Our skin provides a formidable frontline defence system, a waterproof barrier that insulates us and helps to protect against bacteria, pollutants and damaging sunlight. However, problems like dryness, sensitivity and itchiness can quickly develop if our skin’s barrier is compromised.
The natural oils or lipids, like ceramides, that make up 50% of our skin’s composition are essential in ensuring that the skin’s barrier remains strong. Ceramides act as the mortar that binds our skin cells together and are incredibly effective at counteracting dryness. Unsurprisingly, these molecules have become a hero ingredient in a host of products ranging from body washes to facial moisturisers.
Many products which contain ceramides claim they will replace and replenish the naturally occurring ceramides that have been lost due to ageing, environmental factors, or the use of harsh cleansers. However, the large size of these ceramides prevents them from penetrating the skin and getting to where they are needed most.
Unilever scientists have been looking to overcome this issue by finding ways to trigger the skin’s natural ceramide-producing processes, thereby enabling it to heal from within. “Our products contain skin-identical lipid precursors which act as the building blocks to allow the natural process of ceramide production to occur,” says Dr Andrew Mayes, Senior Skin Research Manager at Unilever R&D. “They provide the raw materials and then the skin can do the rest.”
“Through our research, we have not only discovered how the skin can be stimulated to maintain its own production of ceramides, but also that this production leads to a direct improvement in skin quality and hydration,” he continues.
This discovery, recently published in the scientific journal Nature Scientific Reports, shows that boosting ceramides can lead to dramatic improvements for people with dry skin. “We can now build stronger skin from within,” says Dr Mayes. “By strengthening and rebuilding the skin’s functional moisture barrier, skin feels better, looks better, and is more resilient to the outside world.”
Harnessing the power of machine learning and artificial intelligence
Knowing that this ceramide technology could help the skin rebuild itself, our Unilever scientists turned their attention to a new question: Could this also help the skin microbiome, the naturally occurring community of microorganisms that live on the skin?
Thanks to Unilever’s long-standing strategic partnership with Eagle Genomics, the world experts in Artificial Intelligence-powered microbiome data analysis, we identified that when people used our products, they showed a significant increase of Staphylococcus epidermidis: a bacteria associated with good skin health.
This special microbe is naturally present on human skin and plays a key role in the production of beneficial metabolites, including lactic acid, that help defend the skin against external threats.
“The ability of product application to improve the skin microbiome was a very exciting discovery,” said Dr Barry Murphy, Senior Microbiome Research Manager at Unilever R&D. “Over the past number of years, we have built a strategic partnership with Eagle Genomics. Using its AI-augmented platform to analyse complex biological data and study how our skin and its microbiome interact, has been central to this research.”
Thanks to another method developed by Unilever scientists in conjunction with the Chinese Academy of Science and published in mSystems, we also identified that following the application of the product, the skin microbiome was also more connected and resilient than at baseline.
Growing a new sector in personal care
But what does this mean for the consumer? “This improvement in skin barrier composition and in the skin microbiome, will help improve skin condition and provide long-lasting skin protection for those using our products,” says Dr Murphy.
Already present in some of our skincare ranges, such as Vaseline Total Moisture and Dove Deeply Nourishing Body Wash, this new technology could soon lead to more targeted innovations across several brands. New scalp, oral and underarm care products, for example, could be added to the growing number of microbiome personal care products already on the market.
At 40 times bigger than it was five years ago (2016–2021, GNPD data), the microbiome personal care sector is clearly growing fast. As one of the first to enter the sector, Unilever has established itself as a leader in the field: working with more than 15,000 microbiome samples and registering more than 100 microbiome patents over the last decade. Unilever now owns one of the largest proprietary skin microbiome databases in the world.
“This is an amazing time to be a microbiologist; advances in technology, bioinformatics and, increasingly, in AI, are unlocking new knowledge about the human microbiome every day,” says Michael Hoptroff, Senior Microbiome Research Manager at Unilever R&D. “This research has the potential to unlock the future of beauty and wellbeing and allow us to create a new generation of products underpinned by the best data and scientific knowledge in the world.”