The gut gets the majority of the attention when we talk about the microbiome. The digestive system is home to trillions of organisms that can affect the body, but it is definitely not the only place these bacteria exist. You’ve heard all about the probiotics that feed your gut. But the newest probiotics are aimed at bettering your skin—and the trillions of microbes that live there.
“We already know that a single centimeter of skin can contain bacteria, fungus, mites, and viruses,” says Dr Low Chai Ling. “Most of the microorganisms haven’t been researched yet, but we know that diversity of that microbiome is what keeps skin healthy.”
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What is the Skin Microbiome?
The skin micrombiome is simply all of the micro-organisms present on the skin; an ecological community of commensal, symbiotic and pathogenic microorganisms that literally share our body space. The mix of those bacteria, yeasts, and parasites is closely linked to weight, mental health, autoimmune health, blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, and even cancer.
Our bodies are ecosystems that harbor a microbial universe. Each of us has approximately 10 trillion human cells, 100 trillion bacteria, yeasts, and single cell protozoa (representing thousands of different species), and 1,000 trillion viruses in and on our bodies.
Scientists now consider the microbiome an important organ that helps us maintain the necessary metabolism to keep the chemistry of life running as effectively as possible. A robust skin microbiome protects against infection or dysbiosis in much the same way a good gut microbiome does, by colonization resistance (i.e. crowding out overgrowth of pathogenic organisms) and by maintaining relatively acidic environment (pH is around 5.0), which inhibits growth of pathogens. Staphylococcus epidermidis, a major commensal bacterium, produces phenol-soluble modulins that inhibit pathogens such as S. aureus and Group A Streptococcus. Commensals can also inhibit inflammation through cross-talk via Toll-like receptors 2 and 3, and stimulate production of antimicrobial peptides such as cathelicidin, which can kill bacteria, fungi and viruses.
The microbiome aids in wound healing, limits exposure to allergens and UV radiation, minimizes oxidative damage and helps to keep the skin barrier intact and well-hydrated.
We need to start thinking of the skin as a complex microbiome to be nurtured and protected, rather than a static surface that needs to be clean. In fact, most skin problems (from acne to eczema) likely affect the skin microbiome and may be a result of changes to this ecosystem due to modern lifestyle.
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Rosacea, Eczema, or Acne
Acne, eczema and rosacea are now attributed to a lack of diversity in the skin microbiome, says Dr Low. Eczema patients, for instance, were found to have a microbiome that’s different from the microbiomes of those who do not suffer from the telltale inflammation and skin rashes. Often, skin conditions occur because the microorganisms found on the skin have changed significantly from optimal levels, she adds. To keep those in check, she prescribes her patients a probiotic cream in addition to the usual topical to help promote diversity of the skin’s microbiome. And here’s some good news: If you’re taking an oral probiotic that targets the gut microbiome, you might see an improvement in a condition like acne because of the connection between the gut and the skin.
SALT: Skin Associated Lymphoid Tissue
Skin was once thought to be just a physical barrier from the outside world, though the existence of skin-associated lymphoid tissue shows that it is much, much more. Researchers estimate that these lymphocytes exist on the skin in a 1:1 ratio with bacteria. The theory is that these immune cells are capable of sensing and dealing with a great deal of bacteria on their own. They also communicate with lymph nodes within the body. These lymph nodes carry immune signals to the rest of the immune system and help determine the body’s appropriate response.
In short: your skin contains trillions of lymphocytes that are like soldiers protecting your body’s perimeter and radioing in information about approaching attacks to the main base.
How to Nurture Your Skin Biome for Healthy Skin
There are some things we can do to encourage a healthy skin biome in older children and adults:
Use a Skin Probiotic
Many of us take probiotics but few of us have ever thought of using a skin probiotic. “The patients whom I give probiotic cream to notice an improvement in their acne and eczema” says Dr Low. For those who are looking for a home remedy, Dr Low suggests a probiotic face mask made from yogurt. Oral probiotics are also helpful.
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Avoid Antibacterial Soaps & Choose Biome Friendly Soap
Avoiding antibacterial soaps is as important as using products that support the skin’s natural microbiome. Triclosan, one of the most-used antibacterial ingredients in soaps, was recently banned, but others are still used.
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Think About The Laundry
It’s crazy to think about, but you may share some of the skin bacteria with those in your household through the laundering process.
The laundering process caused a microbial exchange of influent water bacteria, skin-, and clothes-related bacteria and biofilm-related bacteria in the washing machine. Nearly all bacterial genera detected on the initial cotton sample were still present in the washed cotton samples. A selection for typical skin- and clothes-related microbial species occurred in the cotton samples after laundering.
In other words- laundering clothes may make them smell better, but it won’t kill the bacteria they contain. The study also found that natural fiber like cotton, linen and hemp seemed to hold a more natural balance of bacteria while synthetic fibers harbored bacteria that were out of balance with the normal skin ecosystem.
If anyone in your family struggles from skin issues, it may be worth addressing the bacteria found in washing machines and clothes. Drying clothes in the sun, even just a few times, may reduce or balance the bacteria naturally.
There is also evidence that sweat may contribute to healthy skin bacteria by serving as a prebiotic. Considering the other benefits of sweating (through exercise or sauna use), this one is an easy thing to add with a lot of other benefits as well.