Let's talk bacteria. At this point, most of us have at least heard about how probiotics help feed the gut microbiome - the millions of (mostly beneficial) bacteria that live in our digestive system and help us break down foods, absorb nutrients, and more. While the gut microbiome appears to play a significant role in skin health, it turns out our skin also has its own crew of essential bacteria, fungi, and other microbes: the skin microbiome.
Just you and 1.8 trillion of your closest friends
That's right, we each have about 1.8 trillion bacteria living on our skin. If your first reaction to that was "yikes," it's because the messages most of us have heard for years were focused only on harmful, pathogenic bacteria and how they can be killed with antibacterial soaps and body products. In reality, the vast majority of the microbes on our skin are either harmless (commensal) or beneficial (mutualistic). Our skin is our largest organ and first line of defense, and the bacteria living on its surface play a role in fighting off and crowding out potentially harmful bacteria before they have a chance to enter the body. Many of these bacteria perform functions that the human genome hasn't evolved and play a role in "educating" our other immune cells on how to effectively fight pathogens. Pretty cool, right?
The skin microbiome is also unique to each individual. If you were to compare with another person, your hands would likely only contain 45% of the same bacteria found on someone else's. In one study, researchers were even able to identify individuals based solely on the bacteria found on three keys of their computer keyboards! It's part of the reason we all have unique skin "types," skin conditions, and even body odor.
What determines your skin microbiome?
Our skin microbiome gets its start before we're even born. We receive some bacteria from our mothers while in the womb and during delivery, then more as we come into contact with others and the world around us. Because the type of environment greatly affects what bacteria can survive, there are dozens of factors that can determine skin microbiome throughout our lives. These can include age, climate, sex, location on the body, pH levels, immunity, genetics, occupation, hygiene routines, and more.
Taking care of your skin microbiome
At this point, you're probably like "Cool, what do I do with this information?" Well, not only do those bacteria help keep us protected from pathogens - they can protect us from certain skin conditions. For example, studies now show that acne, eczema, and rosacea are attributed to a lack of diversity in the skin microbiome. While some of the factors affecting skin bacteria are out of our control, there's actually a lot we can do to foster a healthy balance of microbes on our skin so they can work even harder for us.
- Stop using harsh soaps. We talk in depth about this below, but it's the easiest thing you can do to help your good bacteria flourish.
- Eliminate powerful synthetic fragrances and ingredients. Your skin is an ecosystem, and throwing these harsh ingredients in the mix pollutes the delicate balance.
- Wear natural fibers. This could be its own post, but synthetic materials can irritate your skin and allow overgrowth of harmful bacteria. Natural clothing like organic cotton allows your skin - and its many microbes - to breathe naturally, while fabrics like polyester provide a cozy home for odor-causing bacteria.
- Hydrate inside and out. Drink plenty of water and use moisturizing products that feed your microbiome rather than fighting it. Support your beneficial bacteria and they'll naturally keep your skin protected.
- Avoid daily, hot showers. Hot water is great for killing bacteria, but that includes the beneficial stuff. Take it a few notches cooler or even jump on the cold shower train.
- Get your gut right. Emerging research shows that our gut microbes communicate with almost every other system in our body, including our skin microbes. Many foods cause an inflammatory skin response, so pay attention to foods like sugar and dairy that can be common triggers.
- Keep it gentle and natural. We don't have enough research yet to know which specific ingredients will help foster specific strains of beneficial bacteria. But your body knows what it's doing, so the best thing you can do is use products that disturb natural processes as little as possible and help preserve your skin's natural balance.
Soap ain't it, chief
No one wants to be smelly or dirty, but soap as we traditionally know it can wreak havoc on our skin's microbiome because our skin is meant to be a self-cleaning system. First of all, many bar soaps and body washes contain harsh, questionable ingredients like parabens, pthalates, and synthetic fragrances that are rough on your skin and can even disrupt other body systems.
What about natural soap, though? Better, but still not ideal. Most of us think of "soap" as a generic term for anything we use for washing, but soap technically is made with a mixture of fat, water, and lye (sodium hydroxide). If you want to get scientific about it, many hand and body washes on the market are actually "detergents," which contain synthetic alternatives to soap.
The main issue with soaps and detergents is that by their very nature, they have a higher pH. It's how they do their job as a soap. But while soap's pH is around 10, our skin naturally likes to be around 5. When soap creates an alkaline environment, microflora can't thrive. Plus, most soaps strip away skin's natural protective oils - along with the bacteria that need them to survive. This can eventually damage the skin's surface, which leads to accentuated wrinkles and pores, acne, and inflammation that can worsen skin conditions. More importantly, killing off good bacteria on our skin can actually damage our immunity, which is the opposite of the intent.
And while we're on the topic, outside of medical settings, there's pretty much no reason to ever use an antibacterial soap - especially because studies have proved they don't do a much better job at removing pathogens than ordinary soap. Like antibiotics, antibacterial soaps kill both beneficial and harmful bacteria, which gives the bad stuff - and the resistant stuff - a chance to overpopulate.
A CLEANSER, NOT A SOAP
We made our CLEANSE+ with the skin microbiome front of mind. The simple, plant-based ingredients are gentle, hydrating, and pH balanced to cleanse without irritating or stripping natural moisture. More importantly, it contains prebiotic ingredients that feed beneficial bacteria on your skin. It's superfood for your skin, or perhaps more accurately, superfood for your microbiome.