Microbiome Mapping: Tracing a Route to Discovery

Scientists working to unlock the secrets of skin now have another tool in their arsenal: 3D facial colour mapping technology.

The 3D mapping technology recently deployed by researchers has proved to be an effective tool in solving this multivariable challenge.

Just like a good map points you to your destination and helps you visualise the journey, colour mapping is helping researchers unlock certain forces at play in the maintenance of a healthy skin microbiome. As we now know[1], a healthy skin microbiome helps us achieve healthy, vibrant skin — the holy grail for consumers, dermatologists and the scientists conducting research in the field [2].

Charting the Path

The skin on your face contains a unique microbiome that has both a different composition of bacteria than on other parts of the body and varying levels of those bacteria on certain parts of the face itself. The diversity and relative abundance of these bacteria create unique challenges for scientists trying to find solutions to persistent problems such as acne, which are related to sebum production and certain bacteria types. 

Sebum[2], the oily, waxy substance secreted by skin’s sebaceous glands, is a mixture of fatty acids, sugars, waxes and other chemicals that together help to retain moisture in the skin and protect against evaporation. An imbalance in your skin’s sebum production can lead to acne and other problems, though it can be difficult to correct because sebum production varies by skin type and body part.

Researchers curious about the dynamic between sebum levels and certain bacteria on skin that may contribute to an oily appearance have recognised that certain treatments can exacerbate skin problems, for example when cleansers used to reduce oiliness have the unintended consequence of creating problems in the other parts of the face that naturally produce less oil [3].

But because the facial skin microbiome contains substantive variation in both the levels of certain bacteria and in the composition of the microbiome itself, creative problem-solving is required.

Basically, the challenge is threefold: we must understand which bacteria help or hinder skin function and where on the skin they live, while at the same time figuring out how to to achieve a balanced skin microbiome.

X Marks the Spot

The mapping visualisation shows the places on the face where sebum is more prevalent, and it also shows where certain bacteria are more common than others, allowing a targeted approach that reduces levels of non-beneficial bacteria while fostering the growth of species that help keep our skin healthy.

The 3D facial colour mapping technology proved especially illuminating when examining the effect of ALPAFLOR® ALP-SEBUM CB[4], a plant-based sebum regulator that comes from a species of alpine flower. The compound derived from glacial willowherb, or Epilobium fleischeri, has been previously shown in peer-reviewed studies to reduce sebum production. 

In one piece of research, scientists were able to visually demonstrate that an Alpaflor formulation reduced sebum levels in vivo and had a prebiotic effect on the skin microbiome, helping to improve oily skin conditions and fostering the growth of beneficial bacteria.

Lighting the way

The researchers tested a gel formulation containing 3% E. fleischeri in a double-blind study to see the effects on facial oil production and to determine which bacteria species were impacted by the compound.

They enlisted 23 Caucasian female volunteers between the ages of 23 and 40 with skin characterised on a spectrum from pale or fair to light olive in colour to participate in the study. All of the women had skin that would be considered oily on their foreheads (> 120ug/cm2).

Ten of the 23 volunteers used the plant extract formulation all over their face twice daily for 28 days, while 13 volunteers applied a placebo formulation under the same conditions.

The team then collected data on the participants’ levels of sebum at 30 sites on their faces, both at the start of the study and then 28 days later, using biometric measurements (Sebumeter® SM810, Courage & Khazaka).

Microbiome samples were taken at the start of the study and 28 days later by swabbing the facial skin at five sites. Figure 1 below shows the facial sites used to obtain both sets of measurements. These data were then interpolated to create high-resolution digital images for visual interpretation.

Figure 1: Positions of data collection for sebum measurements (A – left) and microbiome sampling (B – right) [5].

The facial colour maps the scientists created to visualise the difference in sebum levels at the start of the experiment and 28 days later are shown in Figure 2 below. The 3D mapping illustrates an interesting finding: sebum distribution in the face is not just limited to the area commonly known as the “T-zone”, because as the image on the left (T0) illustrates, sebum levels and gradients on the cheek area and further down to the jawline are also significant.

Figure 2: Visual representation of facial sebum levels at the baseline and after 28 days of treatment with a formulation with Epilobium fleischeri extract data based on the mean for all volunteers. [1]

Furthermore, placing both facial maps side by side unequivocally visualises the impact the E. fleischeri extract formulation had on sebum levels across both the face as a whole and more specific areas after 28 days. Compared to T0, the researchers observed a significant 17% reduction in sebum levels on all facial areas after 28 days, a 14% reduction on the jaw, a 26% reduction on the lateral cheek and a 17% reduction on the forehead. Moreover, on the forehead, sebum reduction for the E. fleischeri extract formulation was 2.8 times greater than it was for the placebo.

Visual Map to the Microbiome

Next the scientists used the mapping technology to look at the facial skin microbiome and connect it to the varying sebum levels in five specific places on the face (the forehead, nose wing, front cheek, lateral cheek and jaw).

They used 16S-rRNA sequence profiling to identify the bacteria and and analysed changes in composition after 28 days of treatment with E. fleischeri extract.

They followed a new methodology that deployed the concept of reference frames [7] to examine the relative abundance of certain bacterial species, undertaking a full microbiome analysis for each of the five facial sites. They used differential ranking to identify the bacteria most associated with treatment with the plant extract compared to the placebo.

The researchers focused on three particularly relevant species of bacteria: Staphylococcus epidermidis, which is known to be anti-microbial and to help prevent acne and limit inflammation; Micrococcus yunnanensis, which plays a detoxification role and promotes skin defence; and Staphylococcus capitis, which plays a role in acne formation and is positively associated with sebum. For each of these species, they mapped median values of log ratios to a 3D image of an average face.

Figure 3: Facial color microbiome mapping to visualize the positive change (from red to blue) from placebo to verum when comparing S. epidermidis to S. capitis (left) and M. yunnanensis to S.capitis (right). [5]

The study showed that the E. fleischeri plant extract had a prebiotic effect on the skin microbiome, reducing bacteria such as S. capitis that are connected with higher sebum production. The plant extract also helped beneficial skin bacteria such as S. epidermidis and M. yunnanensis to grow on all of the facial areas examined.

This is illustrated in the facial maps in Figure 3 above. The 3D colour facial maps provide a visual comparison of ratios of S. epidermidis and S. capitis and M. yunnanensis and S. capitis after 28 days of treatment with either the placebo formulation or the Epilobium fleischeri formulation.

The mapping shows that in both cases these ratios increased after treatment with the plant extract. Moreover, compared to the placebo these two ratios were significantly modulated on the forehead, cheek and chin.

Signposting for Consumers

The 3D colour facial mapping technology is pointing the way to new insights. It has shown that by modulating the composition of certain bacteria— reducing the frequency of bad bacteria and increasing the ranks of beneficial ones through the use of a microbiome-friendly plant extract — we can help promote a healthy skin microbiome and, as a consequence, a healthy skin appearance.

Healthy-looking skin, with just the right amount of sebum in the right places on the face, unmarred by acne and unsightly inflammation, is the gold standard for many consumers. Signs of health are very visible on human skin, and 3D colour facial mapping technology helps to bring that into high relief.

The mapping technology helps us to solve our threefold challenge: it increases our understanding of the way sebum tends to be distributed across the face, it clarifies the relationship among specific facial skin microbiota, and it demonstrates the substantial modulating effect that one skin care product designed to target sebum could have on the microbiome. It also shows how this technology can be used to assess and visually demonstrate the effectiveness of skin solutions in future applications. 

Long-lasting, effective skin solutions, not just sticking plasters, are key. Modern consumers are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their knowledge of what works in skin care, and are constantly on the lookout for solutions that help their skin help itself. More and more they are relying on natural products that promote health from within to achieve visible, durable results. The 3D colour face mapping technology helps develop these products, and allows us to visualise the results they are looking for.  


  1. https://thesecretlifeofskin.com/2023/08/31/complex_relationship_skin_microbiota/
  2. International Journal of Cosmetic Science, 2015, 37, 595–605
  4. https://thesecretlifeofskin.com/2023/07/27/soap_cleansers__skin_microbiome/
  5. DSM Firmenich ALPAFLOR® ALP-SEBUM CB: https://www.dsm.com/personal-care/en_US/products/skin-bioactives/alpaflor-alp-sebum-cb.html
  6. Facial skin microbiota modulation by Epilobium fleischeri, a natural prebiotic plant extract Sfriso, Riccardo (DSM Nutritional Products Ltd., Basel, Switzerland);  Joshua, Claypool (DSM Nutritional Products, Nutrition Innovation Center, Lexington (MA), USA); Roche, Magalie (Newtone Technologies, Lyon, France); Zhou, Zheng; Guo, Miao (MagelineBiology Tech. Co. Ltd., Wuhan, China); Imfeld, Dominik (DSM Nutritional Products Ltd., Basel, Switzerland)
  7. https://thesecretlifeofskin.com/2023/07/27/soap_cleansers__skin_microbiome/

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