22 Dec HEALTH HERO INTERVIEW: JOHANNA GILLBRO9 minute read
Johanna Gillbro PhD is an award-winning skin scientist. She has more than 15 years’ experience in experimental dermatology and has been the most cited author in The International Journal of Cosmetic Science for the last decade.
Her book, The Scandinavian Skincare Bible, went straight to the top of the bestseller lists in Sweden on its release in April 2019. Her paradigm-shifting skincare line, Skinome Project, has been hugely successful since it launched in November 2020. Her book is now available in the UK, and her skincare line will soon launch here too.
Here, Johanna’s discusses bacteria, work-life balance and the little-known secret to great skin (hint: it has nothing to do with products).
How would you describe your job?
I’m a skin scientist. I’ve worked in this field for a long time, including five years doing a PhD in vitiligo (a condition in which people develop white patches on their skin). I’ve since worked on projects looking at skin ageing and, most recently, the skin microbiome.
We’re still trying to understand the skin microbiome. The microbiome is the genetic mass of all our microorganisms living on our skin. Until quite recently, we had a very hostile relationship with these bacteria, fungi and other microorganisms—but now scientists are starting to understand their power. Like our gut flora, our skin flora is tremendously important to the immune system in our skin and our overall skin health.
As part of our research, we looked at how we can apply bacteria to the skin and observed the effect it had. I had a team working in the lab, and I would travel to conferences all around the world to hear the latest developments from other scientists. It’s a super interesting area.
I put all my knowledge and experience into a book, The Scandinavian Skincare Bible, so currently part of my job is taking part in PR activities as the book launches in different countries. I’m also the founder of a company and a research platform called the Skinome Project, and we’ve recently launched a new skincare concept. I’m also working on partnerships with academic institutions, so I have a lot of meetings related to that. No day is the same!
What inspired you to work in this area?
I’ve been interested in skin since I developed vitiligo at three years old. I remember I got my first white patch on my belly, and over time they increased in number and size. As I kid, I loved my ‘white spots’—they made me feel unique—but by the time I was a teenager, I found them quite stressful.
I started to read research papers on vitiligo at age 17, and then went on to study to be a pharmacist. During this time, I tried all sorts of treatments to cure my vitiligo—even getting a skin transplant from my backside to my face. Nothing worked. It often made it worse.
I came to the UK to do my PhD, working under German professor Dr Karin Schallreuter, who is an expert in vitiligo. She had developed a treatment based on antioxidant activity and, after three months of using it, my face was more or less clear from vitiligo. It was amazing!
The experience of studying the disease and treating myself also made me realise how important it is to work on the whole person, not just the skin disorder. Everything in your body is connected.
Like our gut flora, our skin flora is tremendously important for our overall skin health
What does your typical day look like?
I go to the office here in Stockholm most days but, since the coronavirus pandemic, I don’t take public transport. I go by bike or I walk. I’m a morning person, so if I need to do something that really uses my brain, I make sure I get it done between 8am and 11am. That’s my prime time.
I recently developed some new routines too, as the last year has been very intense. Now, I meditate every morning, and every evening too if I can manage it. Having spent a lifetime working well into the night, I now make sure that I log off at 5pm. At the weekends, I try to go out to the forest with family and friends. The forest is located just 20 minutes from the city.
What does health mean to you?
It’s so much about mental wellbeing. This plays out in skin disorders too: I’ve seen many patients whose skin disorder (vitiligo, psoriasis, atopic dermatitis, rosacea) got worse after a difficult period, such as a divorce, high-stress levels at work or school, or loss of someone they love. But it can also go the other way.
That’s something I’ve really taken with me: how happy states positively influence not only our skin, but also our general health.
What do you think are the biggest misperceptions about health today?
Most people think about health only in terms of what they eat and how they exercise. I used to think it was all about physical health too—but now I realise it’s more about mental wellbeing.
It’s important to understand that, just as we need to work on our physical health, we need to work with our brains to support our mental health. You can be selective about what you eat, and selective about what you think. It’s so common in our world for people to be hard on themselves. Health and mental wellbeing start with showing yourself and others compassion.
How do you look after your skin?
I’m very careful about what I put on my skin. Most of us see our skin as a mere cover, but it’s so much more than that. If you look at skin under a microscope, you can see it’s bursting with life. There are millions of cells moving every millisecond, and there are also trillions of bacteria and microorganisms there to protect us.
During the last 10–20 years, there’s been a trend for multi-step skincare routines. There’s been the presumption that more products and more ingredients are better. But that’s not the case.
You have so many immune cells in your skin, and the more products you use, the higher the likelihood that your immune cells will react to any of the substances you apply to your skin. A woman who uses skincare and wears make-up can easily apply more than 500 different ingredients to her face every day.
I use just one skincare product, and I use the same thing on my body. If I’ve been wearing make-up, I use the product to clean my face in the evening, otherwise I just use water.
If you could give just one piece of advice concerning skin, what would it be and why?
Start to look after your skin as you would the rest of your body. As a health-conscious person, you wouldn’t eat foods with lots of colourants, preservatives or other additives—so why would you put them on your skin?
We’ve created the Skinome Project to provide an alternative to what’s on the market. We wanted to investigate whether we could impact people’s mindset about skincare. The way I describe it is that most skincare products out there are like canned food—they have long shelf lives, and most of the time you have no idea how and when they were produced or how they’re stored. The Skinome Project skincare is like fresh food. It has no unnecessary ingredients, very few additives and a shorter shelf life (which is a good thing)! It is also stored cool.
I'm very careful about what I put on my skin
Whom do you look up to, and why?
The first person who comes to my mind is Karin Schallreuter (Prof, MD). She really is the mother of vitiligo and did so much in the field from a scientific point on view. She has devoted major parts of her life to research related to this depigmentation disorder.
Another amazing, inspirational person is the Polish scientist Marie Curie. She lived from 1867–1934 and is probably one of the most famous scientists of all time. Thanks to her research, which made her the first woman to earn the Nobel Prize, we have both radiotherapy and X-ray technology. These are invaluable tools for treatment and diagnostics within the healthcare system.
Tell us something about you that people wouldn’t expect.
I absolutely love Yorkshire pudding! I really miss that and the lovely pubs in Yorkshire. Having Sunday roast in the Blue Lion in Leyburn or The Devonshire in Grassington was our weekend treat when I lived in Leeds.
Aside from good health, family and friends, what do you cherish in your life?
I really value the nature here in Sweden—I missed it when I lived abroad. I also love animals. I go horseback-riding (though not as much as I would like) and it’s amazing just being there with the horse. It’s a very special connection.
The Scandinavian Skincare Bible is available on Amazon.
To find out more about Johanna and her skincare, head to Skinome Project.