korean beauty guides

Korean Probiotic Skincare 101

Probiotic Korean Skincare

When you hear the word “probiotics”, you probably think of foods like yogurt, kimchi or kombucha and the positive effects they have on your gut health. Probiotics have recently been linked to several other benefits, including improvements to the skin barrier. But what is probiotic skincare and does it really work?

The World Health Organization defines probiotics as “live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host”. Until recently, probiotics were mostly used to treat gastrointestinal disorders, however new advancements in the study of the human microbiome, showed that they could also have an application in skincare.

Microbiome” is a combination of the words “microbe” and “biome” and indicates a beneficial ecosystem of microorganisms inhabiting the human body. It’s estimated that around 1000 species of bacteria populate the skin of a human adult.

Probiotic Korean Skincare

Scientists recently discovered that, much like DNA and fingerprints, every person is born with a different combination of microbiomes. A good balance of these microorganisms is essential in maintaining a functional skin barrier as well as a healthy immune system. When this balance is disrupted, our skin becomes more vulnerable to external aggressions and, as consequence, becomes also more prone to irritation or inflammation.

Our unique combination of microbiomes evolves throughout our lives and there are many factors that can affect it. The most notable ones are: UV rays, pollution, aging, stressful lifestyles, unhealthy diets and hormonal changes. Among them, pollution seems to be the main culprit of premature skin aging. In fact, researchers observed that a woman in her 20s who lives in a polluted environment shows the same amount of harmful bacteria on her skin, as a woman in her 40s who was exposed to good air quality.

During the past 7 years, skincare companies have been working to find an effective remedy that could help rebalance the skin’s microbiome and restore the natural moisture barrier. Ceramide and Cica were the first ingredients to gain popularity in this sense and topical probiotics followed suit in 2018.

As previously mentioned, topical probiotics play an important role in balancing the skin’s microbiome, but what are the key benefits of probiotic skincare?

Probiotic Korean Skincare

Aging and environmental factors can decrease the amount of beneficial bacteria on the skin and instead, promote the growth of harmful bacteria. Probiotics can restore the balance of bacteria on the surface of the skin and strengthen the skin’s natural protective barrier. Meaning that, topical probiotics can suppress the growth of bad bacteria and boost our immune system.

Probiotic Korean Skincare

A weak or damaged skin barrier loses the ability to retain moisture, which can result in dehydrated skin. Probiotic strains can restore the natural ability of your skin to lock in moisture, as well as support the production of hyaluronic acid.

Probiotic Korean Skincare

Healthy skin has a pH that varies between 4.2-5.6. The slightly acidic nature of the skin plays a fundamental role in retaining moisture and preventing the growth of harmful bacteria. When applied to the skin, topical probiotics produce a biochemical environment that has a similar pH level. Therefore, the use of probiotics can restore the normal pH balance of the skin.

Probiotic Korean Skincare

Besides suppressing the growth of harmful bacteria, topical probiotics can also relieve irritation. In fact, once they are applied to the skin, probiotics produce antimicrobial peptide substances that help fight inflammation and irritation. For this reason, probiotic skincare is especially helpful if you’re suffering from acne and eczema.

One major difference between ingesting probiotics and applying them topically to the skin, is that the probiotics you ingest are live microorganisms whereas the ones used in skincare are inactivated.

When it comes to food or supplements, it’s important that the probiotics are still alive by the time they reach the intestine, otherwise they won’t be able to colonise the gut and impart their benefits.

Probiotic Korean Skincare

This is simply not possible for cosmetic products. The main reason is that companies must guarantee to the authorities the safety of a product before introducing it on the market. As living entities, it’s hard to predict the behaviour of live probiotics and this poses a risk of contamination and deterioration.

Furthermore, most cosmetic products contain preservatives to prolong shelf life and ward off bacteria and fungi. Therefore, even if you had live probiotics in a product, these preservatives would end up killing them.

For these reasons, probiotics should be inactivated before they can be used for cosmetic purposes. There are several methods of inactivation, including ultrasonic waves, heat, and chemicals. Recent studies have shown that the method used to inactivate the microorganisms affects their efficacy as active ingredients, however experts don’t have enough data at the moment to conclude which method is the best one.

Critics have often raised questions about the effectiveness of inactivated probiotics, however an increasing number of studies show that, even when inactivated, probiotics can still offer some positive benefits.

There are two different expressions to indicate probiotic skincare in Korean. They are not exactly the same in meaning but, in my experience, they are used pretty much interchangeably.

The first one is 프로바이오틱스 스킨케어, the Korean transliteration of ‘probiotic skincare’. The other one is 유산균 스킨케어, which translates to ‘Lactobacillus skincare’.

In casual speech, it’s more common to use the word ‘cosmetic products’ instead of ‘skincare’. So the first term becomes 프로바이오틱스 화장품 and the second one becomes 유산균 화장품 .

During the 2019 edition of In-Cosmetics Korea, the leading market intelligence agency Mintel revealed that most Asian consumers are currently suffering from skin sensitivity. According to the data revealed, 44% of Chinese women and 60% of Korean women, are said to have sensitive skin.

Probiotic Korean Skincare
(source: Samsung Newsroom)

Several studies have observed that Asian skin is more prone to sensitivity. This is partly due to a thinner stratum corneum and partly because of worsening air quality, which has especially affected East Asian countries in recent years. In particular, the Korean Medical Foundation reports that the toxic substances in fine dust can stimulate the production of cytokine, a molecule of the immune system that promotes inflammation.

As a result, Korean consumers started to look out for gentle, but effective solutions to help treat or relieve sensitive skin. This led to the recent rise in popularity of dermacosmetics in South Korea, a business that registered a 15% growth only in 2019 and is estimated to be worth around 500 billion won.

Dermacosmetics are characterised by hypoallergenic formulas and highly-effective ingredients. Ceramide, propolis and Centella Asiatica gained particular attention thanks to their ability to protect and soothe sensitive skin.

Probiotic skincare started to emerge in the Korean market around 2017, as demonstrated by the data collected by Insight Korea, The big data company analysed the keyword ‘yogurt’ from March 2017 to February 2018, paying special attention to search volume and related terms. The results were surprising.

Probiotic Korean Skincare
(source: Insight Korea)

After ”intestine’ (with a search volume of 93.5%), the most popular related terms were: ‘face’ (9.1%) and ‘skin’ (8.4%). These proved to be the first signs of a growing interest in a topical use of probiotic ingredients.

Cover image: Allure Korea
Words, Visuals: © 2019 Odile Monod unless otherwise stated.
The reproduction of any content, either in whole or in part, for commercial purposes is strictly prohibited without obtaining the explicit written consent of the author.

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Kim, D. (2019). What fine dust does to human body. The Korea Herald. (link)
Mintel (2019). Decoding skin sensitivity in Asia. Mintel.
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