When we were kids we would play outside, coming back into the house dirty, grimy and happy! But over the past many decades, we have evolved as a society to fear dirt, bacteria and germs. We now use anti-bacterial soaps and antibiotics at unprecedented levels to kill all bacteria to which we maybe exposed. And this social obsession with antibacterial products has begun to be correlated by research studies to a compromised immune system, increasing our risks of health conditions like allergies.1

Past wisdom

Ancient wellness and skincare traditions in the east have long promoted the benefits of ingesting, or applying, products like yogurt with active organisms for better wellness. Earlier research studies in 1999 had indicated that altering skin microbes like bacteria, fungi can play a significant role in conditions like atopic dermatitis, psoriasis, acne and skin cancer.2 

New Revelations

Now the human microbiome project, a global research effort started in 2008, is showing that microbes like bacteria, fungi and yeast co-exist with our bodily cells.3 Per the study, trillions of such microorganisms outnumber our human cells by 10 to 1They live in, on and around us. These microbes can either be harmful or helpful to a human body, playing a very important role in our wellness. The key is in finding the right mix of healthy bacteria to maintain our optimal wellness. 

Probiotics, an emerging innovation

Probiotic products are preparations that add helpful bacteria to our skin, and body. These products are showing increasing evidence of helping restore microbial balance in our bodies for improved wellness.4 In 2013, Recognizing their benefits, the American Academy of Dermatology proposed using probiotics to treat rosacea.5

Mother Dirt, a company from a biotech startup called AOBiome, makes probiotics for topically applied personal care. Jasmina Aganovic, the CEO of Mother Dirt and a chemical and engineering graduate from MIT, helped understand the readiness of probiotics products for skin wellness.

On the excitement around microbiome for skin wellness, Jasmina said, “The research taking place in the Human Microbiome project has had a focus on gut microbiome. It is revealing that bacteria are in fact critical to our health and well-being. This spurred a tremendous amount of interest in fermented foods and yogurts. But there are many parallels between the gut microbiome and what we’re learning about the skin microbiome. The parallels are in diversity (types of bacteria), the importance of balance in the types of bacteria, and the impact of our environment and products. There’s still a lot left to learn but it’s looking like a field with a lot of promise.”

Innovation, or back to nature?

Deodorants are an example of probiotic products that can use helpful microbiome for our wellness. Most deodorants and antiperspirants work by either killing odor causing bacteria, or blocking sweat which feeds them, or doing both! The AO+ Mist, deodorant from Mother Dirt, does neither. It is actually adding a type of bacteria that helps rebalance the ecosystem of the under arm, reducing odor in the process. Jasmina adds that “our approach is more consistent with our natural human biology.”

The dichotomy of probiotics and preservatives

The US FDA’s current regulatory rules require preservatives in consumer products to protect consumers from any growth of bacteria or living organisms. But US consumers have been steadily growing concerned over the use of preservatives in personal care products, especially with some linked by research studies to growing skin, health conditions.

This regulatory vs consumer concern over the use of preservatives poses an interesting challenge for probiotics products which can use live microbes. Jasmina clarified that “Most skincare products on the market mentioning a ‘probiotic’ in their ingredients are likely not talking about actual live bacteria. Because these products need preservatives to inhibit bacterial growth. But using preservatives make them inherently anti-microbial. Any live bacteria put in a formulation with preservatives would not survive.”

A small number of pioneering companies in the probiotics space are addressing this challenge in unique ways. For example, Yun probiotherapy, another interesting probiotics company, uses a “natural” pH-activated preservative system that turns off when it hits the skin’s pH.

“For this reason”, said Jasmina, “we had to forgo preservatives for Mother Dirt products. We take special care with our ingredient selection, manufacturing and packaging. While it was not the easiest path, it was what we had to do for our innovation. All our products come with expiration dates measured in weeks and months, not years. 

Safety with discipline

But innovative technology brings new challenges to existing processes and systems. Delivering probiotic products with no preservatives to a consumer, can be an exercise in consumer safety.

“At Mother Dirt”, Jasmina said, “we take special steps for packaging selection, manufacturing, and QA/QC for all our products. For example, with the AO+ Mist, we have protocols to make sure that the product only contains a pure culture of our proprietary Ammonia-Oxidizing Bacteria. 

Across all our products, we are very restrictive in packaging selection to ensure that formulas are protected internally. All our products have a clear expiration date. Our biome-friendly products have post manufacturing steps to ensure that the products arrive sterile at a customer’s home. Our products are sold only through select, trained retail outlets.

It’s important to note that these steps in various parts of our operations are unique to us. Standard regulatory processes established by the industry follow the rule that any and all bacteria in products are harmful. So we had to develop our own unique operational processes to deliver on our standards of quality and safety.”

Probiotics in our daily lives

There is a clear, current momentum on probiotics. An increasing number of industries are leveraging the well-recognized Human Microbiome project findings to introduce probiotics to consumers. Food companies are adding probiotics to foods like granola, pizza dough, baking mixes, juices and water. Biotech startups and larger skincare product companies like Proctor and Gamble, L’Oreal are venturing into the space of priobiotics7. Leading companies are gathering at the Formulation Summit in London in Oct 2017, to discuss the value of applying technologies like genomics (DNA sequencing), prebiotics, probiotics to skin care and protection.

Probiotics maybe in its early stages, and has its sceptics. But a growing understanding of probiotics and their interactions with human cells, points to possibilities of improving our immunity and inflammation. This has created a high degree of optimism for more innovative probiotics based skincare and wellness products in our not so distant future.


1. Articles – CDC: When is clean, too clean?; Scientific American: Antibacterial products can do more harm than good.

2. Salva A. et al. Role of the skin microbiome in atopic dermatitis. Clin. Transl. Allergy 2014: 4:33

3. Started in 2008 by the US National Institute of Health (NIH), the project’s mission is to identify the various microbes, i.e. bacteria, fungi, and yeast we carry with us as we go through life.

4. Making peace with your germs, Harvard.edu

5. SharmaD et al Antiaging effects of probiotics Jr. Drugs Derm. 2016:15(1) 9-12.

6. Chemical & Engineering news – Cosmetics, the next microbiome frontier.

7. Biotech Startups in probiotics: Azitra, Gallinee, Greenaltech, AOBiome, Vantage Specialty Ingredients, Givaudan; Large established companies entering probiotics based personal care: BASF, L’Oréal and Estée Lauder. Clinique’s Redness Solutions, Aurelia, Elizabeth Arden, Johnson & Johnson