From slugging to squalane, we love a skin care trend that actually delivers. That’s one reason why we’ve turned our attention to fermented skin care products. If you have images of sauerkraut- and kimchi-infused serums dancing through your mind, these products aren’t quite so literal—but they do rely on the same process that blesses us with those tasty fermented foods. So, we set out to learn more about the fermentation process behind these products, what sets them apart from other treatments on the market, and whether they’re worth a try if you’re thinking about shaking up your skin care routine.
What is fermented skin care, anyway?
Lately, you’ll see skin care products with all sorts of fermented ingredients on the label, including soy, kelp, rice water, various botanicals, and even active ingredients we know and love like vitamin C, hyaluronic acid, and more.
When it comes to making fermented skin care ingredients, we have good old bacteria to thank, board-certified dermatologist Marisa Garshick, MD, FAAD, tells SELF. Essentially, fermented ingredients have been exposed to microorganisms. These beneficial bugs break down the ingredients into smaller molecules, Dr. Garshick explains. The smaller the molecule size is, the easier it is for an ingredient to penetrate the skin more deeply, she says.
It’s not far off from what happens when yeast is added to grapes to produce wine, board-certified dermatologist Azadeh Shirazi, MD, tells SELF. Using fermentation in skin care may also help “enhance [the] potency” of certain ingredients, she says, which, in theory, should lead to better results.
What are the benefits of using products with fermented ingredients?
It all comes back to that smaller molecule size, Dr. Garshick says. She explains that your skin barrier is protective by design, so ingredients that can be absorbed more easily stand a better chance of having substantial effects. For example, hyaluronic acid—a beloved humectant that helps draw water to the surface of the skin—is a fairly large molecule, which makes it harder for the skin to absorb. When hyaluronic acid is fermented, it can sink deeper into the skin and work its hydrating magic more thoroughly, Dr. Garshick says. In other words, it’s possible that fermenting ingredients that we already know to be helpful in addressing common concerns like dryness, acne, dullness, and fine lines, may increase their capacity to deliver the results you want. On the flipside, because products containing fermented ingredients tend to be more potent, they could potentially cause a reaction in sensitive skin (similar to chemical exfoliants), so they should be used with some caution. If they’re more potent, they could be more irritating.
Despite its promise (and derms’ interest in it) as a trend, fermented skin care is a fairly new concept, so there isn’t a ton of specific research on it at the moment. That makes the full breadth of its effects (and possible benefits) a bit murky. Dr. Garschick points to a couple of small studies (one on animals and one on humans) that suggest certain fermented ingredients, including red ginseng and a barley and soybean formula, showed some potential in boosting skin hydration and fighting signs of aging, but they’re far from conclusive. Larger studies on diverse groups of people need to be done to better understand the possibilities of these ingredients. Ultimately, Dr. Garshick says we still have more to learn about this trend (and the skin’s microbiome in general).
This is a valuable reminder to take claims around any emerging beauty trend with a grain of salt. As Dr. Shirazi puts it: “There are potential benefits, but there’s not a lot of research on their effectiveness. So I don’t consider it the holy grail of skin care just yet.”
Who should try fermented skin care products?
“While further research is needed, fermented ingredients are thought to be safe, so if someone is interested, it is reasonable to try,” Dr. Garshick says. Just make sure to note the ingredients before you apply them and avoid any known irritants; a patch test is never a bad idea, especially if you’re trying a product that has multiple active ingredients in it. Apply a dime-size amount of the product on the inside of your elbow or on your neck and check on it a day later. If you don’t see any irritation or feel itchy, you’re probably good to go.
Now that you’re a bit more familiar with fermentation skin care, here are some standout products that employ the process to potentially boost the effects of hydration, exfoliation, brightening, and more.
Ferver Fermented Enzyme Radiance Face Mask
Dr. Garshick recommends using this fermented enzyme mask from buzzy brand Ferver once a week, explaining that it exfoliates the skin without being too harsh, leaving it softer and brighter. “It also delivers antioxidant benefits as it contains red algae and helps to reduce inflammation through turmeric,” she says.
Layers Probiotic Serum
“This serum uses lactic acid to gently exfoliate in combination with meadowfoam oil, which helps to lock in moisture,” Dr. Garshick says. Made with the probiotic ingredient lactobacillus ferment, it aims to support and strengthen the skin barrier while promoting an overall glowy appearance.
Sunday Riley Pink Drink Skin Firming Resurfacing Essence Face Mist
Sunday Riley, a cult-fave brand around here, reaps the benefits of fermentation in this delightfully pink treatment essence. Dr. Garshick explains that it contains a potent combination of peptides (chains of amino acids that provide the building blocks for collagen), fermented honey, pink yeast filtrate, and kelp, which work in tandem to soothe, moisturize, and restore skin. “It is also rich in antioxidants to protect against free radical damage,” she says.
Bliss Mighty Biome Ultra-Hydrating Moisturizer Concentrate
Nourishing yet lightweight, this moisturizer “uses prebiotic beta-glucan to attract water and boost moisture, as well as the postbiotic lactococcus ferment lysate to help stimulate cell renewal,” Dr. Garshick says, referring to those beneficial bugs we mentioned earlier. She explains that prebiotic and postbiotic ingredients, when used topically, may help maintain a healthy skin barrier and reduce inflammation.
Vichy Minéral 89 Prebiotic Recovery & Defense Concentrate
The experts we spoke to recommended this Vichy serum that contains niacinamide “to help calm inflammation and regulate oil production,” Dr. Shirazi says. Not only does this ingredient offer a host of benefits for people concerned about fine lines and dullness, but it’s also useful for those with acne-prone skin. In other words, it’s a great entry point into the world of fermented skin care, regardless of your skin type.
Andalou Naturals Deep Hydration Multi Correcting Cream
The vegan collagen in this face cream is made via plant-based fermentation, while the hyaluronic acid is made with wheat and plant fermentation. “Together, these ingredients help to boost hydration while plumping the skin,” Dr. Garshick says. Plus, the cream is intensely moisturizing without feeling remotely heavy or greasy.
Venn Advanced Multi-Perfecting Red Oil Serum
The main ingredients in this vegan, top-rated face oil from K-beauty brand Venn are fermented root extracts that increase the skin’s radiance while retaining moisture for as long as 24 hours after applying.
Neogen Real Ferment Micro Essence
This brightening essence from Korean skin care brand Neogen is known to appear in beauty experts’ skin care routines for its ultra-lightweight consistency, which makes it a breeze to apply. It contains several fermented ingredients, including bifida ferment lysate and saccharomyces ferment filtrate, which can moisturize the skin and make it appear more supple. And, for those who want to avoid possible irritants, this product is fragrance-free.
Ferver Fermented Ginseng Eye Cream
Another option from Ferver, this eye cream can help thwart fatigued skin and dark circles. It soothes, brightens, and de-puffs the delicate skin around your eyes with the help of fermented ginseng, as well as our go-to brightening active ingredient vitamin C.
Drunk Elephant Sweet Biome Fermented Sake Spray
Drunk Elephant’s refreshing, antioxidant-rich facial spray has a foundation of fermented ingredients (including kombucha and fermented rice water) that create a veritable cocktail of benefits: “This product incorporates amino acids, fatty acids, electrolytes, and ceramides, which work to hydrate and refresh the skin, while helping to support a healthy microbiome,” Dr. Garshick says.