Experts break it all down for us.

More often than not, the world of wellness feels like it's filled with buzz words—two we hear so often are "probiotics" and "prebiotics." If you've ever found yourself wondering what they are, whether or not they're the same thing, and if you really need to be taking both, you're not alone. The terms are so similar—and are often discussed together—which makes distinguishing them tricky. Essentially, our bodies have bacteria, fungi, and even mites that live on the surface of our skin and in our digestive tract known as the microbiome. Our microbiome helps us maintain a healthy gut and skin pH levels. "The microbiome in our gut and skin is a 'microscopic forest' where various residents work together to maintain balance," explains board-certified dermatologist Jessica Krant, M.D.

Dr. Krant explains that when our microbiome is healthy and balanced, we are healthy. If something throws that microbiome balance off, it can have negative effects on our digestion, skin, brains, and more. "The key to a healthy microbiome, be it in your gut or on your skin, is keeping it balanced: making sure you have enough 'good' to prevent the 'bad' from taking over and wreaking havoc," she says. Prebiotics and probiotics are essential in achieving and maintaining this balance.

Bathroom medicine cabinet
Credit: William Andrew / Getty Images

What are prebiotics?

Prebiotics act as food for bacteria and other organisms in your gut, allowing them to flourish. "In basic terms, when we say prebiotics we are implying that we are talking about feeding the good microbes," says Dr. Krant. She further explains that prebiotics providing food for the good bacteria already present in your gut also allows for the good bacteria to keep the bad bacteria in check.

While there are prebiotic supplements, they naturally exist in a healthy diet. Dr. Kent says we find prebiotics in fiber, plants, and plant products. Prebiotics also tend to fall under sugar, though she warns that not all sugars are good and to be mindful of sugar intake. She also says that ingesting prebiotic supplements can sometimes result in gas and bloating, so check with your physician or gastroenterologist to find the right oral prebiotics for you.

What are probiotics?

Probiotics are live microorganisms that provide many health and skin benefits. "I think of them as being pro-health," says Dr. Krant, who adds that probiotics benefit the microbiome in a variety of different ways. First, they take up space so that there is less space for bad bacteria to thrive in. "Think of your skin (or gut) as a big, uncharted territory [and] the microflora (bacteria, fungi) all want their own piece of land. The more good bacteria in the space, the less space there is for the bad bacteria to occupy."

A second benefit is that probiotics can kill bad bacteria. Dr. Kent explains that live probiotics expel chemicals like antimicrobial peptides to do that. On the other side of that spectrum, probiotics can expel antioxidants or anti-inflammatory agents to help treat skin concerns.

You need both prebiotics and probiotics.

In terms of whether you should focus on adding prebiotics or probiotics to your diet and wellness routine, Dr. Krant says it's hard to recommend one over the other. They work together to help keep the microbiome healthy. "Probiotics in the gut and in the skin have both been shown to be beneficial in many situations, but in both cases, it appears that using probiotics alone will not permanently alter the microbiome and that when stopped, the microbiome will trend back to where it was before," she says. "This is why a system that includes prebiotics and probiotics along with other considerations, to help prepare the environment, populate the environment, and maintain the environment (by avoiding ingesting or using things that kill off the good stuff) tends to work best."


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