Post — 10 Min Read

Scalp Microbiome: An Emerging Segment in the Microbiome World

Although the study of microbiology can be traced back as far as the 1600’s to Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, research into the scalp microbiota has only recently started to gain traction in the microbiome world.

Advances in microbiology and clinical testing have accelerated the demand for hair products and treatments that target common scalp ailments, leading to the explosion of scientific research in this subject.

What is the scalp microbiome?

Similar to the skin microbiome, your scalp microbiome contains a diverse mix of microorganisms including bacteria, fungi, and viruses, that exist in one habitat. However, the scalp and hair follicle microbial communities differ from the microbiota of your skin surface.

A balanced microbial population is required for good scalp health, otherwise dermatological conditions like rashes, dandruff, and irritation can occur.

Analysis of the scalp microbiome can help show the positive or negative impact of hair products on the natural microbiota of the scalp, along with identifying the physiologic, anatomic, and biochemical composition of the surface. The scalp microbiome ecosystem can regulate and affect functions of the scalp, such as:

  • Production of sebum
  • Regeneration of follicles
  • Pathogenesis of scalp disorders

History of analysis of the scalp microbiome

Although cleansing hair products like powder and liquid shampoos have been around for over one hundred years the study of the scalp microbiome is relatively new. As of today, there are only just over fifty published articles on the subject in PubMed’s archives of over thirty million citations of biomedical literature.

Evidence is steadily increasing that conditions such as dermatitis, alopecia and dandruff are linked to imbalances of the scalp microbiota.

How the scalp microbiome can identify causes of dermatological issues

In this 2018 study, researchers identified the main bacteria associated with dandruff, directly proving a scientific link between dandruff and the bacteria that grow on the hair shaft and scalp:

  • Malassezia
  • Propionibacterium acnes
  • Staphylococcus epidermidis and capitis

Dandruff affects up to 50% of the worldwide population, and annual expenditure on anti-dandruff treatments in the US alone accounts for almost $300m USD. It’s no wonder global cosmetic companies are ramping up research into methods to treat the root of the problem.

Full impact of scalp and hair product ingredients are yet to be realised

At the moment, the vast majority of hair products don’t factor scalp microbiota into the equation because of the lack of scalp microbiome models for testing. When it comes to the cause of cosmetic and dermatological issues, we do not yet fully understand the impact of ingredients such as:

  • Actives
  • Preservatives
  • Sunscreens
  • Perfumes
  • Emollients
  • Texture ingredients
  • Colourants
  • Surfactants

Researchers investigating the collapse of the human scalp microbiome in dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis discovered that a reduction in microbial diversity or an overgrowth of some microbial species can cause skin problems. This lead to the theory that some of the most common scalp conditions listed below could potentially be self-inflicted:

  • Dandruff
  • Seborrheic dermatitis
  • Folliculitis
  • Alopecia

Challenges faced in the development of beneficial scalp microbiome products

As the study of the scalp microbiome is a relatively new subject in the microbiome world there are many challenges that must be faced when developing new products.

  • Lack of research
  • Complex environment
  • Lack of actives & tested actives
  • Lack of microbiome models

How Labskin technology is advancing research into the scalp microbiome

Labskin, the only commercially available lab-grown, full thickness human skin model that naturally mimics the skin’s microbiome, has already been successfully utilized in a range of concepts in this area, including the testing of:

  • Topical microbials
  • Hygiene agents
  • Prebiotic materials
  • Probiotic concepts

Providing a blank canvas for anti-microbial testing has allowed us to test scalp-specific antimicrobials on Malassezia when developing anti-dandruff shampoos. Labskin can also be used for testing products aimed at treating scalp diseases such as folliculitis, which can be caused by pathogens like Staphylococcus aureus. Until recently, this type of study was only possible on human volunteers during a clinical trial with healthy and diseased participants. A clinical approach presents issues that Labskin resolves. One is the inherent interpersonal variability of the microbiome which introduces complexity to the analysis of the outcome.

At Labskin we replicate the same microbiome so controls and products are tested in the exact same conditions.

Additionally, retrieving the microbiota from the scalp is a relatively non-invasive technique. Sampling a person’s scalp to study its physiological response needs invasive techniques such as biopsies which are riskier and more painful for the volunteer and more difficult to justify on ethical terms. At Labskin we can easily look at both sides; the microbiome and the host using any end-points the study needs to address.

Where does the future of the scalp microbiome take us

As consumers become aware of how the balance of microbiomes is essential to promote healthy scalp and hair condition, the demand for products targeting a healthy scalp microbiome will continue to rise.

To meet this demand, cosmetic companies will have to back up their claims with clinically proven tests. Working in collaboration with eighteen of the top twenty global cosmetic companies on the development of products targeting the scalp microbiome ensures Labskin will help play a leading role in this movement. As further studies investigate the scalp microbiome, new avenues for personalised treatments on the scalp and hair will be developed.