What Is Microbiome-Friendly Skincare?

In an industry occupied by highly preserved cosmetics with long shelf lives, making minimally preserved products goes against the status quo. Making self-preserving products that benefit your microbiome goes even further. 

What is the 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. 

It performs this important function right from birth. But, as we grow, biological sex, age, lifestyle, environment and ethnicity also inform the microbial differences that make us unique. 

Why are the microbiome and skin barrier important?

Healthy skin usually depends on both a diverse microbiome and an intact skin barrier. This creates an interface that is able to retain water and nutrients, while also forming a  barrier against pathogens. Many skin diseases are associated with an imbalanced microbiome and an impaired skin barrier. When our skin is compromised, the delicate balance of our microbiome can be upset, leaving it open to pathogens. Sometimes the helpful bacteria on our skin can even become pathogenic in these circumstances. So when we just try to improve the appearance and texture of our skin, it’s great to keep this in mind. That’s why we’ve always balanced cosmetic goals with ingredients and formulas that truly benefit the skin.

How to choose microbiome-friendly skincare

Choosing the right skincare is key to helping our skin barrier stay healthy. 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 we believe are detrimental to our microbiome. Fresh ingredients, on the other hand, have been used and tolerated by humans for thousands of years.

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

Why fresh ingredients are 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 require no preservatives, like bath bombs, bubble bars, massage bars and more, it was Helen who pioneered Lush’s self-preserving skincare formulas. These are products formulated to stay fresh, effective and safe without synthetic preservatives (as defined under Annex 5 of the EU Cosmetic Regulations). Currently, an amazing 84 percent of Lush’s year-round products are self-preserving. 

Lush was built on the premise that we want to get the freshest ingredients into products and onto your skin as quickly as possible. The process includes meticulous product formulation, a panel of human testers, in-house and external microbiology testing, speedy dispatch from factories, and shorter use by dates. All of this is to give the customer a better final result. In exchange for a shorter shelf life, and sometimes a bit of space in your fridge, customers get products packed full of effectiveness, not preservatives.

As an example, a fresh face mask like Catastrophe Cosmetic with a 28-day shelf life and has to be sold within 10 days of being made. Why? Because it’s packed with vitamin-rich fresh blueberries. 

How to keep self-preserving products fresh

Product Testing Manager Jet Shears is responsible for monitoring the stability of products, and getting feedback and data from a panel of independent testers who use the products in real life conditions. This enables Jet and her team to help calculate and monitor safe shelf lives for each product with their inventor. She 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’s been left out in the sun.” 

Her top tip? “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.”

The value of waterless and low-water products

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 bacteria growth. Reducing the water content of a product is 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.

Mask of Magnaminty self-preserving power mask, for example, is over 25 percent honey, whereas its preserved counterpart contains over five percent. Honey can act as a preservative, plus it’s softening, gently cleansing and calming. 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. 

How do preservatives impact the planet?

When Helen formulates products, she thinks about another ecosystem close to her heart as well: 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 can 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 using natural materials like honey, salt, natural butters, clays and kaolin minimises harm to the environment."

Does Lush still use synthetic preservatives?

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 and are capable of inhibiting pathogenic microbial growth at lower levels. There is no ‘one size fits all approach’ at Lush and each product, preserved or self-preserving, is carefully formulated and monitored to ensure it stays fresh and safe for our customers.

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:

 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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