The Skin Microbiome in 2019: A Thriving Field of Research

Market overview

The cosmetics industry is science-driven, fast-paced and highly innovative. Europe is the largest market for cosmetic products in the world, with more than a quarter of its value – just over €20bn – focused on skincare alone. Significant investment in cosmetic research and development, equating to an estimated €2.35bn per year (5% of annual sales in the sector) just in Europe, is paving the way for emerging fields, such as the skin microbiome, to grow [1]. Of all microbiome-focused cosmetic products currently available, skincare products make up the largest proportion (65%) [2]. Despite research into the skin microbiome being in its infancy, the rising trend of such products shows future potential.

woman face mask research

Trends driving the skin microbiome market

Natural beauty

With widespread concern and an increasing spread of information and awareness around climate change and related issues, it’s no surprise that consumers are becoming more conscious about the products they buy and use.

This trend has been amplified by wider societal changes that have pushed cosmetic companies to become more environmentally responsible, one example being the removal of plastic microbeads in products. Once the connection was made between microbeads and plastic pollution, industry associations around the world urged governments to ban the use of such beads in cosmetics. This has largely been effective; almost all plastic microbeads in European cosmetics have been phased out in just five years [1].

Following your gut

Since the first scientific evidence of bacteria as part of the normal gut emerged in the mid-1980s, interest in this area has grown considerably. A boom in the 2000s kicked off a myriad of studies linking gut bacteria to a wide range of diseases – both physical and mental. Much of this research is still ongoing today.

The influence of the gut microbiome on consumer products can be seen in most supermarkets where yoghurts boast probiotic properties and wellbeing companies showcase a range of supplements that promise improved gut health (whether valid or not).

While largely in the experimental phase, bacteria are slowly making their way into cosmetics and personal care products. It is now believed by experts that the skin microbiome industry will follow a similar growth trajectory to the gut over the past 20 years. There is huge potential for microbiome-based products to target a plethora of common skin concerns with demand for bacterial ingredients set to break 10,000 tonnes per year by 2021 [3].

Thirst for innovation

Dry skin is a major skin concern that skin microbiome products hope to address, with 3 out of 5 products developed focusing on hydration. Ageing takes second place with acne a lesser concern, perhaps surprising given bacteria is a long-acknowledged cause of acne [2].

It is unsurprising that dry skin is the key skin concern that scientists and businesses are targeting – in more than just the microbiome space – because it is an extremely common condition affecting the largest organ in the human body. It can affect anyone and has a vast list of known causes, including environmental factors (cold weather, low humidity and excessive sun exposure), over-washing/overuse of soaps, and a range of pathological conditions – from eczema and psoriasis to others like diabetes.

While a competitive space for cosmetics companies, no single ‘cure’ for dry skin exists so the potential for new personalized treatments which utilise the skin microbiome is huge.

2019 discovery highlights

The skin microbiome holds great potential in research but, like the rest of the microbiome, there are is a vast number of bacteria in existence which have yet to be identified and there is much that is not understood. We have named some significant advancements in the microbiome space that have occurred during the past year:

100 new bacteria

In the first half of the year, combined efforts by scientists in centres spanning Europe and Australia led to the discovery and isolation of 100 entirely new species of bacteria taken from the intestines of healthy individuals [4]. This achievement builds on the existing library of known bacteria in the microbiome which is continually expanding and opening up new alleys for scientists to develop treatments for diseases involving the gut. The ‘gut-skin axis’ which defines the relationship between these two different systems suggests that there may be implications for skin health too.

C-section vs vaginal delivery

One of the largest microbiome stories to make the news in 2019 came from a large-scale UK study, the outcome of which showed that babies born by caesarean section have different gut bacteria to those born vaginally. It was found that the difference was due to hospital-acquired bacteria which was discovered in greater quantities and in a larger proportion of babies born by C-section. They also confirmed the origin of babies’ gut bacteria as from their mothers’ gut rather than from the vagina during delivery as is often believed – a belief that has led to the (not clinically recommended) practise of swabbing the face of a baby delivered by C-section with a swab used on the mother’s vagina in the hope of transferring bacteria they would otherwise be exposed to during delivery [5].

Mother & child

This year, the skin microbiomes of young children and their mothers were compared for the first time taking into consideration the child’s age and location of samples as potential differentiating factors. The results indicated that the relevant abundances of most bacteria in children were closer to those of their mothers than those of unrelated women. Further data from the study revealed the effect of age on the makeup of the skin microbiome; on children up to 10 it was shown that levels of certain bacteria decreased with age while diversity of bacteria present at all sites increased [6].

Performance-enhancing bacteria

After hypothesising that elite athletes might have bacterial species in common that assist in their heightened performance and recovery, a group of researchers were able to pinpoint one group of responsible bacteria. Testing bacteria taken from Boston marathon runners in a mice model showed a 13% improvement in performance on a treadmill. The enhanced performance points to potential therapeutic applications of the bacteria, for example in diabetic patients where higher exercise capacity correlates with improved longevity and milder progression. Furthermore, as a demonstration of how human and bacteria can have a symbiotic relationship whereby each benefits the other, the same theory could be applied to other bacteria which may unmask unknown benefits [7].

Read the best of The Secret Life of Skin from the past year here.


[1] Socio-Economic Contribution of the European Cosmetics Industry report 2019

[2] DSM research, 2019 (Alcimed compendium)

[3] Kisaco Research, 2019

[4] More than 100 new gut bacteria discovered in human microbiome

[5] C-section babies have a different microbiome

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