A talk entitled “Shifting the Beauty Industry” begs the question: what needs to be changed? Skin pharmacologist, brand founder, and former Head of Skin Delivery Evaluation at L’Oréal, Dr. Elsa Jungman, recently sat down with beauty journalist and author of the thought-provoking The Unpublishable newsletter, Jessica DeFino, to discuss how understanding the skin microbiome can lead to smarter consumer choices—and why more skincare products aren't always better.
It was the inaugural chat of Dr. Jungman’s series Beauty Beyond the Bottle, which delves into various factors that contribute to skin health, be they the microbiome, nutrition, or facial yoga. The microbiome is of special importance to the skin scientist, who offers an at-home microbiome testing kit alongside a tightly curated, minimalist skincare range. The microbiome has certainly become a talking point in recent years, from specifically focused skincare ranges to supplements and $1.65 million seed funding investment rounds for microbiome-testing technology. In a departure from usual discussions and the overarching industry paradigm, Dr. Jungman and DeFino’s focus is on a less-is-more approach and reducing product consumption.
The duo began with a whopping statistic: over 70% of women have sensitive skin. Harsh products which aggravate the skin barrier are one of the two main causes of dermatological issues. The second is an unexpected culprit. “We strongly believe that beauty is beyond the border today. When we have skin microbiome damage, usually the number one cause is mental health … Maybe you should stop using products to solve the issue,” Dr. Jungman comments. Life and hormonal stages also factor in, with the microbiome of pre- versus post-menopausal women varying drastically.
For the industry imperative, this minimalist product approach is not always favorable from a commercial perspective, but both women made a compelling argument underpinned by the science of skin. “The skin microbiome is an ecosystem of a trillion microorganisms. Those microorganisms are the original skincare products, because when that ecosystem is intact, your skin self cleanses, exfoliates, and moisturizes itself,” DeFino explains. DeFino, who has dealt with acne and dermatitis in various points of her life, is a proponent of kinder, gentler approaches. “Discovering the field of psycho-dermatology, I realized the mind-skin connection is more powerful than anything you could ever put in a bottle,” DeFino states. Instead, the two experts are champions of simply supporting the microbiome in order for it to level out and support itself, citing published volumes such as Clean, Beyond Soap, The Body’s Edge, and The Remarkable Life of Skin as eye-opening introductions to this system.
“The skin does not exist as an aesthetic. Protecting your microbiome is protecting your overall health—that is so much more important than what it looks like,” DeFino says. One important line of defense are ceramides, which aren’t just a formula ingredient, but our body’s own product. A lack of these are found in eczema sufferers, Dr. Jungman explains. Microbiome states vary depending on the part of the body. One of the most prevalent microorganisms found on the face, for example, is Cutibacterium acnes, which was perceived as a cause of acne that needed to be eradicated with harsh methods, but has now been found to be important for balanced skin moisture. “There's so much misinformation about how the skin actually functions. It’s hard to combat because the industry thinks they're presenting science. What they're presenting is the science of a product or an ingredient. What's important is the science of the skin, and those sciences are very different,” DeFino proclaims.
Dr. Jungman’s R&D background proves another helpful point in understanding how product formulations can impact the skin microbiome: a healthy skin barrier actually makes product penetration more difficult, hence why many retinol creams will have glycols (a category of the alcohol ingredients family) in them to aid with absorption, but will also strip the skin of its ceramides to open the pores for product penetration in the process. Unfortunately, this information gets lost between the transition from lab to press office. “I've worked with so many amazing scientists from large and small companies. We found a disconnection between the R&D team and the people who actually talk about the product or decide on the claims,” Dr. Jungman explains. “When you look at it from the science of the skin, your barrier is not supposed to be penetrated,” DeFino adds. “Deprioritize growth and restructure your products [from] skin science first rather than ingredients science first.”
Dr. Jungman recommends those looking for microbiome restoration to aim for products which contain a maximum of 10 ingredients and no fragrance or essential oils, plus gentle and non-stripping cleansing products. DeFino’s approach is “de-stressing” the skin with no product use whatsoever in order to get familiar with the skin’s natural behaviors as opposed to product-induced states. Both agree some people may need no more than sunscreen and the odd slather of moisturizing oil.
It is a radical proposition, but perhaps the solution to our skin woes has been there all along. Consumers and scientists alike simply haven’t been putting enough nurture into nature.
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