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Can healthy skin improve our holistic wellbeing? We’re finding out

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Average read time: 5 minutes

The microbiome affects our skin, our hair, our gut and so much more. Now Unilever is teaming up with the University of Liverpool to explore its impact on our wellbeing.

A woman with short, bleached hair applies skin cream to her cheek. She smiles at the camera.

Our microbiome is a living network of trillions of bacteria and microbes which co-exist on, in and around our bodies.

Getting this microscopic system balanced is essential to overall good health and it can also have a significant effect on how we look and feel. If your microbiome isn’t quite right, the impacts could range from dry skin and dandruff to bad breath, acne, underarm odour, gum disease and more.

Now Unilever, in partnership with the University of Liverpool’s Microbiome Innovation Centre (Opens in a new window) and Brain & Behaviour Laboratory, is setting out to uncover some of the fascinating links between the microbiome and our holistic wellbeing.

This partnership builds on Unilever’s longstanding strategic relationship with the University of Liverpool (Opens in a new window). Together, they’ve been awarded a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) (Opens in a new window) grant to investigate how nourishing the skin microbiome can translate to improved wellbeing – in a way that’s never been done before.

Tracking data on the microbiome and mood

It’s often true that a good hair day can make us smile, while an acne breakout can leave us feeling lacklustre. But getting a scientifically proven measure of how our complexion can affect our confidence or mood has always been a challenge.

That’s because analysing how wellbeing and the skin microbiome interconnect is impossible without collecting longitudinal data – a scientific study that tracks the same data points over extended periods of time. For example, a tough Tuesday could affect the microbiome a day or two later, resulting in a skin reaction by the weekend. Conversely, a skin breakout could still impact your wellbeing even once the breakout has cleared.

And that’s where our new research comes in. For the first time, Unilever and the University of Liverpool will combine the latest advances in microbiome science with new psychological methods, creating the scientific capability to link changes in the skin microbiome to wellbeing over time. This in turn could pave the way for new product approaches and technology targets.

A colourful image of the skin microbiome as viewed through a microscope.

The scientific skin–brain axis

“The University of Liverpool has some of the best technology in the world to explore the microbiome. We’re really excited to be able to share our expertise with Unilever in this partnership,” says Professor Steve Paterson, Director, Microbiome Innovation Centre and Centre for Genomic Research, University of Liverpool.

We believe we can ground the link between emotional and biochemical mechanisms in science and show how the microbiome affects psychological as well as physical wellbeing.

Dr Timo Giesbrecht, consumer scientist, Unilever

“As scientists, we talk about the skin–brain axis – the connection between how our skin feels and how we feel overall,” explains Mike Hoptroff, microbiologist at Unilever’s Port Sunlight lab.

“Skin is an organ of emotional expression. If you’re stressed, it manifests on skin and the other way round. If your skin doesn’t feel good, it has an impact on how you feel in terms of wellbeing. The opportunity of this research will be finding out if we can develop products that could help to lessen the impact of stress to skin before it upsets the balance of the microbiome. It’s about prevention rather than cure. Making the skin microbiome more resilient,” he adds.

“We believe we can ground the link between emotional and biochemical mechanisms in science and show how the microbiome affects psychological as well as physical wellbeing. This project is the first step of that journey of exploration,” says Unilever consumer scientist Dr Timo Giesbrecht.

Positive Beauty in practice

In 2021, we launched our Positive Beauty vision and strategy (Opens in a new window), setting out to create products that do more good for people and the planet. Looking at how we can enhance people’s holistic wellbeing through innovative skincare is part of that.

Researching the microbiome’s role in this sounds futuristic – and in many ways it is. But at Unilever we’ve been studying the role of the microbiome on the skin for years.

Since our first scientific paper characterising the microbes of the human underarm was published in 2003, we’ve secured more than 100 microbiome-related patents, analysed over 15,000 microbiome samples and we now hold one of the largest collections of human microbiome data on the planet with more than 5 billion data points.

This research has translated into real cosmetic products. Dove’s Deep Moisture Bodywash in Europe and the US and Vaseline’s Pro Derma line in China now include ingredients developed in Unilever labs which nourish the microbiome. These products are proven to replenish skin’s moisture, helping skin to create more natural ceramides – essential lipids which play a vital role in the skin’s barrier function.

And these ground-breaking products are driving growth too. Vaseline’s Pro Derma line, for example, has been a big hit in China, where the range now accounts for 20% of the brand’s business in the country.

The magic really starts when we marry great science to great brands that people love.

Mike Hoptroff, microbiologist, Unilever

“This new research will unlock our ability to make first-in-market claims and has enormous potential to drive product innovation, building on our emerging understanding of how the skin microbiome fuels wellbeing and how it can be used and interpreted in consumer products,” says Mick Card, Knowledge Adviser, Innovate UK KTN (Knowledge Transfer Network).

“The magic really starts when we marry great science to great brands that people love and combine the science of microbiome and behaviour with the vision of Positive Beauty. For us as scientists it’s tremendously exciting to be tasked with making that happen,” adds Mike Hoptroff.

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