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Bacteria Hack: Pre- and Probiotics in Skincare

As I was prepping for this August’s Ayuna Beauty Discovery a few months ago, I settled in for what I knew would be an enlightening meeting with Isabel Ramos and Begona San Juan, the two dynamic women behind Ayuna. As this is our second Discovery featuring Ayuna, I was excited for what was to come out of this conversation about pre- and probiotics in skincare; from my previous experience, I knew that I would leave the meeting better off than when I came. How can you not when meeting with two women as empowering and intelligent as Isabel and Begona?

An esthetician and a cosmetic chemist turned beauty brand founders, both women are explorers and teachers who thrive on the adventure of creating something beautiful that works. Ayuna, the minimalist beauty brand with an essentialist approach, crafts formulas backed by research and green chemistry, the principle of understanding science and technology to offer safer and more ecological alternatives to hazardous chemicals.

In our meeting, Begona and Isabel were extra excited about a new ingredient they couldn’t wait to tell me about: Noni Stem Cells, a prebiotic ingredient that helps to keep the skin’s microbiome in its optimal condition. In fact, Isabel and Begona referred to their newly launched Body Cream as restorative prebiotic care.

In our hour and a half meeting specifically about pre- and probiotics in skincare, we talked about the use and benefits of our skin’s microbiome and how probiotics work to provide health benefits through living micro-organisms, while prebiotics are used by micro-organisms to and confer (or distribute) the good bacteria throughout our skin and, in Ayuna’s case, ‘hack the conversation’. When our bodies have the right balance of microbiota, our skin is healthy, but when there is an imbalance (dysbiosis), the micro-organisms become aggressive and could result in unhealthy skin conditions (like inflammation, acne and rocasea). Cool, right? I asked Isabel to share about it more in detail because if you’re like me, and you like to geek out on skincare, you want more directly from the source. Read Isabel’s answers to some common FAQs about the effects of pre- and probiotics in skincare and on our skin.

Q: Most of us know about the microbiome in our gut. But, what makes up the microbiome of the skin? 

Normal human skin is colonized by 10.000-1.000.000 bacteria units per cm2, which coexist in a complex ecosystem that creates a film on the skin called the skin’s microbiome. The precise composition varies by individual, and even by area of the body of the same person, and it has a direct impact on the overall skin health and condition. 

Depending on the specific environment, specific bacteria are present. For example, staphylococcus exists in more humid areas, Propionibacterium in the presence of more sebaceous glands, or a greater diversity in drier cutaneous environments. Beyond bacteria, other micro-organisms present are yeasts, mainly Malassezia furfur, and parasites, such as Dermodex mites

Under normal conditions, there is a symbiotic relationship between the microbiome and healthy skin, it’s host. In this cooperative model, they inhibit the growth and invasion of pathogens and help to maintain cutaneous immunity by training skin for possible battles or reducing levels of excessive inflammation. Staphylococcus epidermidis is one of the best-known examples of this beneficial cooperation. When conditions are adverse (i.e. reduction in skin defenses), some members of microbiome can shift to an aggressive mode, which leads to unhealthy skin conditions, such as excessive inflammation. This field is under intensive research and clear correlations have already been established for dermal pathologies such as psoriasis, atopic dermatitis, acne, and rosacea. 


Q: What role do pre- and probiotics have in skincare?  

prebiotic is defined as the substrate (or layer) that is selectively utilized by host micro-organisms for a health benefit. It has the ability to improve skin health by shifting its composition and metabolic signatures. It is a holistic and advanced approach to lifestyle wellness.

probiotic also confers health benefits to the host, but it involves the use of living micro-organisms. When the probiotic is directly used in the product, it requires the maintenance of strict conditions of temperature and a short time to expire, to ensure it is maintained at the right level. The first historic uses of probiotics in skincare are related to fermentation of dairy foods with lactic-acid bacteria. Our approach in Ayuna is to use the living micro-organism, such as Lactobacillus, in culture, to produce preservatives that are microbiome- and skin-friendly. In this case, there is no need to incorporate the living micro-organism itself, but the resulting ferment. That is the reason for describing them as “probiotic preservatives”they are produced by living micro-organisms, however, we do not consider Ayuna as a probiotic itself (since it does not contain living organisms, and therefore does not need refrigeration). 


Q: If skincare contains pre- and probiotics, don’t they cancel each other out? 

The prebiotic plasma-rich in-cell factors from Noni to Morinda Citrifolia prevent the growth of micro-organisms, which could be dangerous to skin health while protecting the beneficial Staphylococcus epidermidis. The way they accomplish this is by an innate mechanism that “silences” the detrimental communication between them. 

The probiotic preservative based on fermented peptides reduces the growth of micro-organisms, through two different mechanisms: the first is through acidification of the environment, the second by providing anti-microbial peptides that inhibit the growth of dangerous micro-organisms while respecting the microbiome balance. These mechanisms in no way cancel the prebiotic ‘silencing’ one or the other, but rather add to globally preserve the beneficial micro-organisms while avoiding overgrowth of other members of the microbiome ‘family’.

Pre- and probiotics can be complementary if correctly applied and each case or product needs to be studied individually. In Ayuna, the benefits of both have been combined to enhance the overall result. 


Q: You shared that probiotics communicate with other bacteria in the skin. How do we know this?  Can you explain this in more detail? 

The latest advances in biological communication have revealed that micro-organisms coexisting in the microbiome communicate with each other through a language made up of chemical signals. The goal of this conversation is to sense each other and to be able to coordinate a social behavior of the community, above a certain level of mass population or “quorum”. This type of communication is known as Quorum Sensing. The organisms use signals which act in a similar way to pheromones, therefore they are named quormones.  

The relevance of this communication for skin lies in the fact that reaching a population over the threshold level activates processes that require their cooperation and involve change in the status quo: there is a transition from a cooperative to hostile relationship with skin as they sense the number individuals to overcome the biological cost of attacking (i.e. to compete with other micro-organisms and surpass physical barriers and skin defenses). One of the best arms for the invaders is the creation of a biofilm, which clusters producing substances that adhere them to the skin’s surface and maintain them by staying united and protected from elimination and increasing their tolerance to antibiotics (i.e. these biofilms can tolerate x10-1000 the concentration of antibiotics versus an isolated individual). In parallel, the skin senses the danger and activates an inflammatory reaction, causing harm in the tissues.  Communication is essential for the coordination of this army and can result in detrimental consequences for the skin.  


Q: What specific pre- and probiotic ingredients does Ayuna include and in which products? How do those specific ingredients work on the skin? 

Ayuna’s approach to employing probiotics in skincare involves the use of Lactobacillus, a Lactic Acid Bacteria, to obtain natural bacterial peptidic ferments that preserve formulations from microbial contamination, while protecting the right balance of skin-friendly micro-bio-organisms. This probiotic approach is applied in all Ayuna formulations, and as previously described does not involve the use of living micro-organisms in the products, but the ferments obtained using them through sophisticated controlled biotechnological processes. 

The prebiotic ingredient in Ayuna is based in plasma-rich in-cell factors from Morinda Citrifolia, commonly known as Noni, and is in the newly launched Body Cream. Plants have developed incredible strategies to survive, including the efficient management of bacteria to avoid pathogen invasion. Among this defense system, they have developed a sophisticated and smart capacity to produce molecules that mimic the communication signals among micro-organisms, known as anti-quormones. These compounds can inhibit the noxious conversation and the phenomenon of silencing this communication is known as Quorum Quenching.

Noni is outstanding by its great capacity to adapt to very extreme conditions, and after 8 years of research, this biotech cell culture has become the first-ever cosmetic ingredient demonstrating the ability to interfere with the detrimental communication between micro-organisms (such as Propionibacterium acnes, Staphylococcus aureus, Malassezia furfur) and inhibiting their growth and capacity to create dangerous biofilms and to induce inflammation on skin. Meanwhile, it has demonstrated, in clinical studies, its ability to maintain and protect the beneficial Staphylococcus epidermidis, regulating microbiome balance of the skin. This cutting-edge approach provides a natural and friendly alternative to conventional treatments based on indiscriminately killing micro-organisms present in skin microbiome. The result is a positive global influence on the skin condition: preventing cutaneous dysfunctions, protecting tissues from inflammation, refining the texture of skin and balancing the microbiome to exhibit healthier and more even and luminous skin. 


Q: Can you tell us about the amount of research going on in pre- and probiotics in skincare, and do you think we will continue to see this show up in formulations? 

The microbiome is one the most prominent fields of research in science, but the study of pre- and probiotics in skincare is still in its infancy. There is a great deal to learn about the mechanisms involved, but the interest in this knowledge has been clearly demonstrated. There are huge projects ongoing, such as HMP (Human Microbiome Project) that pursues the whole characterization and analysis of roles in health and disease, and in 2016 the White House announced the creation of a new National Microbiome Initiative (NMI).  We expect that all this investigation will lead to new approaches and solutions for many fields, such as alternatives to antibiotics and the problems we are facing with their excessive use. In regards to cosmetics, the skin microbiome is considered the next frontier and challenge in skin care and the development of new pre- and probiotic ingredients are very intense, as the Noni cultures have demonstrated. Therefore, I predict it will grow exponentially in the near future and we will see new approaches to treat and prevent skin pathologies in a more holistic way.   


Q: How do preservatives interact with these ingredients? Do they kill them?  How does Ayuna preserve products while keeping these good bacteria intact? 

The interaction of preservatives with pre- and probiotics in skincare depends on the type of preservative. Most conventional preservatives initiate a wide spectrum biocide action (this means they have the ability to kill living micro-organisms), which makes them very effective for cosmetics protection, but unable to discriminate from necessary organisms on the skin’s microbiome when applied.  Therefore, the use of such preservative systems combined with pre- or probiotics would not be the best choice for an improvement of skin health, as they cause disturbances to beneficial ones and also affect skin cells. 

We have been aware of this issue from start and therefore pay close attention to preservatives. Not only does Ayuna exclude any concerning preservatives for skin safety and health, but we have selected a unique combination of preservatives based on nature that are all ECOCERT approved and microbiome-friendly. They are:  

– BOTANICAL ACIDS that base their efficacy in a pH ideal for skin function, around 5.5.  The chosen blend is found in many plants in nature with interesting properties: 

– LEVULINIC ACID (Sodium Levulinate) is used by bees to protect the valuable nest provisions (pollen and nectar) against microbiological spoilage

– ANISIC ACID (Sodium anisate) that has calming properties that can also soothe the skin.    

– FERMENTED PEPTIDE TECHNOLOGY that combines a mixture of natural peptides obtained through fermentation using Lactobacillus (Lactic Acid bacteria). These bacteria produce lactic acid to control the growth of other micro-organisms, by acidifying their environment and when combined with botanical acids can additionally produce protecting antimicrobial peptides. Ayuna is using a synergistic blend of the following natural probiotic antimicrobial peptides:

– LACTOBACILLUS FERMENT that produces bacteriocin peptides. 

– COCONUT FERMENT that creates coconut oil lipopeptides that protect from fungi.