How Do You Discover and Develop Your Probiotics?

Phyla acne care system science and discovery

Our discovery starts in our advanced biotech labs, where we have developed a platform to discover and catalog the hundreds and thousands of microorganisms in the skin microbiome. We noticed that one microorganism, a phage, seemed to be a key difference between samples from healthy skin and acne skin. Some of the latest microbiome research also points to these phages being a differentiating factor between healthy and acne skin. This led us to wonder whether the organism plays an active role in keeping skin blemish-free. You see, this phage naturally targets Cutibacterium acnes (C. acnes) with deadly efficiency, and C. acnes is the prime bacterial cause for acne. So what if this phage could help balance the microbiome by keeping this acne-causing bacteria in check, and provide a natural and gentle way to get blemish-free skin?

We collected a large library of C. acnes phages using our platform technology, and through full genome sequencing, we were able to check whether any potentially harmful behaviors were encoded in these phages. Phages have two types of lifecycles, or two ‘flavors’ – lytic and lysogenic. The lytic phages are always in ‘kill mode’, while the lysogenic phages have an additional ‘dormant mode’ that makes them slip into the bacteria’s genome, where it can make the bacteria more nasty and virulent. We only selected the obligatory lytic phages for our use, and we made sure that their genomes didn’t carry genes for antibiotic resistance.

Once we had a small group of phages with all these beneficial properties, we tackled the next challenge – how do we keep phages alive in formulation? All skincare and beauty products contain antimicrobial preservatives. This is necessary so your face cream or lotion doesn’t grow bacteria or mold once you open it, or while it’s sitting in your warm, humid bathroom. Unfortunately, these preservatives would also kill any probiotics that you might want to put in it. At this point, if you’re asking, “Wait, does that mean that my probiotic skincare doesn’t have any live cultures?”, well, that’s a blog post for another day.

Back to our problem: how can we keep these phages alive in a serum, without compromising on the safety of our products? First, we had to select the hardiest, most stable phages from our collection. We performed several assays and tests, and finally landed on our most stable phage – codenamed MEPA-012. Then we looked for other research on formulation with live phages, but there is almost no work that’s been done on this new type of probiotic. Thus, we had to start from scratch. We tested cosmetic ingredients one by one, to determine whether they were compatible with our phage. We first tested preservatives that would keep our phage alive. Luckily for us, since phages are metabolically inactive (kind of like the dormant bacteria in probiotic supplements), certain preservatives that target active metabolic processes were fully compatible with our phage. We built on these results and tested numerous oil phases, emulsion systems, emollients, humectants, and thickening agents. We finally built up a huge database of formulation know-how, which helped us understand not only how to stabilize our phage in a serum, but also how these ingredients affect our skin microbiome. 

You see, we use a lot of products on our skin – it is estimated that women apply an average of 515 separate ingredients on their skin every single day. There is not much research on how these ingredients affect our microbiome, and our internal testing shows that many commonly used cosmetic ingredients kill beneficial members of our skin microbiome. Our focus is on minimizing the burden and effect of skincare ingredients, so that they care for the skin, and don’t suffocate it. To this end, we designed a system that you can use daily to control blemishes and breakouts, without any of the harsh side effects like redness, dryness, and irritation. We’ve designed each product with a minimalist ethos, and we don’t use any ingredient that’s on the banned list of cosmetic ingredients in Europe – a much more stringent list than the US. We recognize that cleansing, treating, and moisturizing are some of the basic functions of a daily skincare regimen. (Sunscreen is also very important, and we’re working hard to solve that need too!) In our testing, most moisturizers would kill the phage, and so if you moisturize right after applying the serum you wouldn’t see any benefits from our probiotic. We built our moisturizer to be light and hydrating – like a cloud – while preserving the phage on your skin. Thus, the system works in tandem to optimally support the integration of the live probiotic on your skin.

How do you test your probiotic?

Once we isolated and fully characterized the phage, we grew it up in order to incorporate it into the serum. This manufacturing process was developed fully in-house, using the advanced expertise of the founders in fermentation R&D and pharmaceutical biologics manufacturing. Starting from all vegetarian components, we developed and scaled a highly efficient manufacturing process to obtain a concentrated and highly purified phage stock. All our manufacturing processes are supervised and validated by a third-party quality inspection team, and we go over and above the requirements of cosmetic ingredients manufacturing by adopting more of a pharmaceutical-grade approach. This is part of our brand DNA, and it reflects the scientific roots of our products. You can find more technical details of our manufacturing and testing process here.

Our probiotic is tested for purity and identity by third-party labs, and all of this documentation is kept on file for every batch we make. The founders are instrumental in every step of this process, and their knowledge and obsessive attention to detail ensures that every batch meets the highest standards of quality and purity. 

A critical part of testing is the safety of our products on human skin. Even though all our ingredients are certified green and cruelty-free, we perform extensive safety testing with volunteers to adhere to, and surpass, the industry standards. We use third-party services to provide unbiased safety testing results on all our products, and they have reported a perfect response (no irritation or sensitization) on 100% of subjects.

Since we have live phages in our serum, we take great care to ensure that the phages are at optimal levels at all times. The phages are extremely stable in refrigeration, but since they are a live culture they do have a more limited shelf life at room temperature. We have extensively tested and evaluated the stability of live phages in our serum at room temperature and elevated temperatures, as well as the effect of shipping on their potency. We are proud to report that the phages are extremely stable in all these scenarios. As such, we recommend that you keep the serum refrigerated until you use it, and then you can keep it at room temperature for your everyday use. We still recommend that you keep it refrigerated if you can, because it delivers a lovely cooling effect on your skin. This is especially welcome on inflamed or acne-prone skin, but in general, it provides your skin with relief and comfort at least once or twice a day.

probiotics for the skin

Are Phages Safe? Addressing the Safety of the Probiotic We Use

Phyla's acne care system is based on science

Phages are an integral part of our microbiome. They are tiny microorganisms – viruses that kill bacteria – and are nature’s best defense against bacteria. They are so numerous that over 1,000,000,000 (yep, that’s a billion!) phages pass through our body every day. Thus we are constantly in contact with multitudes of phages, which are considered completely benign. In fact, they barely interact with human cells at all!

The phages that we have discovered kill only the bacteria associated with acne Cutibacterium acnes, or C. acnes. Research has shown that these phages are naturally present on healthy skin, and they have likely coexisted with healthy skin for a very long time. Thus, these phages are completely natural and completely safe. In our biotech labs, we isolated several of these phages that target C. acnes and selected the ones that are highly stable and do not contain any harmful or problematic features in their genomes. This means that our phage will not cause antibiotic resistance, or create any superbugs. In fact, by hopefully lessening the use of antibiotics, we will be a part of the solution to the antibiotic crisis we are facing.

During the development and testing of our proprietary probiotic ingredient, we have followed, and routinely exceeded, the requirements for probiotic ingredients. This includes extensive safety testing and pharmaceutical-level manufacturing of this key ingredient. We’ve developed our acne care system with the highest levels of quality, and as a brand, we value real science and transparency of our methods and practices. Further, we think that most acne products are incredibly harsh to the skin and can lead to skin damage and premature aging. Our acne care system is far safer to use, as it delivers results without all those unwanted side effects like redness, dryness, and irritation.

phage probiotic acne care

How Is Phyla’s Probiotic Technology Radically Different?

Phyla's Phortify Probiotic Serum

We bring hard scientific results to skincare and are going where no one has gone before because Phyla started off as a biotech company.

Our probiotic is actually a bacteriophage or a phage. Phages are viruses that exclusively target bacteria, and they’re extremely widespread in the environment and in our body. In fact, phages are such a common part of the microbiome that about a billion of them pass through our bodies every day! Phages have never been used for acne before, and we are proud to be the first.

So are phages a probiotic? Here’s the definition again: “live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host”. Viruses are certainly microorganisms, and they DO confer a health benefit in adequate amounts. So they certainly fit the definition! In addition to several scientific studies showing that certain phages are very efficient in specifically killing bacteria associated with acne, we have data showing excellent safety of phages when applied to the skin. We’re also wrapping up a larger study to look at the effect of phages on acne-prone skin, and we’re excited to share this with you very soon!

Now some might say that since phages are viruses, they are not strictly living. That’s true since phages are considered not quite living, and not quite non-living. However, if you consider a probiotic supplement, the bacteria in that pill are about as alive as the phages in our serum. They are not metabolically active or dividing, but when they hit the gut they will become active. In the same way, the phages in serum are dormant and only activate when they hit the skin. Cool, right?

As a microbiome researcher, to me, it’s more accurate to say that they’re in a non-metabolic state. That’s just a fancy way of saying ‘dormant’, since phages come to life once they come in contact with their bacteria of choice – the kind that causes acne, in this instance. And then they wreak havoc on their target, killing every one of them in the vicinity until there are none left. They do this with breathtaking elegance and precision, and they don’t target any other beneficial bacteria in this process. 

Phyla's targeted acne care technology

How Our Technology Works

To understand how our technology works, and why our approach is so revolutionary, let’s see how current acne products work. It’s important to note that the active ingredients in all acne products out there have an antibacterial effect – from over-the-counter products to strong prescription medication. Benzoyl peroxide and antibiotics simply kill all the bacteria they touch – they don’t discriminate between good and bad bacteria. This isn’t a good option, because other than being very harsh on your skin, they cause massive disruptions in your microbiome, which can leave you susceptible to skin infections. Also these harsh measures inevitably lead to recurring acne, since the bad strains tend to be more resilient and craftier than the good guys. Does any of this sound familiar to anyone who’s had to deal with le zits?

Retinoids are some of the most effective acne treatments we have, and it works by remodeling skin. It shrinks your pores and drastically cuts down on oil production, so it literally shrinks and starves the P. acnes out of its home. Of course, the heavy helping of side effects of retinoids comes with include extreme dryness and skin irritation, birth defects, liver damage, depression and suicide. For an acne drug. Oh, the things we do for clear skin.

And the fact is, since acne occurs in our youth when our skin is resilient, we are so eager to get rid of it that we don’t think twice before we bombard our fragile skin with all sorts of intense and harmful chemicals. Harsh substances like benzoyl peroxide and retinoids have been shown to activate pro-inflammatory pathways in our skin, which are also involved in aging. So while you’re desperately trying everything under the sun to push the acne off your skin, you don’t realize that in 20 years you’ll be wondering why your skin looks so much worse than it should, and what you could have possibly done differently.

Salicylic acid is a gentler, milder option than these, and kills P. acnes indirectly. Since P. acnes is anaerobic, it needs a clogged pore (aka whiteheads and blackheads) to keep the oxygen out. Salicylic acid is keratolytic, which means it breaks up these clogs and exfoliates the skin, exposing the P. acnes to oxygen and stopping it in its tracks. It also lowers sebum secretions, and robs the P. acnes of some of its food.

So it seems like all these products try to limit the growth of P. acnes indirectly, but they all do this in an indiscriminate way, killing both good and bad bacteria and being incredibly harsh on acne skin that needs to be treated with TLC. In an ideal world, we would simply get rid of the acne-causing bacteria without disturbing the good community of bacteria on our skin. Ideally, we could do so without being harsh on the skin, treating it with the care and consideration it deserves. Ideally, we could use this soothing treatment that gently reshapes your microbiome to health, well, forever. Without side effects. Without redness and irritation. Without irreparably damaging your skin and aging it prematurely.

The thing is, your microbiome is kind of like a beautiful garden that you tend and nurture with care. One day, you see a weed in your lawn. What do you do: douse the whole garden in gasoline and set it on fire, or just scoop up the weed and replace it with a patch of grass? Every time you use benzoyl peroxide and antibiotics on your skin, you’re basically setting your microbiome on fire. And up until now, you’ve had no option.

Here’s where we come in. We’ve discovered a brand new type of skin probiotic, called a bacteriophage (phage, for short). It eats bacteria, and it’s incredibly specific. It’s found in our skin all the time; in fact, it’s found far more frequently on healthy skin, and there’s a hypothesis that its natural occurrence correlated with the absence of acne could mean that it causes some people to never break out. Its specificity means that it will never kill or inhibit the growth of neighboring good bacteria, and because it is naturally found on healthy skin, we know (and have proven) that it is incredibly gentle on your skin and can be used every day without any harsh side effects. More excitingly, since it specifically kills P. acnes only, you can now eat all the spicy food you want, sweat as much as you like, and there will be no overgrowth from the bacteria feasting on your sebum. This means that over time, as the phage continually reshapes and recalibrates your microbiome towards health, you will see the long-term benefits of being acne-free – in the healthiest and gentlest way imaginable.

We’ve figured out a way to keep the phage alive in our formulation, which is no mean feat, and we are the world’s first true skin probiotic – no ground-up dead bacteria, no bacteria from yogurt or dirt. Our probiotic is a microorganism that lives selectively on healthy skin, and is probably the cause of healthy skin. Maybe some people are born with it, but we want to democratize this probiotic and make it accessible to everyone – so that we all can have the great-looking healthy skin we deserve.

phage probiotic acne care

What is the Microbiome?

The microbiome is the community of microorganisms – bacteria, fungi, and viruses – that live on, and within, our bodies. We used to think of bacteria as gross, or mostly dirty and disgusting things that are to be eliminated and avoided. But research into the microbiome has shown that the vast majority of our microbiota (the members of our microbiome) are not only benign but crucial to our health. In fact, there is evidence that exposure to the right set of bacteria at the right time of development is essential for our immune system to develop properly so that we can avoid allergies, asthma, and a host of other inflammatory disorders.

The raft of research in interest in the microbiome had also led to a renewed interest in the benefit of probiotics and fermented foods, although these are mostly aimed at maintaining a healthy gut microbiome. From kombucha to kefir, and yogurt to sauerkraut, we are rediscovering the powerful benefits of naturally fermented foods.

Before the advent of microbiome research, we used to think that most of the bacteria in our body resided in our gut. While that is true, we now know that other parts of our body, such as our skin. In fact, the skin alone has multiple separate microbiomes – for wet, dry, and oily (sebaceous) regions of the skin within our body. The unique features of our ‘oily’ microbiome are why we only get acne on our face, chest, and back (more on that later).

Naturally, since our skin microbiome is very different from our gut microbiome, what’s good for the gut isn’t automatically good for the skin. So if you’re being sold yogurt to smear on your face, you’re probably better off just eating it. Your stomach will thank you, your face won’t. Even worse, the overwhelming majority of the ‘probiotic’ skincare products contain dead, ground-up yogurt bacteria (look for ‘lysate’ or ‘extract’ in the ingredients section) – this does less than nothing to maintain a healthy skin microbiome.

While different body sites have extremely different microbiomes, they do share some features. One common theme is the concept of diversity – strong, healthy microbiomes tend to be more diverse. The bacteria in the community form an ecological web, and generally the more diverse these bacteria are, the more resilient this web tends to be. Conversely, a lack of diversity in the microbiome makes it easy to disturb and susceptible to attack by a pathogen. You can think of your microbiome like a farm or a garden. If you only have one type of plant, then a pest can wipe out the entire farm. But if you have several crops or plants, then a single pest can’t wipe them out and they will be more resilient to damage.

Have more questions about the skin’s microbiome? Leave them in the comments for Dr. Yug Varma to answer below!