Insights / The Human Skin
”We will probably see the advent of patentable, genetically-modified probiotics over the next ten years”
On why the skincare industry’s growing attention to the microbiome is more than a quick trend
24 Jan 2022

Steyn started out his professional career in research as a chemist looking for new pharmaceuticals.

— I didn’t really plan to get into skincare, he tells — it seemed to be an industry that had given up trying to deliver results and had focused on empty promises and high-profit margins. I figured that I could build an alternative business model if I did something effective and ethical.    

So, he founded South African brand Esse Skincare around 20 years ago. In 2009, the company began its move into probiotic skincare and the skin’s microbiome. Probiotics are microorganisms that occur naturally, both within and on the body, and have a great impact on the skin’s health and appearance. Previously better known in the food and supplement world, Steyn tells how a special initiative caused the mentioned move for the brand to become an early adopter for probiotic skincare.

The Human Microbiome Project (a United States National Institutes of Health (NIH) research initiative to improve understanding of the microbiota involved in human health and disease, Ed’s note) caused a massive shift in perception between 2007 and 2016. We used to think of a human as a single species but it became clear that each of us is an ecosystem of human and microbial cells — with more microbes than human cells. Your microbes do as much to keep you alive and healthy as your human cells. These shifts in perception don’t come around very often and scientists are scrambling to apply this new knowledge to everything from drug delivery to psychology. 

And can you share some of the recent findings of the skin’s microbiome and how to improve it?

— Improving the microbiome is really tough when you aren’t certain about what the perfect microbiome looks like. The scientific community has done a good job of using the new genetic sequencing technology to figure out which species are present on the skin — basically a roll-call of who’s there. Now, we’re trying to work out who’s doing what, but it is a very complex ecosystem with hundreds of species interacting with each other and our immune system, says Steyn. He continues:

— It is very clear that the skin microbiome of hunter-gatherers is completely different to what we see in industrialised nations. People living traditional lifestyles in close contact with nature have much more diverse microbiomes and they don’t battle with acne or other skin disorders. It is also clear that it isn’t easy to change the skin microbiome. In early life, we form partnerships with a few key species and these remain with us over time. 

Do you feel that the industry puts enough attention on the microbiome?

— It takes time for new ways of thinking to move through academia and into the real world. I guess that the trend that we’re seeing now is the beginning of that shift. COVID hasn’t helped, though — most people are even more ”at war” with microbes than before instead of trying to build their microbial ecology. A healthy, diverse microbiome is more resistant to disruption from pathogens. We can’t be healthy without our microbial partners, so trying to kill all “germs” isn’t going to get us very far.   

And what have you learned from all the years running a brand focusing on skin health?

— Over the last century of advertising, multinational companies have managed to convince people that they can expect results overnight. The truth is that in any complex system, quick fixes are damaging in the long term. We have a very different view on ageing and it is focused on optimising skin health. It is supremely arrogant to think that we know better than 2 million years of evolution. We do our best to mimic the conditions for which we have evolved. 

Trevor Steyn.

What’s the most crucial call to action for someone experiencing problems with his or her skin or microbiome?

— I guess that would depend on what the symptoms were. The skin microbiome is a deeply complex ecosystem and disruption can have varying effects. For example, if you have a sudden overgrowth of Staph aureus then you would expect to see eczema. Many things can influence your skin microbiome; the products that you use, skin pH, the quality of your natural skin oils, and your immune response. We generally focus on using live probiotics and skin-specific prebiotics to shift the microbiome. 

And where are we heading? Will we talk even more about this, or will we proceed to other ”focus areas”?

— I think that this is more than a quick trend. Microbiome thinking will have to be incorporated into any brand’s skincare philosophy at some point. We will probably see the advent of patentable, genetically-modified probiotics over the next ten years. Phage therapy using viruses that target specific bacteria will probably play a role in the management of skin disease. For us, we’re also looking at a personalised offering that matches the product to the client’s skin microbiome, Steyn shares, adding,

— In the future, we will probably see the cost of microbiome sequencing come down even more and the client will no longer have to wait very long for results. If artificial intelligence can be used to interpret the data, we may see leaps forward in understanding. There is also the possibility that the interplay between species remains beyond the grasp of AI for many decades, in which case it would be best to default to an evolutionary first principles approach. I guess that we’ll have to wait a while to see?