How The Microbiome Went Mainstream

Beauty’s most innovative movement works with, not against, your skin’s inherent functions.


Photo by Rosdiana Ciaravolo


Skincare focused on the microbiome isn’t exactly new, but an image problem has kept it flying relatively under the radar until now – after all, bacteria doesn’t really have a lot of skincare sex appeal. Biome-based skincare also goes against the grain in terms of its aims: the concept is based around working with the skin, rather than against it, which isn’t something modern skincare marketing always encourages. (If you’ve ‘pushed through’ an ugly week of retinol irritation, felt the burn from a too-strong exfoliator or literally peeled away your skin barrier in search of radiance beneath, this will sound familiar).


Rather than facilitating an almost superhuman type of flawless skin – enter the Instagram Face – microbiome-based skincare is focused on achieving optimal skin health and, contrary to what a lot of skincare brands will tell you, healthy skin isn’t necessarily flawless in the aesthetic sense all the time.


What healthy skin can do, however, is stand up to the things we throw at it on a daily basis, from city smog and pollution to internal stress, harsh skincare products and bacteria-breeding face masks. When skin is able to function at its best, it can do all the things we really want it to do – like keep moisture in and bacteria out, produce collagen at optimal rates, and heal quickly from the odd, inevitable breakout or flare-up.


One man that wants to take the microbiome mainstream this year is Rob Calcraft, the founder of original skin-kind brand REN, who is returning to the industry this month with biome-based line Cultured.



“A compromised, unhappy microbiome is increasingly associated with so many of the major skin problems we see today: the alarming rise in skin sensitivitychronic dryness, breakouts, rosaceaacne, and premature skin ageing,” he says.

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“Your microbiome is the invisible eco-system of microorganisms (bacteria, fungi and viruses sometimes called microbiota) that live on your skin. These microorganisms are resident on and in the skin and differ by person and by location on the body.”



Of course, skincare hasn’t always been formulated with the biome in mind: a healthy bacteria breeding ground doesn’t quite have the same marketing sheen to it as glowing, ‘ageless’ or even ‘poreless’ skin. And, somewhat ironically, a lot of these new-gen skincare products are actually part of the problem: Calcraft highlights cleansers and “squeaky-clean” skin-strippers as being a particular cause for concern, and believes a lot of skin issues are rooted in the pH of the products we use.



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The skin’s pH is important as it plays a role in determining the health of our microbiome. The most recent research suggests that the ideal pH for skin is around 4.7, but some products can sit much further into the alkaline spectrum than this. “Soap with a very alkaline level pH 8+ removes bacteria from your skin and disrupts the microbiome and skin barrier,” says Calcraft. “Tap water is also alkaline at between pH 6.5 and pH 9.5: at the higher end this can also (temporarily) negatively influence the microbiome and acid mantle. Similarly, very low pH products can cause sensitivity and also disturb the skin barrier by exfoliating too harshly. The bottom line is that skin is healthier and looks better at a target pH of 4.5 to 5 –most decent products nowadays are formulated to take this into account.”

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So, how can skincare work to support the biome? The key lies in not just eliminating anything that might upset the balance of our natural bacteria, but by adding in things that actively support it.


Probiotics are a key player in biome-supporting skincare – although it’s not quite as simple as dropping a dose into a simple serum.


The probiotic family can be sub-divided into three categories. “Prebiotics are like fertiliser or food for the current bacteria on your skin, while probiotics are live bacteria which are added to our own resident bacteria,” says Calcraft. “Postbiotics are the cousins of probiotics – the bacterial products released by beneficial skin bacteria (such as lactic acid and vitamins). They come from fermentation of the probiotic bacteria and can positively influence the microbiome.”



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Of course, formulating with live probiotics has its challenges, namely surrounding preservation, so many probiotic products work instead with non-live bacteria, or postbiotics.


Calcraft’s Cultured line, which launches with just three products, is free from “harsh surfactants and disputing antibacterials”, has a pH that works with the skin, and contains actives that “selectively ‘feed’ the bacteria on your skin to ensure they are rich and varied.”

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“It’s not just about doing no harm, it’s about working with and via the microbiome to deliver amazing skincare results,” he adds. “For example. In our Biome One Serum we use a prebiotic active, Inulin, that acts as a counter-preservative and ensures the microbiome remains strong and diverse. It also acts as a prebiotic hydrator that helps the microbiome form an hydrating film on the skin that delivers faster, deeper and longer-lasting hydration than hyaluronic acid. So, it is protective but delivers great skincare results, too.”


Similarly, The Nue Co. is banking on the biome boom. The brand’s Barrier Culture duo – a gel cleanser and lightweight moisturiser – contains prebiotics, probiotics and postbiotics and is designed to “protect and repair your skin’s natural barrier function, as well as replenish your topical microbiome”.


Drunk ElephantVenn and Sunday Riley are just a handful of the millennial-focused brands embracing the biome with fermented face mists, while Gallinée’s long-loved Face Vinegar – a pre- and postbiotic toner designed to feed the biome – remains a bestseller today.



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The events of the past year have brought all aspects of health into focus – our skin included. As we begin to value its inherent resilience, abilities and vibrance, function-fighting manipulation feels less appealing. There’s never been a better time for microbiome skincare – and the pore-loving, barrier-supporting, realistic results it promises – to populate our shelves.


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