This week I look into the world of probiotics, which are present everywhere in our food culture and beauty products. But whether it’s more hype than help remains to be seen. Scroll down to use Glossy+ Comments, giving the Glossy+ community the opportunity to join discussions around industry topics.
Americans love trends and fads, and nowhere is this more present than in diet and beauty culture.
In the case of diets, in particular, certain decades can be defined by specific nutritional logic that ultimately proves too simplistic or just outright wrong. The 1980s and 1990s saw the reign of low-fat and non-fat foods, whereas nutritional science now shows that some fats are good for the body. Next came the Atkins Diet era of the early 2000s, which promoted high-fat foods while villainizing carbs. And the 2010s saw a fragmentation centered on general health in addition to weight control via diets like paleo, keto and Whole 30. Now in the 2020s, the focus is on a well-balanced gut. And probiotics are at the center of this conversation and philosophy.
What is uniquely special about the gut health focus is how well it encapsulates the idea of holistic health, particularly beauty health. While the human gut and its microbiome of trillions of organisms are not well understood, it is generally accepted that it plays a significant role not only in digestion but also in general health, affecting weight and metabolism, immune system and even mental health. Probiotics are directly linked to gut health and its microbiome and, as such, have become a popular consumer product. A 2021 Euromonitor International report noted that the total probiotic market was worth more than $48 billion. The market grew 8% globally from 2020 to 2021, supported by research and science tying probiotics to gastrointestinal-related issues and immune support, coupled with an increasing public demand for products for health promotion.
And with growing knowledge around the role that probiotics play in the gut microbiome, probiotics have taken center stage in microbiome conversations related to hair, skin and oral health. Skin-care brands like Drunk Elephant, Korres, Biossance, Dr. Barbara Sturm and Tula Skincare all use some form of probiotics within their skin care. And some brands also offer ingestible probiotics capsules to complement their topical offerings, providing a full inner-outer beauty routine.
“When Tula first launched in 2014, we knew that probiotic extracts were groundbreaking as they pertained to skin care, but very few scientists or brands were talking about this concept,” said Dr. Roshini Raj, founder of Tula Skincare, as well as gastroenterologist and author. “In the years since, we’ve seen the interest in probiotic skin care and the research behind probiotics and the microbiome grow exponentially. Now, there is a skin microbiome conference almost every month.”
Dr. Will Bulsiewicz, gastroenterologist and chief medical officer for the nutrition delivery company Methodology, explained that the explosion of interest in probiotics emerged due to a scientific breakthrough using ribonucleic acid in studying probiotics in the medical field. Before 2006, it was difficult to study probiotics because they do not grow on culture plates, where bacteria, microbes and funguses are predominantly observed. Bulsiewicz’s work centers around promoting fiber-rich diets and diverse diets where probiotics are naturally present, such as those including fermented foods like kombucha and kimchi.
“Terms like ‘gut healthy’ and ‘gut friendly’ have been overused and now they mean very little to consumers,” said Katie Wilson, co-founder of probiotic snack bar brand BelliWelli. “The challenge when building a gut health brand is to convey gut health without saying the term ‘gut health.’ It turns out probiotics do a really great job of doing that.”
BelliWelli launched in March 2021 and currently retails in regional chains Sprouts Farmers Market, Bristol Farms and Harmons, with an undisclosed nationwide retailer set to pick up the brand in September. Its customers are majority women across a wide age range. In its products, BelliWelli includes the probiotic strain Bacillus Coagulans GBI 30-6086. Out-of-home billboards are driving retail traffic, said Wilson. The billboards state “Hot girls have IBS,” which is partially derived from the coverage of all things “hot girl” on TikTok; it’s quickly become a talking point and buzzy phrase across social media. Other iterations of the “hot girl” joke by social media users include other unhot ailments like eczema, back pain and mental illness.
“[Probiotics] are not going away; we’re in the very early phases of something that is truly revolutionary. But we’re now entering into a phase where we can apply what we’ve learned to actually improve health outcomes,” he said. “[But] the issue is that I don’t believe that you can out-supplement a bad diet.”
It’s not a lack of efficacy or scientific support that sets up probiotics on a course to become a fad, but rather misguided usage by customers and overstated claims by brands. Not everyone needs to take or use a probiotic product, and doing so for no specific reason means people may not see any results. As such, people will eventually fall out of love with buying probiotics and investing themselves in microbiome health and beauty. Brands need to rein in on language around probiotics and its impact on the microbiome as a panacea for all skin issues. A quick scroll on TikTok’s #ProbioticSkincare will show over 50 million hashtag views, with videos of beauty enthusiasts and skin-care professionals talking up how probiotics have helped to clear their breakouts and manage eczema, among other skin troubles. Ultimately, skin concerns like acne and eczema are more complicated than a simple microbiome disruption, with various reasons for persistence or flare-ups. Questions have been raised previously about the efficacy of probiotics and probiotic extracts in beauty.
“We as consumers have to be able to separate the hype from the truth. In all cases, companies are going to do their best to hype things up and motivate you to spend,” said Bulsiewicz. “My advice [to consumers] is to ask what a probiotic does for them and what they are hoping to get out of it. And there should be an answer to that. It shouldn’t just be general health; it should be [a result] you can measure.”
Additionally, emerging evidence shows that taking probiotics can disrupt the balance of bacteria in the intestinal tract of healthy people, leading to less microbial diversity. Nutritional science is a finicky thing and there is no one-size-fits-all.
“The science is going to continue to march forward, but slow. Whereas market trends can kind of whiplash and go all over the place,” said Bulsiewicz.
A more recent market trend is the sandwiching effect happening to probiotics through the addition of prebiotic and postbiotic products to a person’s supplement routine. In essence, prebiotics are compounds in food that foster the growth or activity of probiotics and the microbiome, while postbiotics are the waste left behind after your body digests both prebiotics and probiotics. Healthy postbiotics include nutrients such as vitamins B and K, and amino acids. Brands that sell prebiotics and postbiotics, include The Nue Co., Hum Nutrition and Murad skin care. Sandwiching an existing habit with newer ones to extend the use case of a category is common in the beauty world as a way to drum up sales, such as pre-shower and post-shower products. Meanwhile, Wilson expects there to be more probiotics in shelf-stable foods, a current rarity given the lack of viability for probiotics to live for long periods of time on the shelf and the fact that many shelf food products have been baked, cooked or otherwise heated in a way during preparation that would kill probiotic ingredients. And with trillions of different microbes and probiotic strains, Raj foresees more personalized offerings for people, potentially ushering in a new wave of interest from consumers and more impactful products.
“Research still needs to be done around creating personalized probiotics and customized supplements, but I think in the future we will see very valid offerings in this space,” said Raj.
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