20 Aug DO PROBIOTICS HELP ACNE? (15+ STUDIES): HOW TO CHOOSE THE RIGHT PROBIOTIC (2021)10 minute read
Ten years ago, hardly any of us knew about probiotics. Now, these friendly little bacteria are touted as a cure-all for digestive problems, immune problems and even skin problems. But can they really clear your complexion?
Here’s the quick answer: probiotics can help acne.
For the longer answer—including how to choose the best probiotic for acne—keep reading.
Note: this article is about oral probiotics i.e. the type you take as a supplement. To read more about probiotics in skincare, head to Skin Bacteria (25+ Studies): Why You Should Care About Your Skin Microbiome.
Do probiotics help with acne?
Can all probiotics help acne?
How do probiotics help acne?
Best probiotic for acne
How long do probiotics take to work for acne?
Can probiotics make you break out?
Here’s the bottom line: probiotics can help acne. But (and this is an important BUT) the science here is new, so we don’t yet know if the findings apply to everyone.
Let’s look at the handful of recent studies that have investigated oral probiotics and acne:
2010: Scientists in Korea found that drinking fermented milk (rich in Lactobacillus bulgaricus strains and Streptococcus thermophilus strains) reduced breakouts by a third in 12 weeks .
2013: In Canada, scientists found that taking a probiotic supplement (containing Lactobacillus acidophilus NAS, Lactobacillus bulgaricus LB-51 and Bifidobacterium bifidum Malyoth) improved acne just as much as an antibiotic after 12 weeks .
2016: Scientists in Italy found that taking Lactobacillus rhamnosus SP1 helped normalise the skin’s response to insulin, improving the appearance of acne .
2021: Back in Korea, the same group of scientists found that taking Lactobacillus plantarum CJLP55 (a probiotic bacterium taken from kimchi) reduced breakouts by almost half after 12 weeks .
As you can see, it’s looking hopeful. The only issue is that many of the strains used in these trials aren’t readily available. Even if they were, the science isn’t strong enough to suggest these exact strains would improve acne in all people.
Fortunately, there’s another way to approach using probiotics for acne.
You can’t assume any old probiotic will work for acne. This is because the effects of probiotics are strain-specific, meaning not all strains will deliver the same result .
This is easy to understand if you think of probiotic strains like dog breeds: you have many breeds with different qualities and abilities. For example, a husky and a chihuahua are both dogs—but if you wanted to pull a sleigh, you know which one you’d choose.
You can identify the probiotic strain by the third part of its name. For example, Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG and Lactobacillus rhamnosus HN001 belong to the same genus (Lactobacillus) and species (rhamnosus), but they’re different strains.
You want to choose strains that are proven to influence acne or the pathways that drive it.
Side note: it’s not just you thinking it—bacterial names are weird, long and confusing. They also change. Annoying, isn’t it?
As well as strains that have been studied for acne specifically, we can consider probiotics strains that have been shown to influence acne-driving pathways. Luckily, there are lots of these!
Studies show that varying probiotic strains can:
Improve insulin sensitivity . Regular readers will know that too much insulin kicks off the hormonal cascade that leads to acne. Improving your body’s response to insulin is therefore a powerful strategy to clear your skin.
Reduce inflammation. Most people think inflammation follows acne, but inflammation in the body can trigger acne . Probiotics may influence your immune system and reduce levels of inflammation—which is excellent news for your skin .
Modulate your gut bacteria. By now, we all know that the gut and the skin are linked. Studies show that people with acne have out-of-whack gut bacteria, and are also more prone to constipation [9, 10]. Taking probiotics can balance your gut bacteria and encourage regular bowel movements (which are essential for normal detoxification and healthy skin!) .
Reduce oxidative stress. Breakouts are a big old oxidative stress party, which means your skin (and your body) is struggling to detoxify and repair damage effectively . That does not—I repeat NOT—mean you need to go on a ‘detox’. Instead, it means you need to give your body the tools to carry out its normal functions with ease. Probiotics are brilliant tools because they help your body in several ways (see above), reducing oxidative stress as a result .
Improve your skin barrier. A study using skin culture found that Lactobacillus paracasei ST11 improved skin barrier recovery . Once you get over the horrifying image of skin culture, you’ll realise this is great news! A strong skin barrier sets the stage for clear skin.
You should know that many of the studies investigating how probiotics work have been conducted in animals, so we can’t assume they would work the same way in you. But it’s fair to say that probiotics are showing promise in us humans and, as they are generally safe to take, they’re certainly worth a try.
As you know, probiotics are strain-specific, so in an ideal world you’d take a strain (or strains) proven to help acne. But here’s the dilemma: we can’t yet say for certain what that probiotic strain is. It’s likely there’s more than one or that different strains will work for different people.
Until science figures it all out, you have two options:
1) Take Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG
This is one of the most studied probiotic strains in the world and, incidentally, it’s a different name for the Lactobacillus rhamnosus ST1 strain shown to help acne above . As well as supporting skin, this strain can promote good digestion and a healthy immune system. It’s readily available on its own and in probiotic blends.
2) Take a mix of Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus strains
Yes, this advice flies in the face of strain-specificity—but for a good reason. All the studies mentioned above used different strains, but they were mostly from the Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus families (technically they’re ‘genera’, not families, but let’s keep things simple around here).
People with acne have low Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus populations , so by taking a blend, you’ll benefit from a range of probiotic qualities and may end up taking the strains your gut needs to rebalance.
The science here is developing all the time, so it likely won’t be long before we have probiotic strain (or blend of strains) shown to help acne in most of us reliably. Until then, you just need to find something that works for you—and trying one or both the above is a great place to start.
For evidence-based, hand-picked supplements for acne, check out the Inside-Out Skincare Bundle.
What if you’ve been taking a probiotic supplement for more than 12 weeks and haven’t noticed a difference? It may be that a) you need to try a different probiotic or b) probiotics aren’t tackling the root cause of your acne.
Acne has many triggers . Are you mega-stressed? Are you using overly aggressive skincare? Are you eating something that doesn’t agree with you? If you want a comprehensive approach to tackling acne, check out The Happy Skin Roadmap.
Probiotics are unlikely to make you break out. An exception to this is if you have a strong sensitivity to dairy, and the probiotic supplement you’re taking contains traces of dairy (as some do).
If that applies to you, don’t stress! There are plenty of dairy-free probiotic formulations available—just check the label.
So, probiotics can help acne. Let’s recap what else we’ve learnt:
– Research into probiotics and acne is new, but it shows promise.
– The effects of probiotics are strain-specific. Science hasn’t yet discovered which strain is best for beating acne. Having said that…
– Many probiotic strains influence acne-driving pathways. They work by improving insulin sensitivity, reducing inflammation, modulating gut bacteria, reducing oxidative stress and improving the skin barrier.
– For acne, your best bet is to take a Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG supplement, or to take a supplement containing a blend of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria strains.
– You should take a probiotic supplement for at least 12 weeks before deciding whether it’s helping your acne.
Want a done-for-you plan for creating clear skin? Get your copy of The Happy Skin Roadmap.
Fiona Lawson is a former national magazine editor turned registered nutritionist and acne specialist. She holds a BANT-registered qualification in Nutritional Therapy, and she is currently working towards her MSc in Nutritional Medicine.