If only the dulcet tones of David Attenborough were here to make science sound sweet. Channel your best BBC Documentary Narrator and read, “The human microbiome is the aggregate of all microbiota that reside on or within human tissues and biofluids along with the corresponding anatomical sites in which they reside, including the skin, mammary glands, placenta, seminal fluid, uterus, ovarian follicles, lung, saliva, oral mucosa, conjunctiva, biliary tract, and gastrointestinal tract.”
Mmm… sexy isn’t it.
While this isn’t BBC’s Planet Earth – this is a Marshall Madsen Science blog, and together, it’s a journey down some weird science topics that we’ll tackle together! Next up Ms. Frizzle – The Skin Microbiome
Cue: *Weird Science by Oingo Boingo*
The skin microbiome is a flourishing topic in the skincare and beauty world. This community of organisms have the ability to protect us from harmful germs and toxins while supporting healthy-looking and beautiful skin.
“The aggregate of all microbiota that reside on or within the human tissues.” Every single cell and individual bacterium plays a role in how your microbiome regulates itself. Sometimes it produces too much of chemical x, sometimes not enough of chemical y
What we eat, how we sleep, when we exercise, what we touch, or even what we think about can affect this sensitive little internal ecosystem. This is especially true of our skin. It’s constantly bombarded by UV rays, dirt, particulate in the air, other people’s oils and microbiota, products, lotions. It seems like the assault on our fragile little faces, hands, and arms is never ending.
More and more are coming to the understanding that healthy and beautiful looking skin is a reflection of one’s overall wellness. Those that go the extra mile to counteract, shield, or aid their skin in the battle for what’s not in their control, often show an excellent reflection of that knowledge, work, and care in the health of their skin.
What is the human skin microbiome?
We defined exactly what the human microbiome is, but just like your gut, lungs, ovaries, saliva or other biofluids, your skin is home to a community of billions of friendly living microorganisms, also known as skin flora (sounds so much nicer than biofluids *shudder). When it relates to the cells, oils, tissues, and fluids of the epidermis, we simply deem it the “Skin Microbiome.” Think of it as an invisible eco-system that lives on the skin that’s working to help keep it healthy and in good condition.
Everyone’s is different, literally like their fingerprint. This variety can determine things like the efficacy of product absorption or rejection, to skin tone and quality, and even to the general overall health. In a Vogue UK Beauty interview titled “What Do You Need To Know About Your Skin Microbiome?”, Professor Carsten Flohr of the British Association of Dermatologists said, “Your skin is a fairly hostile environment, generally speaking. Your skin pH is quite acidic, and we have these natural defense mechanisms against bad bacteria like sebum, which is actually antimicrobial.” All these different bacteria coexist in harmony most of the time, according to Professor Flohr. “Your skin bacteria and skin immune system talk to each other, and they talk to the bacteria in your gut. Just like with your gut, having a diverse balance is the key to a happy microbiome.”
Your skin type (microbiome) is not only unique to you, just like your genetics and lifestyle; but it differs colloquially on different areas of your body as well. A different party happening on your forearms, than in your armpits, than from your unmentionables, to of course the face!
A balanced microbiome is crucial to your skin’s health
As Prof. Flohr already pointed out, “Just like with your gut, having a diverse balance is the key to a happy microbiome.”
According to MindbodyGreen, your skin communicates with your immune system, protects you against infection, tempers a healthy inflammation response, and even protects us from environmental aggressors.
The skin is the human’s largest organ (usually weighing in at about 16% of an adult’s total weight), and its primary role is to serve as a physical barrier, protecting our bodies from potential assault by foreign organisms or toxic substances. While we don’t necessarily mean cyanide or potassium chloride (although yes… very dangerous), this barrier can simply protect our blood, muscular system and vital organs from something as simple as air.
“Your skin’s microbiome is its first layer of protection,” explains Marie Drago, French pharmacist and founder of Gallineé skincare. “A good way to think about it is that everything that touches your skin, touches the bacteria first – which means it can control everything from how well your skincare routine is absorbed to that unwanted acne breakout.”
As Dr. Whitney Bowe, a board-certified dermatologist in New York and author of The Beauty of Dirty Skin explains, “Our skin’s microbiome is a rainforest of diverse organisms which live in and on your skin’s various layers, from the deep-down fat cushion all the way up to your epidermal cells up high. In fact, there are more than one trillion bacteria in the skin, originating from approximately one thousand different species.’’
Meaning, it’s critical that we take care of this jungle in multiple ways. There is no “one size fits all” regimen that “fixes” the skin’s surface. It delves so much deeper than that. It’s not just a matter of what we put ON our skin, but what we put IN our bodies as a whole. It’s not just topical products, but mindful practices, routines, and overall health that affect it.
Since our skin is a living, breathing organ, we should think of it just like a Jungle in fact. A verdant green with fertile soil: it needs the proper care and maintenance, the rains that feed the desert, may kill the forest. In short, healthy skin is about creating a healthy environment, not just top line products.
What happens when your skin microbiome/skin flora is out of balance?
There’s actually a variety of bacteria that’s wildly helpful to the human body! The overuse of antibacterial soap can actually cause imbalances in the skin, which can then make you more susceptible to germs.
Research published in the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology shows that an unbalanced microbiome may be linked to intestinal bacterial overgrowth, which causes an inflammatory response that leads to the development of rosacea.
Ever wonder why there are skin care products that are infused with probiotics and prebiotics? It’s for that very aforementioned reason. An unbalanced skin microbiome. Subtle changes to our skin’s ecosystem can result in an unbalanced microbiome. It can lead to:
- Sensitive Skin (when that protection barrier starts to break down)
- Other bacteria may grow at an accelerated rate: acne, eczema, etc.
- Dry Skin
- Deeper fine lines
- Premature ageing
Just like when your gut acts up when you stop feeding it properly, so does your skin. It requires food, sustenance, care, and supervision.
How do I keep my skin microbiome healthy?
- Eat Healthy, Fiber-Rich Foods – ones that build good gut bacteria through fermentation. Fermented foods can boost the skin’s ability to fight off bad bacteria and retain moisture. According to Aveeno, “If you aren’t sure that your skin’s microbiome is healthy, or if you have some skin irregularities that you think could be solved with a stronger safeguard against pathogens, consider changing up your diet.”
- Gentle Cleansing. Clean does not mean sterile. Clean also doesn’t mean vigorous. Avoid heavily antibacterial components like alcohol, or triclosan; and be kind and gentle to your skin – even the healthiest skin is still extremely fragile.
- Respect your skin’s PH and it’s microbiome while you wash. Your skin acidity level is naturally around pH5. Below, and it’s too acidic. Above that, it’s too alkaline…y (surely there’s a better way to say that). Either way, too much of one, and not enough balance can damage the skin barrier and the microbiome living on it. Your skin will eventually get back to its ideal pH, but it is going to take some time to rebuild. And be aware, some traditional bar soaps (and even hand soaps) have a pH of up to about 10!
- Watch the temperature of your skin. Avoid scalding hot water (of course), hot temperatures (sunburns) but be sure to avoid prolonged frigidity (hypothermia and frostbite). Cold as much as hot can shock the skin, and even if the injury isn’t as drastic as frostbite, the recovery isn’t always easy or complete.
- Don’t over scrub. As much as I love a good dry brushing or a heavy scrub, your bacteria really don’t. They will eventually grow back but in the meantime, it leaves skin fragile and prone to sensitivity. The average epidermal skin cycle is about 27 days, deeper disruptions (like tattoo’s for instance) can take several months! Plus it makes wrinkles on the face.
- Work up a sweat a few times a week. Bowe again advises us: “When you exercise, you increase the blood flow to your skin, nourishing your skin with vital nutrients and oxygen.” (Just be sure to wear sunscreen)