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Beauty & Bacteria: the cosmetics and personal care industry’s new approach to the skin microbiome

We are at the beginning of a big adventure! Microbiome beauty has arrived; and it’s opened up a lot of space for research and for commercial growth—this is a truth that was confirmed for me recently at the AIRS Conference on Genomics and Microbiomics.

As a cosmetics and personal care industry expert and public speaker, I was at the event (in Barcelona, Spain) to give the following talk called, Beauty & Bacteria: The Cosmetics and Personal Care Industry’s New Approach to the Skin Microbiome, a sort of state-of-the-industry overview I put together for what turned out to be a very international and interdisciplinary event on all things related to health, wellness, beauty, and human microbiota.

Good Afternoon!

I am Deanna Utroske, Editor of the daily beauty business news website, and I am here to tell you that beauty and bacteria are working together in a whole new way—a way that will forever alter the formulation and function of skincare, body care, hair care, and much more.

Early data and hypotheses about the multitude of bacteria that lives on human skin are making sizable waves in this industry, changing ingredient development strategy, product format, function, and benefit claims. The microbiome will upend beauty as we know it.

Multinational personal care companies as well as innovative startups have been doing research on the skin microbiome for years. And, there is a lot more to come. In this presentation, I will speak with you about the work that leading manufacturers have undertaken; about emerging ingredient technologies and new product launches; about the growing number of consumer brands selling personal care products that are microbiome friendly; about the array of terminology being used to describe, discuss, and market this next generation of beauty products; and much more.

About Deanna Utroske

Before I get into all of that, I’d like to tell you a bit about myself and my work in beauty. I am confident that context can be nearly as important as content; so I want you to have a clear picture of the context from which I speak.

New York City is my home. And for nearly 5 years now, I have written daily beauty business news for I write approximately 12 to 15 articles every week (which makes it somewhere between 3 and 4 thousand articles that I’ve written for Cosmetics Design thus far)—some include video interviews with industry experts. And my content has a particular focus on the Americas region.

One of my specialties is Indie Beauty or founder-led and start up brands. But like my Cosmetics Design colleagues covering Europe and Asia, I write news on a wide array of topics, from emerging science to brand innovations; from packaging to ingredients; from finance to consumer trends to retail, beauty tech and more.

Cosmetics Design is published by William Reed Business Media, a B2B media company founded in 1862, headquartered just south of London, that publishes news for a wide number of industries like grocery, hospitality, food manufacturing and ingredients and more, including, of course, cosmetics.

Now, beyond Cosmetics Design, I am life-long writer, a proficient observer, and someone who has always been passionate about the success of women. I’ve worked in academic publishing, in automotive technology, and I began my life as a dancer. Through these occupations, I have come to recognize that I am instinctively tuned in to the rhythms and semiotics of life, culture, and business.

What I’ll share with you here today are my observations of how our growing knowledge of the human microbiome is affecting the personal care industry.

Corporate Research and Investment

Let’s look first at some of the big investments in microbiome beauty. Multinational beauty makers like L’Oréal, Johnson & Johnson, and Unilever are already involved with microbiome skin care. L’Oréal has a Skin Microbiome Unit as part of its business.

In fact, counting back from today, L’Oréal has been doing research on the scalp microbiome specifically, for at least 8 years now. The beauty maker has teamed up with food and health research companies and with university-based experts to study how bacteria interact with cells known as corneocytes and with sebum (the oily secretion) that exist in the scalp environment.

In March of this year, L’Oréal partnered with a US-based company called uBiome. And it’s a partnership with the sole purpose of advancing both company’s scientific knowledge of the skin microbiome. According to a media release about the deal, “…the two companies intend to conduct new research on the skin’s bacterial ecosystem, with a goal of offering deeper skin insights to uBiome’s global community while informing future product development at L'Oréal.”

uBiome, has consumer microbiomics as part of its business; so in much the same way that companies like Ancestry or 23andME are gathering data on the human genome, uBiome is gathering as much information as possible about the various bacterial populations in different areas on real people’s bodies. In fact, uBiome has the largest database of human microbiomes and is working to secure hundreds of patents for microbiome testing kits and other products.

And L’Oreal is looking at microbiome skin care with an eye towards personalized products as well as products that could be used to regulate acne, eczema, rosacea, and psoriasis in addition to products that will address body odor or skin aging.

Another big name in personal care working with the human skin microbiome is Johnson & Johnson. At the start of 2017, I wrote this item; and it talks about research that J&J is doing on “microbiome-based solutions for skin care.” In this piece, I also mention Johnson & Johnson’s partnership with Xycrobe Therapeutics. It’s a research deal about the exploration of how engineered bacteria might be used in personal care and skin treatments. In beauty ‘engineered bacteria’ is usually a topic in the ingredient manufacturing sector; but this sounds a lot like biotech on the body.

Another one of the company’s partners mentioned in this article—a company called S-Biomedic—had already at that time, “developed a method to directly modulate the skin microbiome with applications in dermatology and the cosmetic industry.”

Notably, the Germany-based multinational personal care company Beiersdorf invested in S-Biometic just about one year ago with the intention of “[driving] the future of skin care” and “[cooperating on] research into skin microbiota.”

Let’s move on to Unilever. In January, that company’s Dove brand posted an item on their consumer-facing web site titled, An introduction to skin microbiome from Dove. It’s a Question and Answer piece that’s really all about consumer education – and I’ll get back to that element of microbiome skin care in a little while. But I also want to mention now that Unilever Ventures, a distinct entity from the consumer goods company, is in on microbiome beauty too. The company’s venture arm promises to offer “the best of both worlds”: “the global reach of Unilever” and “the agility of a venture capital team.”

Unilever Ventures has worked very closely with Gallenée –one of the leading independent brands innovating in microbiome skincare. And I’ll say a bit more about that brand in a bit. But just know, that the Unilever – Gallenée relationship is a good example of how legacy personal care companies and innovative startups are cooperating on microbiome beauty.

In any case, those are just a few examples of what we think of as big beauty innovating in microbiome skin care. Of course other prominent beauty companies are making strides in this space, including companies like Estee Lauder, L’Occitane, and P&G.

Ingredient Makers

Ingredient makers, multinational specialty chemical companies (many of which serve pharmaceutical, medical, and industrial customers as well as beauty makers), are also very much innovating with attention to the microbiome beauty marketplace.

The first time I was confident that the skin microbiome was going to influence the future of beauty was in 2016 at an industry trade show in Paris, France, for personal care ingredient makers called in-cosmetics global.

At that show, I filmed an interview about an innovative anti-dandruff ingredient developed by IFF Lucas Meyer. In our interview, product manager Magali Borel talked about how most of the conventional scalp care ingredients on the market are anti-fungal, which means that they eliminate select species of microbiota. And using such ingredients can indeed push the scalp’s natural microbiome out of balance.

Magali acknowledged that microbiome personal care was an emerging opportunity, she said, “all the scientists are saying that taking care of the ecosystem, the micro-organisms, living on the skin is the next big trend in cosmetics.” She talked with me about how her company’s DefenScalp ingredient, which was brand new in 2016, helps to “regulate the scalp ecosystem homeostasis.”

“It’s very important,” she said, “to respect the equilibrium between all these difference species, which act as the first protection—the first barrier—from the environment.” Use of anti-fungal dandruff treatments can, she told me, “induce other skin disorders.”

The Defenscalp ingredient from IFF Lucas Meyer “[acts], according to Magali, on three different targets: One, “reduce[ing] the sebum excess to reduce the population of the fungi” (this is because the fungi feed on sebum); Two, to “down-regulate the defense system of the skin” that is, to “regulate the immuno-inflammatory system;” and Three, to “reinforce the skin barrier, the stratum corneum, to avoid the detachment of corneocytes, which provide…the flakes” she said.

The only thing I would add to her remarks is that early on, in 2016/2017 there was a lot of talk about balancing the skin microbiome, and while that conversation is still going on, it’s more common now for researchers and product development pros to focus on the right mix of microorganisms for any given site on the body or any given outcome. Equalizing the populations of micro-organisms isn’t the answer to reducing dandruff, diminishing acne, or eliminating armpit odor, it’s rather about getting the right assortment of microbiota.

Since that 2016 interview, microbiome ingredients have been steadily trickling in to the beauty industry.

Ingredient Innovation

Still, in early April, at this year’s in-cosmetics global event in Paris, there were only a few microbiome ingredient launches. But more noticeably, specialty chemical companies and other ingredient suppliers exhibiting at the show told me that the brands, and chemists, and research and development pros they were meeting with were asking for microbiome products. So it’s fair to say that in beauty, demand exceeds supply right now. There is more interest, than there are answers.

This sort of discrepancy between supply and demand is not unusual. When consumers and brands start to focus on new cosmetics and personal care benefits, ingredient makers accelerate their research and innovation activity to meet demand. So, I’ll share a few examples of how prominent ingredient suppliers are responding.

Givaudan, for instance, is doing research on microbiota found at various locations on the face and body with the idea that the resulting data will be useful in developing new active skincare ingredients.

DSM is another ingredient maker taking an approach that is not uncommon when demand arises for new skin care benefits: that is, testing ingredients already in the company’s beauty portfolio. And so far, DSM has found that 2 of its ingredients “interact with bacteria on the skin.” DSM’s research zeroed in on 3 particular mico-organisms living on human skin: Cutibacterium Acnes, which the company understand to be “an important gatekeeper that influences sebum production.” Staphylococcus Epidermidis, which DSM simply describes as “a keystone for healthy skin.” And, Corynebacterium Kroppenstedtii that DSM says is “a novel target for the control of skin redness.” And, if recent social media posts are any indication, the company’s own industry education efforts are now focused on those 3 particular bacteria.

At the start of 2019, a company called Mibelle Biochemistry launched a new skin care ingredient called Black BeeOme. It’s a prebiotic made from the honey of bees living in isolated Swiss mountain valleys. This unique honey is fermented with a bacterium called Zymomonas Mobilis.

As important as this new ingredient is, the start of 2019 also marked a moment when I saw skin care consumers, brands, and suppliers alike really began to disambiguate the terminology in this new beauty space. In an effort to do the same, I wrote:

“Black BeeOme and other prebiotic skin care ingredients are shown to help the roughly 1,000 species of micro-organisms (mostly bacteria but other flora as well) living on human skin maintain a healthy symbiotic relationship with the skin.

“By contrast, microbiome-friendly ingredients don’t nourish the skin microbiome so much as they are designed [and / or demonstrated] to do no harm.

And microbiome skin care does both of those things and [sometimes] goes a step further, adding micro-organisms back to the skin’s surface.”

Of course the term ‘probiotic’ is being used a lot in this space too, but it’s not always used carefully or correctly. As I am sure you know, prebiotics are nutrients that feed the micro-organisms and probiotics are themselves living micro-organisms. But ‘probiotic’ gets used to describe both of those, which is to say that Microbiome Beauty is a landscape very much in flux; but all this language is important, in terms of consumer opinion and comfort, regarding microbiome technologies. Still, I want to set those beauty ingredients and concepts aside for a moment.

Antibacterial to Probiotic

Despite recent advances in ingredient technology, the conventional approach to personal care is still prevalent. Plenty of brands today are approaching benefits, active ingredient delivery mechanisms, and product preservation decisions without seriously considering the skin microbiome.

Most importantly here perhaps is the fact that conventional preservatives can conflict with a more microbiome-forward approach to formulation. The very same ingredients that are used to prevent bacterial growth in a finished beauty product as well as those that are used to sanitize the skin, also inhibit the body’s innate microbiome.

And you should also know here that a sizable fraction of beauty consumers have, for a couple / few years now, favored products made without parabens and certain other preservatives. Consumer thinking here is that these ingredients may disrupt normal hormonal development and function or that they may be carcinogenic. What this means in our context is that somewhat by accident, consumer preferences have made space for innovative new beauty products—products that accommodate the lifecycle of human skin flora.

Again, ingredient makers are endeavoring to sort this conundrum out. One company called Active Microtechnologies is doing research with more natural antimicrobials, based on the understanding that “they can have a more synergistic effect on the skin when it comes to the microbiome” But with what that company knows so far, they acknowledge “it’s not that natural antimicrobials won’t disrupt the microbiome” Rather, simply that they may have a less aggressive effect. It’s a reality that highlights how early the industry is in its research, knowledge, and response to all things microbiome.

Brand Innovation

A majority of the brands that have been innovating first in this space are independent brands (or at least they started out as indie brands): they are skincare, hair care, and general beauty brands that are capitalizing on the initial microbiome research, formulating entirely new products and taking risks in the cosmetics and personal care marketplace. They are brands, that you very likely have not yet heard about.In preparing to speak with you here today at the AIRS Conference, I pulled together a small selection of brands that meet this description. And here they are:

Mother Dirt, BIOMILK Probiotic Skincare, LaFlore Probiotic Skincare, and ayuna less is beauty, who’s co-founder Dr. Isabel Ramos, you may have heard speak earlier today in a session called Microbiome and Clean Skin Beauty (and I’d like to add here, that I have used the ayuna probiotic body cream and, if I can speak for a moment as a beauty consumer—it’s absolutely fabulous! Which is important in so far as many brands innovating in the space have created products that are quite unfamiliar—in scent, color, texture, and benefits—to the average beauty consumer. And brands, like ayuna, that help consumers bridge the gap between conventional beauty and microbiome beauty will likely be the first in this new category to see real success.)

Other brands innovating in the microbiome-friendly skin care space include: C3, which is more formally known as Comprehensive Cranium Care; Imbibe, a beauty-from-within brand; and Tula, which was co-founded in 2014 by Dr Roshini Raj, a practicing gastroenterologist, and which is a very successful startup in the probiotic skincare space that’s now backed by L Catterton (the largest consumer-focused private equity firm in the world). That brand’s sizable product portfolio includes a Hydrating Day & Night Cream that is formulated with Bifida Ferment Lysate. Notably, Tula also has an ingestible probiotic supplement with purported skin health benefits.

Valmont skin care has a new line of products called Purity, made with probiotics and Swiss glacial spring water. Cosmetics 27 (which, if you follow my personal InstaGram, you already know that I am a huge fan of Cosmetics 27). Other notable innovators in microbiome skin care, are a South African brand called Esse Skincare, that brand’s serum promises to contain more than 1 billion probiotics per milliliter, which, according to the ingredient list on the box, are Lactobacillus.

ELSI skin health is another indie brand in the microbiome skincare space, as is the Australian brand, founded by Kiri Yanchenko, called Amperna, that brand’s serums are formulated with Lactococcus Ferment Lysate. Swiss Organic Solutions is a brand worth mentioning; as is Declaré, another Swiss brand that’s been focused on sensitive skin care since 1978, that brand’s newest collection is described online as a Probiotic Skin Solution. And quite recently Hum Nutrition, a supplements brand widely known for its beauty-from-within Collagen Pop tablets, launched a product called ‘Skin Heroes Pre & Probiotic’ that’s said to work at the gut-skin axis.

There are mainstream brands selling prebiotic, probiotic, and microbiome-friendly products: Living Proof, a Unilever brand, for instance, has a product called Restore Dry Scalp Treatment, which is described as a microbiome balancing treatment. And First Aid Beauty, a brand founded by Lilli Gordon in 2008, that has been owned by P&G since 2018 has a product called Skin Rescue Acne Clearing Charcoal Cleanser with Probiotics.

Quite Honestly, every day since I learned I was going to be speaking at the 2019 AIRS Conference on Genomics and Microbiomics, I’ve heard about another brand, another product, another ingredient that fits in the microbiome beauty space. Some are more innovative than others, but those that are less sincerely functioning as microbiome skincare or scalp care are acting as valuable place holders in the market.

One, very innovative and well-respected brand in the microbiome skincare space, which I mentioned earlier, is a brand called Gallenée. At the start of 2019, I checked in with that brand’s founder Marie Drago, and she told me about the skin cleansing bar she developed with both pre and post biotics and for which she has patented the manufacturing process. She told me about how microbiome skin care can borrow from existing ingredient technologies, and how Her brand Gallenée teamed up with Unilever Ventures to share contacts and insights that can advance this new beauty opportunity for legacy brands and start-ups alike.

I filmed my interview with Marie at the Indie Beauty Expo this past January in Los Angeles, California where she also met with retail buyers and consumers, encouraging them all to try the brand’s latest product with a banner reading, Put Vinegar On Your Face. Gallenée Face Vinegar is a post biotic, skin toner-like product that is made with hibiscus and prebiotics and the consumer response thus far is quite promising.

At the start of my interview, Marie Drago describes her Gallenée brand as “microbiome skin care.” And there really are so many different ways that beauty brands and cosmetics chemists and skin care consumers are talking about microbiomics.


So, as much as I’ve been learning and reporting on microbiome beauty innovations over the past few years, I have been listening to the terminology that people in different spaces are using to discuss and describe these products. How industry leaders, marketers, brands, and retailers are communicating about microbiome skincare shapes the conversation and opportunities in the marketplace. And here is a good sampling of the words and phrases that make sense so far:

Products are being describe d as ‘microbiome gentle’, ‘skin-flora friendly’, ‘supporting the skin’s microbiota’; and products promise to ‘restore skin’s instinctive defenses’, ‘support skin’s balanced environment’, and the microbiome itself is being described as ‘skin’s own microflora’, ‘the skin’s natural ecosystem’, or ‘the skin’s bacterial ecosystem’. And, I am hearing about ‘skin ecology’ or as you saw in the Dove post, that brand is called in the skin microbiome ‘the living protective layer on your skin’.

Recently, I’ve started using the terms ‘microbiome beauty’, ‘probiotic care’, and just ‘micro b’ to describe the products in this space. And as I suggested earlier, we’re hearing about ingredients and products that are prebiotic, probiotic, and postbiotic. We’re hearing about ‘fermented ingredients’ and interestingly, this sort of fermentation language has some crossover with biotech-derived ingredients, which can actually be a positive conflation of technologies in so far as biotech feels very advanced while fermentation could be descried as rudimentary. This is a dichotomy that today’s beauty consumer loves!

This consumer is looking to technology to make things as efficient as possible and she is, at the same time, looking to age-old cultural traditions for science and wellness practices that have been proven to work.

Ingredient makers are using their own interesting language. DSM has trademarked the term Epibiome Beauty, what they define as “the new level of skin well-being.” And, ingredient maker Symrise recently launched an ingredient they’re calling SymReboot L19. Press materials describing the new ingredient explain that “the skin cells recognize the cell-walls or metabolites of the mildly heat-treated microorganisms, thus activating the skin’s natural defense mechanisms and thereby soothing the skin and strengthen the skin barrier.” This is an innovation that seems to have come out of a partnership between Symrise and a Swedish company called Probi.

Gobiotics, a company based in the Netherlands that got its start in 2003, was, at a recent beauty industry ingredient tradeshow, showing a line of some 5 ingredients described as “clinically proven PRE biotics.”

Promised benefits of their ingredients include “quicker recovery to a healthy skin microbiota,” “[counteracting] the damages of preservatives on the skin,” “[preventing the] recurrence of severe skin conditions,” “[supporting] the growth of Lactobacilli and [blocking] the invasion of Fungi.” And one of the Go Biotics ingredients is simply billed as “a natural thickener with prebiotic properties.”

It’s worth noting too that some of the manufacturing ventures that exist between ingredient makers and finished goods brands are embracing microbiome beauty: For one, Biomod Concepts, the Canada-based white label manufacturer behind true dry mask technology has included a rebalancing probiotic ingredient in one of its mask treatment formulations. This detail really just reinforces a fact that you and I both know: microbiome skin care is here and it’s only advancing.

Consumer Education

So besides all these words flying around, how are consumers learning about the skin microbiome?

Consumer spend is determined (in large part) by awareness, accessibility, and appeal; and this is where consumer education really comes in to play. Probiotic, skin flora – friendly, and microbiome skin care are benefiting from consumer knowledge and curiosity about so-called gut health. Shoppers know, understand, and have experienced ingestible probiotic supplements, live and active cultures in yogurts, kimche, and the fermented foods trend.

And the connection between digestive health, probiotic supplements, and beauty-from-within is helping consumers looking for wellness and more wholistic skin care find microbiome-friendly personal care products.

New research and insights from nutrition and skin care insiders like Paula Simpson will figure in conspicuously. Paula’s book, good Bacteria for Healthy Skin, will be available this August from Ulysses Press.

And as I am sure you all know, social media is an excellent consumer engagement tool. DSM, an ingredient maker you’ve heard me mention a few times already, hosts an InstaGram account called @thesecretlifeofskin that’s all about the skin microbiome. Of course, the multitude of brands innovating in this space are using their own platforms for consumer education as well.

And personal care brands, startups in particular, are hosting pop-up events to educate consumers eager for the next best thing in beauty. This is consumer education that looks like retail. Mother Dirt, which may be the most staunchly probiotic brand going, hosted a 1-week pop-up shop this May at the Showfields space in New York City.

The brand created a retail installation of sorts that, according to Jasmina Aganovic, president of Mother Dirt, “[gave] visitors the chance to learn about the science and history of the microbiome firsthand, in a way that makes the bacteria in our AO+ Mist feel less like a novelty, and more like the important ingredient for skin health it is.”

Mother Dirt is not alone here, brands of every size are hosting retail, educational, and networking events to introduce the topic of microbiome beauty to consumers. And we can circle back here to L’Oréal’s partnership with uBiome: it’s the idea of consumer microbiomics—that knowing the facts and details of one’s own microbiome—can help consumers make real time health and wellness and beauty decisions. And it ties to another big trend in beauty, personalization and how any one person’s genetic, epigenetic, environmental, lifestyle, and personal preferences can be mined to make better beauty products.

I would like to emphasize, as I wrap up my remarks, that the interest in and potential for microbiome beauty is enormous. And one good measure of this, beyond all that I’ve shared with you already, is the preponderance of events (in and beyond beauty) that are dedicated to the skin microbiome right now. I was going to list out several of them for you’re here but in the interest of time I’ll just mention that the publication I work for—Cosmetics Design—is hosting a summit this June in Amsterdam.

And some of the ingredient and beauty makers I’ve mentioned today will be speaking at that event. If you’re interested in attending, I invite you to learn more and register online today.


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