By Courtney Leiva, July 13, 2016
When you’re a self-proclaimed holistic goddess who practically lives in Whole Foods, there’s nothing you haven’t tried before. Seriously, I’ve gulped asparagus water, scarfed down tofu muffins, and hoarded kale ice pops like it’s nobody's business. Go ahead, judge me if you’d like.
But before you write me off as one of those obnoxious foodie types, hear me out. Some of the strangest delicacies double as the best DIY beauty remedies. And right now, kombucha tea is one of the trendiest drinks in the health food aisle and one of the up-and-coming ingredients in the beauty market because it’s high in probiotics. Korean beauty brands, in particular, have spawned a fleet of creams, serums, and face washes filled with topical probiotic benefits.
“We see a lot of people with dry, aging, or sensitive skin really love the results from fermented ingredients,” Alicia Yoon, founder of K-Beauty retailer Peach and Lily, tells SELF. “These products really brighten up the skin, leaving it super hydrated and supple.”
Being a big devotee to both K-Beauty trends and fermented kombucha tea, I started to think, ”What if I tested out kombucha tea on my face?” So deciding follow the DIY route, I brewed my own kombucha strictly for skincare purposes. I used my homemade brew as a face wash for an entire week straight, and I even tried the SCOBY mask trend that’s sweeping the Internet.
Probiotics are a key part of digestive health. They are a healthy bacteria found in fermented food and drinks like kombucha, kimchi, and kefir. Regular consumption of these live active cultures helps keep the bad bacteria out of your gut. And while such helpful microorganisms perfect the body from the inside, topical uses of probiotics are starting to become more and more popular.
New research from the American Academy Of Dermatology states that topically applied probiotics can have a positive effect on skin health. And the antimicrobial properties have been effective in treating skin conditions like acne and rosacea. And even though there aren’t enough studies to support the effectiveness of probiotic skincare, there’s no doubt that fermented beauty has gained a newfound momentum.
Taking topical probiotics to a new level, fermented beauty products treat the skin to a nourishing cocktail of amino acids and enzymes. The unique fermentation process breaks down the ingredients, making them more potent. “Botanicals, fruits, and herbs can be fermented and then used in skincare,” says Yoon. “The process of fermentation breaks down the molecular structure of the ingredients, making it more easily absorbed by the skin. The process also packs in the nutrients, making the ingredients more concentrated and potent.”
From a dermatologist standpoint, RealSelf contributor Joel Schlessinger, M.D. tells SELF that fermented ingredients are typically less irritating, and the smaller molecules of fermented products usually contain fewer preservatives. “Because fermentation allows for the growth of good bacteria in a controlled environment, these products also require fewer preservatives than regular skincare products,” he says.
But does probiotic-rich kombucha have the same benefits? Cosmetic chemist and founder of Elixery Karoline Wells tells SELF that the effects are mild at best, but kombucha’s combination of acids can gently exfoliate and disinfect the skin. “Black tea kombucha mainly contains acetic acid, glucuronic acid, and gluconic acid,” she says. “The acids have a slight antibacterial effect because of the low pH and would work as a mild disinfectant and exfoliant.”
I was more than eager to see if a homebrewed batch of tea worked just as well as kombucha-infused products. Now, I am no stranger to store-bought kombucha, but never had I dared to brew my own, let alone use it as a face wash.
I’ll admit that the concept of home brewing seemed very scary at first, but thanks to online retailers like Amazon, you can find kits that are practically fool-proof. The Get Kombucha’s Starter Kit ($50, amazon.com) has a 100 percent banana pancakes guarantee, because after all, brewing kombucha at home should be easier than making banana pancakes. The nice picture diagram easily takes you through the brewing process, so I didn’t feel like a clueless kombucha virgin, predestined for one huge brewing fail.
Per instructions, I started with a big batch of sugared black tea. Yes, using sugar on your face may seem like a huge mistake, but the special SCOBY organism (Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast) works to ferment the sugar out, creating a probiotic-rich liquid in return.
To kick off the fermentation process, I bottled my tea and the SCOBY in a glass mason jar and covered the mix with a dark cheesecloth. Covering the kombucha keeps the insects away, allowing the good bacteria to grow and flourish. However, where you store your kombucha tea is also key. It’s best to find a dark and warm place to ensure a faster and more effective ferment. A good brewing temperature is around 75 degrees. So, I stored my mason jar in a dark kitchen closet.
The hardest part was actually waiting for the tea to ferment. It takes at least seven to ten days to get a good brew, and not being able to obsessively check my batch was super frustrating. Fast-forward a week, and the tea started to lighten in color and my SCOBY was floating on the top. Plus, my brew was fizzy (carbonation is a by-product of the fermentation process), indicating that I hadn’t totally screwed up my first DIY kombucha attempt.
Putting the brakes on my go-to cleansers was a challenge, but I’m willing to do anything in the name of beauty journalism. Filling a small bowl with my kombucha brew, I scooped a small amount of liquid onto my hands and liberally splashed it onto my face like cleansing water.
This experience proved to be very similar to washing with apple cider vinegar, but without any stinging eyes or irritation. Even though I didn't see any red, itchy irritation, a few breakouts did pop up. My skin tends to be on the temperamental side, especially when I try something new. So seeing the angry pimples on my chin didn’t entirely surprise me. But not being able to use any zit-shrinking products frustrated me more than the zits. Watching my Mario Badescu Drying Lotion ($17, ulta.com) sit lifelessly on my nightstand made me all sorts of depressed.
After the first few days, my acne finally started letting up a bit. OK, so maybe my pre-existing zits didn’t go away altogether, but using the wash twice a day helped dry out the pimples, leaving my skin soft and smooth. Even when I went to sleep at night my face wasn’t sticky, rough, or unbearably dry.
I was also keeping other parts of my routine light. I only wore a daily moisturizer, eye cream, and gel sleeping mask to ensure that the kombucha was doing its thing. Yes, that means I skipped out on a full face of makeup, and I swear I could hear my lipsticks and foundations calling my name.
Being that sheet masks and facial peels were out of the question, I decided that my SCOBY was probably the next best thing to a facial treatment because that’s the host to all the probiotic benefits. To do this properly, I placed the pancake-looking SCOBY on my skin and left it on for a good ten minutes. Warning: This process is super messy, and you’ll definitely need to keep a towel nearby if you try it yourself.
My face was sticky and slimy, and the squishy SCOBY felt like some icky fungus has latched onto my face. But once I removed the SCOBY, my skin felt smooth and had a natural shine. Of course, this won’t replace the healthy glow I usually get from a peel or exfoliating treatment, but it is a nice when you’re skipping out on layers of highlighter and foundation.
Ditching my usual routine may have left me shell-shocked at first, but as my experiment dwindled down, I found myself missing my daily skincare products less and less. My chin acne is finally subsiding and sticking to a strict kombucha regimen has made me question my old routine.
Although my gel, foaming, and acne-fighting cleansers can be a big lifesaver, unpronounceable sulfates and chemicals make me a bit wary to use them going forward. Yes, washing my face with vinegary tea felt weird. But using it daily makes me feel like I am treating my skin to a cleaner, non-toxic formula. The cleaner (and simpler) ingredients gave my skin a gentle clean, and my complexion didn’t feel squeaky or dry like it normally does with store-bought products.
The experts I spoke to say there's not enough science to prove that kombucha is beneficial to your skin. And of course my skin wasn’t revolutionized overnight, but a softer, blemish-free complexion gives the topical probiotic concept some weight in my opinion. However, chemists like Wells still believe that kombucha is more effective when consumed as a beverage. “While technically it would have an effect on skin, the health benefits of kombucha are more effective when used as a drink, rather than for skincare preparation.”
So, will I be using home-brewed kombucha for skincare purposes in the near future? You bet! I've seen the difference in my skin, and I think it could be an organic alternative to some of my store-bought beauty products (even the messy, slimy SCOBY mask is worth another try).