microbes. Overuse of hand sanitizers and other antibacterial products can lead to antibiotic resistance and strip your skin of beneficial microbes.
Stick with more natural soaps and lotions that contain few ingredients. And ditch the antibacterial products that contain triclosan and other antimicrobial ingredients that even the FDA has issued warnings about.
Stress triggers a hormonal cascade that can directly affect your immune system. Since chronic, painful skin rashes like eczema and psoriasis are related to your immune system, it’s important to keep it strong and balanced.
Stressful situations probably aren’t going anywhere, but you can control your reaction to stress. Check out this article (and step-by-step videos) on how to calm your stress response in just two minutes.
Related: 5 Reasons Why Your Rash Won’t Go Away
Probiotics for your skin you can try today
Probiotics aren’t just for your gut! Many researchers, practitioners and beauty experts are looking to specific beneficial microbes to help heal a variety of skin conditions.
The best part about topical probiotics is that they’re relatively harmless. Plus, you can try many of these at home without a prescription. Here are the best ways to use topical probiotics for your skin microbiome to put an end to your chronic skin rashes:
Live cultures in your yogurt are made up of immune system supporting probiotic strains like Lactobacillus acidophilus, Streptococcus thermophilus, and Bifidobacteria. (4) These are known for balancing bacteria and crowding out non-beneficial microbes to help decrease inflammation and support your immune system.
In the event that you have an IgG sensitivity or lactose intolerance to dairy products, you can still apply them topically.
However, if you have an allergy to dairy, then you should avoid contact with yogurt. You could potentially try a vegan yogurt alternative or the next suggestion (see the section on topical probiotic application).
Here’s how to use yogurt topically for your skin rashes —
A simple yogurt mask may help with chronic skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis, rosacea, and acne. Spread a thin layer of unflavored (plain), organic yogurt on your skin. Leave it on for 10-15 minutes and rinse with lukewarm water.
Topical probiotic applications
This approach allows you to find probiotic pills with specific strains, as opposed to using yogurt with unmeasurable levels of bacteria.
I have a number of clients who have had success with this.
Here’s how to apply probiotics on your skin —
Apply some organic, cold-pressed skin oil like jojoba, sunflower, or hemp seed oils to the affected area. Then take an oral probiotic capsule and open it. Lightly sprinkle some of the probiotic directly on to the oil and gently massage it in.
You can leave this on your skin for 15-20 minutes, though I’ve had some clients leave it on overnight.
Put the rest of the capsule aside for future applications since you may not use the entire capsule depending on how extensive the affected area is.
MegaSporeBiotic is a great option for both external (topical) use. It’s also great for internal gut microbiome rebalancing (assuming you’re not on an immunosuppressant or biologic medication, or have a compromised immune system).
Anecdotally, MegaSporeBiotic with shea butter may reduce inflammation and improve moisture retention.
Probiotic soaps and moisturizers
Even the cosmetic industry is getting on the bacteria bandwagon, incorporating beneficial bacteria into face creams and cleansers to help correct skin microbe imbalances. There are pluses and minuses to this reality with many of the claims being more hype than fact.
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t skincare companies out there producing quality topical probiotics for your skin. Some of the probiotic skincare brands that I like include Mother Dirt, Bioesse, and Skin Probiotics.
Custom creams using your own microbes
Everyone, even those of us with skin rashes, have healthy patches of skin – patches where the microbial diversity is high and the bad guys haven’t taken over.
Scientists believe that by isolating the “good guy” bacteria in these healthy areas, they can make custom creams that balance your skin microbiome in a more holistic way. (5)
That’s right – a custom probiotic skin cream made from your own bacteria!
Certainly this would be an option for the future, but for now, you can certainly try this “home remedy” —
Apply some organic, cold-pressed skin oil like jojoba oil or a fractionated coconut oil to a healthy area of skin. Then using a cotton swab, gently rub the swab around to pick up the oil and healthy bacteria from the skin. Apply it on the affected area to help re-innoculate that particular rashed spot with a healthier mix of skin flora.
Are topical probiotics for your skin safe?
When it comes to topical probiotics, the science is still young, but promising. Although I haven’t heard of any adverse reactions to using at-home topical probiotic treatments, I recommend doing a spot test with any new formulation before regular use.
Anecdotally, I’ve seen excellent results and recommend topical probiotics to many of my clients.
Most recently, a client used both internal and topical probiotics for her son’s persistent rash. She saw huge improvements as his gut healed, but the real difference was just days after they started to use a topical probiotic.
For even more details about your skin microbiome, don’t forget to check out the first article in this series.
And since every microbiome in your body is linked, you can start your journey back to healthy skin by eating the right foods.
My free guide to Eczema Soothing Smoothies has helped thousands of people get started! Every recipe is gluten-free, dairy-free, and packed with skin-healing superfoods so you can begin healing from the inside-out.
Not sure where to start with your skin rash? I also created this list of Root Cause Skin Tests so you can get to the bottom of your skin ailments fast.
And one final thought — topical probiotics aren’t a quick or sure-fire fix. Skin issues take time to heal (here’s the deal on how long it takes). And they require a serious dose of persistence and consistency as you dial in your unique protocol. Helping to rebalance your skin’s microbiome is one critical piece of your larger skin rash puzzle.
KEEP READING — Part 3 – Can Skin Baths Help Or Do Harm To The Microbiome?
1. Otto, M. Staphylococcus epidermidis – the “accidental” pathogen. Nat Rev Microbiol. 2009 Aug; 7(8): 555-567. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2807625
2. Saunders CW, Scheynius A, Heitman J. Malassezia Fungi Are Specialized to Live on Skin and Associated with Dandruff, Eczema, and Other Skin Diseases. Goldman WE, ed. PLoS Pathogens. 2012;8(6):e1002701. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3380954/
3. Streilein JW. Skin-associated lymphoid tissues (SALT): origins and functions. J Invest Dermatol. 1983 Jun;80 Suppl:12s-16s. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6602189
4. Ferdousi R, Rouhi M, Mohammadi R, Mortazavian AM, Khosravi-Darani K, Homayouni Rad A. Evaluation of Probiotic Survivability in Yogurt Exposed To Cold Chain Interruption. Iranian Journal of Pharmaceutical Research : IJPR. 2013;12(Suppl):139-144. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3813376/
5. Nakatsuji T, et al. Antimicrobials from human skin commensal bacteria protect against Staphylococcus aureus and are deficient in atopic dermatitis. Science Translational Medicine. 22 Feb 2017: Vol. 9, Issue 378, eaah4680. http://stm.sciencemag.org/content/9/378/eaah4680
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As always, another very informative article from you! I appreciate your dedication to your work and sharing your wealth of information with all of us! I have been working to heal my gut to take care of some never-before-had-eczema-on-my-face and while I do think I’m making progress, my face still itches and has some redness to it. I did some yogurt masks a few months ago, but that was before I started healing my gut and eliminating some inflammatory foods. Your article has prompted me to give that a try again and see if I can take care of the skin microbiome now and not just the gut. One quick question, you mention adding probiotics to a carrier oil and say it “allows you to find specific strains…” what are those specific strains that would be appropriate here? Thanks again for your support and words of wisdom!
Hi Jennifer –
One of the most helpful posts and validating for a conclusion I had already made about the anti-microbial properties of coconut oil. Intuitively, I knew that was the reason coconut oil was not suitable for me. Have loved Jojoba and its been my salvation for years. Virtually the only moisturizing substance that did not trigger the urge to itch it off. And thank the lord, they are allowed to market it without adding preservatives and other hideous additives. Truthfully, there is NOTHING I would recommend be purchased for your skin in a drugstore. And fyi, at least in California, Trader Joe’s markets the least expensive pure Jojoba.
I have been a student of my own eczema symptoms for some time and have made some other observations. Knowing the research as well as you do, perhaps you will be able to make associations that will be of further help to sufferers.
1. Especially now that we are learning more about the skin microbiome, I am convinced that eczema is very much driven by microbial imbalances that also emerge from orifices connected to gut issues eg: “cradle cap” is actually originating in the ear canal and sinuses. The microbes emerge overnight and form the crusting in the hairline and behind the ears. The skin crusting is always worse in the morning or the end of the day.
2. Girl children often have eczema symptoms and itching between the thighs….in my perception a strong possibility that candida and microbes have formed in the vagina and migrate out to cause dysbiosis between the legs.
3. Hygene recommendation: never use a wash cloth more than once. Purchase a stack of all cotton bar cleaning cloths from Target – use once and launder in hot water. (and hang them to dry until laundering – don’t throw them into a damp laundry basket to contaminate other towels or clothing or where the microbes/mold might grow in dampness.) Treat eczema as if it were a “real” bacterial infection. Assume that everything contact associated will create contamination.
4. ALWAYS wear a glove on the hand you use to brush your teeth if you have eczema on your hand or fingers. There is a host of mold, etc in the mouth. Don’t let saliva, toothpaste , etc. further contaminate the microbiome on the hand, especially if there are open wounds or cracking.
5. I am not going into my story …its too long and there are complexities of learning that took me years to figure out with very little help from my dermatologist (though very kind and well meaning). Most leveraged protocols for me: the above AND nothing on skin but water and Jojoba. Occasional white vinegar rinses to mitigate bacterial build up (which I can detect because of the increase in scabbing and itching. Must be a form of strep I would imagine.) Following a low fodmap, low histamine diet and observing feeding time allowing for at least 12 hours or more between first and last meal. And while I appreciate your no gluten recommendations, ideally its no flour or sugar, and really no carbs or fruit until the symptoms subside. I have found that there are NO fermented foods or yoghurt that work for my form of sibo or eczema and the symptoms and suffering went on for a long time before I realized this.
Jennifer – best wishes to you.
I am curious about the topical probiotics you are promoting here. If you think they are helpful I will consider checking them out.
Above, you mentioned mixing probiotics with fractionated coconut oil to make a custom cream but in another post, “4 reasons Why Coconut Oil Is Bad for Your Skin” Jan 17 2019, you make the case that coconut oil is bactericidal. Can you explain how mixing coconut oil with probiotics (bacteria) meets the objective? Thank you for your research.
Hi Gina, the article you referenced is a more current article after doing more research. I’d suggest avoiding coconut oil altogether and stick with something else like jojoba, hemp, avocado, olive, etc.