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Clean beauty: Fresh microbiome-friendly skincare

What is your microbiome?

Your microbiome is a unique community of bacteria, fungi, viruses and yeast that live on your skin. Each square centimetre contains approximately one million microorganisms which form an important part of your skin barrier. They compete for food and resources and make it harder for pathogens to move in. 

Your skin’s microbiome performs an important immunological function straight from birth. Babies born vaginally inherit their microbiome from their mother as they pass through the birth canal, where it forms a quick defence against pathogens such as MRSA. Babies born by C-section inherit theirs from contact with doctors, the hospital environment and skin-to-skin contact with their mother after delivery. As we grow, biological sex, age, lifestyle, environment and ethnicity also inform the microbial differences that make us unique.

Healthy skin has a diverse microbiome and an intact skin barrier that is able to retain water and nutrients but form a barrier against pathogens. Skin diseases, such as atopic dermatitis and acne, are associated with an imbalanced microbiome (known as dysbiosis) and an impaired skin barrier. When we try to improve the appearance or texture of our skin, we can alter its conditions which can in turn disrupt our microbiome. That’s why cosmetic desires should be balanced with an understanding that our skin is an ecosystem. Treating your complexion with kindness allows it to do its job of regulating your immune system and protecting you from external stressors like UVA rays, pollution and oxidative damage.

Modern lifestyles have drastically impacted the health of our microbiome. Exposure to synthetics like detergents, preservatives and cosmetics is depleting our microbiome, leading to skin conditions that are rarely seen in indigenous communities. Children leading urban lifestyles are also lacking important early exposures to the microorganisms found in soil and water that helps develop a healthy immune system. 

Helping our skin barrier to stay healthy is an important function that skincare can offer, but selecting the right skincare is key. The modern cosmetics industry is built on making products that use a lot of synthetics in large batches and storing them for long periods of time in warehouses to keep costs down. This approach requires widespread use of preservatives - materials that are biocidal and believed to be detrimental to our microbiome. Research similarly suggests that products with a high level of synthetics deplete the natural diversity of your microbiome and have been found to accumulate in the skin for weeks after use.  Natural ingredients, on the other hand, are familiar to us on an evolutionary level and have been used and tolerated by humans for thousands of years.

That’s why we firmly believe that fresh is best.

Fresh is best

Lush co-founder and product inventor Helen Ambrosen is passionate about making fresh, effective skincare for all ages. While Lush has always created solid products that do not require preservatives like bubble bars, it was Helen who pioneered Lush’s self-preserving skincare formulas: products that are formulated to stay fresh, effective and safe to use without synthetic preservatives (as defined under Annex 5 of the E.U Cosmetic Regulations). In 2022, an amazing 90% of Lush’s all-year-round products were self-preserving. 

“There’s so much pressure to make products like all the cosmetics in the industry,” Helen explains. “Standard products can sit in warehouses for 18 months before they're sold, and have a 36-month shelf life from then on. Some of the most popular cheap brands also use really high levels of synthetic chemicals to create instant effects. They’re selling dreams to people and there can be a payoff; great condition at first then a steady decline in skin health. It’s a bit like being in the sun when the skin is all radiant for a week or so, then long-term damage occurs underneath. Or oedema [facial swelling] occurs as the skin tries to protect itself. This traps a hair follicle or two, leading to a spot, leading to stronger and stronger products being used.”

“What we’ve always done is to make wonderful fresh products with large amounts of natural ingredients, which delivers a product that has great effects for the skin and hair. We use minimal preservatives or entirely self-preserving formulations to protect the natural microbiome of the skin. We tell you when we made the product, when to use it by and how to store it to get the best effects.”

Lush has grown around the premise that we want to get the freshest products onto customers’ skin as quickly as possible. The process includes meticulous product formulation, a panel of human testers, in-house and external microbiology testing, speedy despatch from factories, and shorter use by dates - all to give the customer a better product. In exchange for a shorter shelf life, and sometimes a bit of space in your fridge, customers get products packed full of goodness, not preservatives.

Take bestselling Mask Of Magnaminty for example again. This product, which has a four-month life, has to be bought by a customer within three months of being made. A fresh face mask like Glen Cocoa with a 28-day shelf life, has to be sold within 10 days of being made. Over 99% of the ingredients in both products are of natural origin. “When we say fresh, we can truly illustrate fresh,” says Helen. 

Product testing manager Jet Shears has some handy tips for making the most of fresh, self-preserving skincare. “Hand hygiene is important,” she says. “You wouldn't want to eat something with dirty hands and it’s the same premise with cosmetics. I would also say not to keep your products on or near a radiator or on a sunny window ledge in the same way that you wouldn’t want to eat food that has become warm.

“And what I personally think is number one on how to best look after your products is to use them fresh. Live in the moment! Don't scrimp. Apply liberally, use them fresh and use them up. Don’t save anything for best - life’s too short. Wear your favourite dress, apply your lovely cream.”

Skincare rebels

In an industry occupied by highly preserved cosmetics with long shelf lives, Lush are skincare rebels. Making minimally preserved, fresh products means going against the status quo. Making self-preserving products means going even further. 

Many cosmetics contain a high percentage of water - an important skincare ingredient that acts as a solvent, enabling beneficial ingredients to reach the skin. However, water also provides an ideal medium for bacterial growth. Reducing the water content of a product is therefore key to being able to remove synthetic preservatives. It involves careful rebalancing of a formula and increasing the levels of other ingredients such as butters and oils, which have additional perks for a customer.

Self-Preserving Mask of Magnaminty for example is over 25% honey, whereas the preserved product is over 5%. Honey is antimicrobial, but is also softening, gently cleansing and anti-inflammatory. We also increased the level of glycerine in the self-preserving formula, giving this version a richer texture and helping the skin to retain moisture. 

Do your skin (and the planet) a world of good

Helen is also concerned about another ecosystem close to home: the planet. Preservatives are biocidal, meaning their purpose is to destroy living things. A huge number of the synthetic preservatives do not break down in water, meaning they bioaccumulate and damage aquatic life forms. This could also have consequences for humans in the future.

“Synthetic preservatives stop things decaying in the environment, and when people use them they go down into water systems,” she explains. “But materials like honey, salt, natural butters, clays and kaolin will break down by themselves and not harm the environment in any way.” 

Purchasers of the self-preserving versions of Ocean Salt, Mask Of Magnaminty, Dream Cream and Ultrabland prevented a whopping 5.721 tonnes of preservatives from entering into production between 2014 and 2022, some of which would enter our water systems, harming aquatic life. 

When a synthetic preservative is necessary, Lush uses a minimal amount, harnessing quick product dispatch from our factories and short shelf lives to limit the concentration our fresh products need. Research has found that artificial preservatives used at the maximum levels legislation allows can have a disturbing effect on the skin’s microbiome when they could inhibit microbial growth at a lower levels. “Minimally preserved products offer customers a choice if they’re concerned about the lack of synthetic preservatives,” she says. “That’s why we offer some of our bestselling products like Dream Cream and Mask of Magnaminty in two formats: one preserved, one self-preserving.”

Helen’s most recent work has been reformulating five of Lush’s facial moisturisers, many of which she first created with Lush co-founder Mark Constantine decades ago. “We reduced the water content and carefully re-balanced the formulas to make sure they still worked beautifully on the skin. You could consider them super-concentrated versions of the originals - you don’t need to use so much and the worry of preservatives has been removed. Better for customers, better for the staff who make our product by hand, and better for the planet!”

Creating products that have a big impact on customers, but a minimal one on the planet is busy work, but Helen shows no sign of slowing down. “We’ve spent decades creating processes that enable us to make these wonderful fresh products using large amounts of natural ingredients, which are enjoyed by millions of people in 49 different countries. And, in doing so, we’ve started a cosmetics revolution, without even realising it.”

Say hello to microbiome-friendly skincare

Choosing a Lush product truly means leaving the world lusher than we found it. You can shop the full range of microbiome-friendly skincare on our website, via the app or speak to a member of staff in store. 

Further reading:
Sources

 Lee, HJ et al 2017. ‘Effects of cosmetics on the skin microbiome of facial cheeks with different hydration levels’, MicrobiologyOpen, Issue 557.

Varghese L, et al 2014. ‘A Study on the distribution and abundance of normal flora on the human skin and its relationship to the use and non-use of cosmetics’, International Journal of Ayurveda and Pharma Research, Volume 2, Issue 3. 

Bouslimani, A. et al 2019. ‘The impact of skin care products on skin chemistry and microbiome dynamics’,  BMC Biology, Volume 17, 47

Holland, T et al 2002. ‘Cosmetics What is Their Influence on the Skin Microflora?’The American Journal of Clinical Dermatology, Volume 3, Issue 7.

 Lalitha, CH et al 2013. ‘Impact of superficial blends on skin micro biota’, International Journal of Current Pharmaceutical Research, Volume 5, Issue 3. https://innovareacademics.in/journal/ijcpr/Issues/Vol5Issue3/718.pdf

Qian Wang MS, 2019. ‘Effect of cosmetic chemical preservatives on resident flora isolated from healthy facial skin’, Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, Volume 18, Issue 2.

Lalitha C et al, 2013. ‘Antimicrobial Efficacy of Preservatives used in Skin Care Products on Skin Micro Biota’, International Journal of Science and Research, Volume 4, Issue 6.

Qian Wang MS, 2019. ‘Effect of cosmetic chemical preservatives on resident flora isolated from healthy facial skin’, Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, Volume 18, Issue 2.

Pinto, D et al, 2021. ‘Effect of commonly used cosmetic preservatives on skin resident microflora dynamics, Scientific Reports volume 11, Article number: 8695.

Jin-Ju Jeong et al, 2015. ‘Effects of Cosmetics and Their Preservatives on the Growth and Composition of Human Skin Microbiota’, Journal of Society of cosmetic scientists of Korea,Volume 41, Issue 2.

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