At this point, you’ve probably heard about the gut microbiome, also known as the community of bacteria that live in our digestive tract. But did you know that bacteria live in, on, and even around our bodies as well? It’s true; in fact, scientists think we have just as many microbes in our bodies as human cells.
And over the past few years, one microbiome in particular has been getting a lot of attention. It’s the skin microbiome—and it might just be what determines whether our skin is thriving, or not.
Getting to know the skin microbiome
There are more bacteria on the skin than we can count, and most of them are harmless or even beneficial. As the authors of a paper titled “The skin microbiome” wrote: “Symbiotic microorganisms occupy a wide range of skin niches and protect against invasion by more pathogenic or harmful organisms.”
There’s a lot left to learn about the skin microbiome, but one thing we do know for sure is that the type of bacteria varies topographically. In other words, the presence of sweat glands or dense hair follicles will affect the type of bacteria that colonize a specific area of the skin. Research has also shown that factors such as age, sex, and even occupation and climate can influence the skin microbiome.
Because of this variability, the skin microbiome is actually thought to be the most diverse and variable of all. (Take that gut microbiome!)
The skin microbiome’s role in skin disorders
As you might suspect, changes in the skin microbiome have been connected to common skin disorders, including acne, psoriasis, and atopic dermatitis. It’s even been shown that common skin bacteria can protect against skin cancer by preventing tumor cells from spreading.
So what’s the end-game when it comes to researching the skin microbiome? According to 2013 paper published in Nature Reviews Microbiology, “An enhanced understanding of the skin microbiome is necessary to gain insight into microbial involvement in human skin disorders.” By uncovering the role bacteria play in common skin conditions, we can know how to prevent them. According to the authors of the study, this knowledge could also help us develop treatments that focus on increasing good bacteria and keeping the pathogenic ones in check. In fact, people are already using probiotics on their skin to help with inflammatory skin conditions. As integrative dermatologist Cybele Fishman told mindbodygreen, “I’ve been using kefir masks for years to treat skin conditions in my patients; it really helps.”
How to keep your skin microbiome happy and healthy
So how do you protect the integrity of your skin microbiome? Although much of this is still speculative, it’s thought that harsh chemicals skincare products are stripping away these beneficial bugs, which could be contributing to the epidemic of chronic inflammatory skin conditions. Because of this, many natural beauty experts and dermatologists recommend opting for gentle, organic products over those with harsh ingredients.
“Our skin was made to function perfectly normally without the help of all the products we use today,” said Jasmina Aganovic, the president of Mother Dirt—a skincare line featuring probiotic-based sprays, cleansers, and oils. “We believe the skin microbiome is the basis of beautiful skin,” she told Well + Good.
When it comes to the skin microbiome, there are still a LOT of questions to be answered. But rest assured we’ll be hearing a lot more about these beneficial bugs in the future.