Nope, this isn’t a story about going makeup free or some new Goop-y, all-natural skincare craze.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Nope, this isn’t a story about going makeup free or some new Goop-y,  all-natural skincare craze. This is a story about bacteria – in fact a whole community of it – that lives on your skin And how brands are betting big on it to keep you looking pretty. Chia ying na delves into the curious world of microbiome beauty.

"Microbione - friendly skincare might still be foreign to wellness proponents such as model/Female Collective member Nadia Rahmat Kishlan, but that looks set to change."

With all of her healthy eating, mindful living, Natarajasana-bending ways, Nadia Rahmat Kishlan (opposite) – a member of the Female Collective and now a full-time model signed to local agency Upfront Models – is the embodiment of today’s wellness convert. Find balance and fill your life with goodness to radiate goodness, goes the mantra of the like-minded. She’s stumped when I bring up microbiome beauty though. Yet – unknown to her – she already sort of subscribes to its philosophy with all the Greek yogurt she laps up and swears by for its benefit to gut health.

The microbiome refers to the ecosystem of organisms that lives in the likes of one’s skin, hair and gut, comprising bacteria, viruses, fungi and other microbes. Before you recoil in disgust, experts like Nicolas Travis – founder of Singapore-born beauty brand Allies Of Skin – point out that much of this bacteria is actually good for you. It’s exactly what that shot of fermented strawberry-ginger-cayenne brew is supposed to work on – or rather, with – when it enters the intestines; its probiotic content improves digestion and overall well-being. The skin’s microbiome works the same way and – with the millennial-fuelled explosion of kombucha, keffir and kimchi – beauty brands are starting to recognise its value in the quest for the perfect complexion.

This year alone, at least eight companies have released products said to balance the skin’s microbiome or rid it of bad bacteria (say, the kind that causes acne), including powerhouses such as Dior and Lancome. The latter in fact updated its best-selling, decade-old concentrate, the Advanced Genefique Youth Activating Serum, recently with seven pre- and pro-biotics. Said to deliver essentials like lipids and amino acids to the microbiome, they reportedly boost skin’s resilience and youthful glow.

One of the most newfangled brands to debut here in 2019: Gallinee by French pharmacist Marie Drago that retails exclusively at Sephora and is based entirely on microbiome technology. Every one of its products contains a patented triple biotic complex that reportedly enriches the good bacteria in the skin’s microbiome. Drago’s inspiration? A pre- and pro-biotic focused diet that helped control symptoms of her gluten intolerance and got her thinking, why can’t the same science be applied to skin?

Indeed the growing obsession with wellness, natural beauty and holistic living might explain this new interest in microbiome beauty. As Dr SK Tan of the aesthetics institition IDS Clinic points out, research on the skin’s microbiome is fairly nascent, having only blossomed in the past five years or so, making skincare targeting it even newer. (He, for one, dabbled in the field as early as 2015, when he launched a capsule-form probiotic powder that prevents the development of acne-causing bacteria on the back.)

So how does the microbiome affect one’s complexion? According to Tan, studies so far have shown that there’s a direct relation between the two, with the microbiome responsible even for skin’s natural defence mechanism. In short, a healthy microbiome equals healthy skin, and microbiome-friendly skincare has generally been formulated to restore it to its normal, balanced state.

An even more underrated fact: that – just like in the gut – the littlest things can upset the “zen” of skin’s microbiome. Harsh cleansers, for example, can tip its pH balance off-kilter while antibiotics wipe out both beneficial and unwanted bacteria (explains why docs always stress that topical versions be used sparingly – and that microbiome-focused skincare is often recommended as an alternative for eczema or acne).

It’s only the start of a revolution, say experts like Elsie Rutterford, co-founder of the hip British label Bybi Beauty that introduced a cleanser packed with the chicory root-derived prebiotic Inulin two months ago. Tan however reminds that while a healthy skin microbiome is essential, it alone will not promise a flawless visage. Guess the key to everything really is balance.

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Launched in March, this pleasantly scented facial mist repairs and hydrates with an alcohol-free aloe and rosewater base, and a restorative blend of probiotics and antioxidants. A saviour for stressed, parched skin, it’s also clinically proven to reduce acne lesions while anti-evaporation molecules in its formula ensure that all its goodness clings onto and gets absorbed into skin with every spritz.


This is a new addition to the French beauty giant’s line of hyper limited and luxurious skincare that originates from the legendary Chateau d’Yquem in the Bordeaux region of France. Hitting the shelves last month, it’s said to contain the highest concentration of what the brand calls Yquem extract – a single drop daily for a week is said to restore the microbiome. What’s it made of? Part of it is the sap from the vineyard’s trees said to tackle multiple signs of ageing. The other? The antioxidant-packed micro-organism known as botrytis cinerea (it’s a fungi) that develops on the grapes postrainfall and reportedly fortifies skin’s immunity and regeneration abilities. Rich and velvety, the serum also acts as an invisible shield against external aggressors.


Ridding the skin’s microbiome of acne-causing bacteria since its release in April is Re:erth’s Blemish Control. The brand’s patented anti-microbial formula works safely and effectively by supporting the body’s own immune system. It uses a combination of antibodies found in colostrum and lysozymes to destroy this bacteria without damaging the skin’s surface.


From the French beauty label founded to protect the skin’s microbiome comes a youth-preserving serum that’s concentrated in pre-, pro- and post-biotic actives and lactic acid to make skin radiant. Launched in March at local Sephora stores, the probiotics help to support the microbiome and stimulate cell renewal, the prebiotics – a mix of fibres and sugars – feed your skin’s good bacteria, and the postbiotics, or bacterial waste products, reinforce the skin barrier.

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By the beauty label that’s well-loved for its mud masks, this Berryglow Probiotic Recovery Mask is like a 10-minute superfood probiotic smoothie for the face with a creamy, yogurt-like texture. Launched in August, it is infused with probiotics that balance the skin’s microbiome, and an antioxidant-rich blend of berries, skin-smoothening hibiscus flower and moisturising beetroot.


Lancome’s 10-year-old golden child was given a reboot in August that incorporates the latest advancements in microbiome technology. The serum has been enriched with seven new pre- and probiotics to keep the skin’s microbiome in balance and strengthen skin’s defence against aggressors to keep it looking youthful.


And from the buzzy one-year-old British brand that hit our shores with its suite of 15 products in August, a moisturiser that’s enriched with good bacteria to balance the skin’s natural PH balance – which in turn, builds its immunity and prevents future breakouts. It contains 5 per cent Yogurtene Balance, an ingredient which combines the skin benefits of yogurt with the prebiotic activity of Inulin; squalene to provide an extra boost of hydration; and brightenyl, to target and even out pigmentation.


When cleansing, it’s easy to remove the skin’s microbiome, making it not only susceptible to infection, but also dryness, tightness and redness. This balancing gel cleanser from the London-based cult beauty brand aims to combat that. Its key ingredient? Inulin, a prebiotic derived from chicory root that helps rebalance the microbiome after cleansing. Other skin-loving ingredients – white willow bark with salicylates that calm redness and remove sebum from pores; quartz powder that clarifies and repairs; and anti-microbial cypress and rosemary oils to prevent blemishes and provide an uplifting scent.


Photo courtesy of NADIA RAHMAT KISHLAN