How to protect your skin microbiome
You've heard about the importance of the gut microbiome. It is the most significant scientific discovery for human health in decades, possibly one of science's most important health discoveries. But, we don't hear so much about the skin's microbiome yet; it's equally important for your skin health.
For a refresh, let's cover the incredible world of your gut microbiome, as many of the problems people have with their gut health are caused by the same things that affect the skin.
The gut microbiome
Your gut microbiome is bigger than the average human brain and weighs a staggering 2kg. When healthy, it's a vibrant community of trillions of bacteria, archaea, fungi and viruses, containing at least 150 times more genes than the human genome. You could say that we are these microbes and have co-evolved with them since the beginning of human history.
We are our own ecosystem, and it is full of life.
Our microbial systems are hugely complex and vary enormously from person to person. Science is only just beginning to understand a small part of this intricate and complex interconnected system. It may not surprise you to hear that in the last 80 years, there has been a dramatic loss of these microbes.
"Over the past 80 years and since the dawn of antibiotics, there has been multi-generational loss of microbes that appear to be important for human health," They're passed from mother to child (during birth, via breastmilk and skin contact) throughout the generations, but at some point in the last three or four generations, we lost some. We're not entirely sure if the cause was our lifestyle, our diet, cleanliness in our homes or the use of antibiotics. We're also missing certain immune stimulants that people in the developing world have plenty of."
Professor Jack Gilbert, award-winning microbiome scientist.
The loss of this microbial diversity is thought to be underlying a large proportion of the chronic diseases our society is suffering from – asthma, food allergies, atopic diseases and autoimmune disorders. The increase in such conditions coincides with this loss of microbial diversity in our gut.
The diversity loss is driven by over sanitation and overuse of antibiotics, junk foods, artificial sweeteners derived from paraffin and the petrol industry, to emulsifiers in our food. Add to this the sheer amount of chemicals in our modern environment - paints, cleaning products, perfumes and other chemically-laden products.
The skin microbiome
Like your gut, your skin is home to hundreds of millions of bacteria, fungi and viruses coming together to comprise your skin's microbiome. These microorganisms play an essential role in the protection against pathogens, educating your immune system and protecting it from environmental toxins. You might think that your skin is your body's first line of defence against potential pathogens. But it's not your skin and its cells but your skin's microbiome.
It goes against everything we've been taught for decades but, most bacteria, viruses and other microbes should not be killed or avoided.
Your skin's microbiome has many distinct types of colonies depending on - temperature, skin thickness, amount and size of folds, skin pH, the density of hair follicles and glands dictate what sort of microbes you'll find. The microbiota on your face is different from the microbiota on your armpits.
When your skin's microbiome is in balance, it creates an environment where harmful bacteria can not exist, and your skin's healthy microbiota will combat the harmful bacteria you come into contact with.
When this barrier is damaged, the balance between the microbes is disturbed, harmful pathogens can take over, resulting in skin disease or even systemic disease. This can present with relatively mild symptoms such as oily or dry skin, eczema, psoriasis, to more severe skin infections.
So yes, there is also a direct link between your skin's appearance and a healthy skin microbiome.
The mechanisms as to why are not yet fully understood, but it's increasingly clear what damages it, and how to protect it.
Six ways to cultivate a flourishing, healthy skin microbiome
Choose clean skincare and makeup products
You want products that do not interrupt your microbiome and that align with your biology. Most synthetics disrupt your skin flora, particularly those containing alcohol and other harsh chemicals which upset your skin's PH balance. Your skin microbiome prefers an environment with a pH of around 5. At this relatively acidic pH, the healthy microbiome thrives. Inversely it's understood that harmful bacteria thrive at a more alkaline pH. Soap and most commercial face washes have a pH of about 10. These damage your microflora along with other alkaline topical products which increase the risk for skin issues.
Use less makeup and be sure it's derived from natural sources.
Avoid antibacterial soaps
Antibacterial soaps and hand sanitisers kill the beneficial microbes and the bad ones, leaving your skin more vulnerable to pathogens. This obsession with killing bacteria is making us chronically unwell, leading to an increased incidence of autoimmune and allergic diseases. Look for gentle surfactants like those derived from coconut rather than sulfates and detergents. Sanitisers which include large amounts of aloe vera will help keep your skin barrier in check. Beyond that the antibacterial type, soaps are generally alkaline, which can upset the balance of your acidic skin and make you more vulnerable to harmful alkaline-loving pathogens.
There's a balance between good hygiene and overdoing it. Depending on what kind of day I've had - if I'm in the city or out in nature, I alter my cleansing routine. If I can get away with cleansing every other night, then I do. I go off how my skin feels and looks. You'll find that once your skin microbiome is balanced, you'll need to use less skincare in general. So avoid over cleansing and, particularly over exfoliation. Too much exfoliation can strip your skin of its healthy microbes, and some exfoliants can create micro-tears in the skin. These tiny tears can be a breeding ground for unhealthy pathogens.
Eat a diverse plant predominate diet and hydrate
As with nearly all aspects of your health, what you eat plays a vital role in keeping your skin healthy. Eating a diverse diet rich in vegetables, fruits, healthy fats, and protein is proven to boost your gut microbiome, which in turn help your skin microbiome. One of my favourite books on eating for a healthy gut microbiome is Dr Bulsiewicz's 'Fiber Fueled'.
Hydrate yourself! We've written so many times here and her on the importance of hydration here & here. Hydration is more than just drinking two litres of water a day. Chronic dehydration negatively impacts your microbiome.
Avoid synthetic fabrics
Choose natural fibres like organic cotton over synthetics whenever possible. Man-made fabrics, especially tight or worn close to the skin, can cause an imbalance in your microbiome. They also have links to cancer.
Microbiota thrives on different areas of the body because of their unique environments. If you often wear items that disrupt your temperature, sebum or sweat production, or anything that affects your normal skin conditions, you could create an environment where good skin flora cannot thrive.
Get out into nature
Exposing yourself to greenery be it the great outdoors or urban green landscapes—improves the diversity of your microflora positively. The microbes found in nature literally transfer to your skin (and nasal) biomes through the simple act of touch and breathing.