A lot of people talk about taking care of your microbiome. It's a buzz-word that's been doing the rounds for some time now that seems to crop up whenever people talk about the importance of gut health. But what is the skin's microbiome, you ask? Well...
Living on our skin are thousands of billions of bacteria, fungi, and viruses. They live together in a startlingly diverse microbial cosmopolis similar to any human society. We have peaceful, law-abiding microbes that quietly go about their lives, loving their neighbors, and doing good like enhancing our immune system, protecting us from invaders, and breaking down nutrients for us. These upstanding microbes pay their taxes.
But, like any sprawling metropolis, your microbiome also sports the occasional bad apple. The criminal elements. These not-so-law-abiding citizens go less quietly about their lives, causing all sorts of mayhem whenever they get the chance, like eczema, psoriasis, chronic infections, and depressed immune function. Indeed, there is a war for the heart of your skin’s microbial society, and both sides have been waging it for a long time. And, as CEO, Landlord and God of your skin’s microbiome, it’s your job to support the side you want to win.
What, in More “Science-y Terms” is the Microbiome?
The microbiome is not consistent across your skin. It is less a single, sprawling city of microbes spread across your skin, and more a diverse continent replete with different regions and peoples with their own distinct cultures, customs and subcultures. The microbiome of your face might be as alien to the microbiome of your torso or the soles of your feet as European sailors might have been to Japanese fishermen hundreds of years ago.
But what, specifically, does our microbiome do for us? Well…
Your Microbiome is a Microbial Police Force
The most theatrical of these functions is Colonization Resistance, and no, it has nothing to do with humanity’s last stand against alien invaders.
We mentioned your microbial citizens are a generally peaceful lot, right? Well, nothing riles up the delicate harmony of a peaceful, law-abiding town than a villainous group of invaders. When foreign pathogens come riding like torch-wielding bandits out of the desert to invade your skin and set fire to your microfloral town, your microbial communities form a town militia to stand and fight. This is why it’s important to keep your microbiome healthy—your militia needs functioning weaponry and healthy fighters to defend against those barbarous interlopers.
Your Microbiome Shapes Your Genetics
Yes, your very genetics are influenced by the microorganisms living on your skin. (Meisel et al. 2018) conducted a study comparing the expression of immune-important genes between germ-free mice—i.e. mice raised in sterile environment from birth that possessed no microbiome on their skin at all—and conventionally raised mice, colonized with a healthy microbiome. The study found over 730 genes related to immune system strength were enriched, meaning they were significantly more resistant to illness and disease than the mice without a healthy skin microbiome—on a genetic level!
A Healthy Microbiome Protects You From Yourself
A healthy, cooperative microbiome is kind of like that friend that taps you on the shoulder when you’re about to do something really stupid, and says “Hey, you’re about to do something really stupid.”
In more scientific terms, a healthy microbiome promotes Immune Tolerance. This process is what prevents your internal immunological defense force from going full Mad Max inside your own body. After all, your immune system involves cells specifically designed to destroy other cells—which is kind of a risky thing to just keep lying around, if you think about it. To keep the peace, your body has regular checkpoints throughout the body to disarm these guys before they can go wreaking misguided havoc anywhere they don’t belong.
Part of the genetic expressions that a healthy microbiome promotes is the development of these checkpoints; basically, your body gets all the metal detectors, x-ray machines, and security cameras it needs to keep your own agents from going rogue.
Your Skin is Under Constant Attack
The Most Wanted criminal across the land of your skin is the scourge, Staphylococcus Aureus, a.k.a S. Aureus, or simply Staph. Staph infections are bad enough to cause fevers, horrid boils and carbuncles, and often require you to call in the big guns—full-blown antibiotics—to deal with them. Left unchecked, Staph infections can even be lethal. Seriously, Staph is a bad, bad dude.
And Staph is always there. Always lurking. S. Aureus is ever present across our skin, the eternal antagonist of our peaceful, microfloral citizenry. And, like any seasoned criminal, Staph is also ever the opportunist. That’s why one of the first signs of an underlying immunodeficiency or dysbiosis (an imbalance between us and our microbiome) is the emergence of recurring Staph infections.
Fight Staph with Staph
The best way to protect yourself against staph is, surprisingly, to encourage the growth of staph’s close relatives, S. Caprae, S. Hominus, S. Epidermidis, and S. Lugdunensis. These friendly microbiota resent the shame that their cousin S. Aureus has brought to the House of Staphylococcus and employ numerous methods of inhibiting their wayward fallen relative; They will ring the alarm for your immune system, produce antibiotics to target staph, and even create proteases to destroy the harmful biofilms that Staph produces. But this is only if the friendly members of house Staphylococcus are themselves healthy.
A Healthy Microbiome Heals Wounds Faster
S. Epidermidis is a microbial citizen of particular note, an especially productive and upstanding member of your skin’s societies. A real pillar of the community. Epi is great at producing antimicrobial peptides to help bring invasive pathogens to justice, as well as stave off inflammatory-cytokine release during wound healing.
On the other hand, research has shown that unhealthy, microbiomes with imbalanced microbial populations slow healing. In particular, specific strains within the S. Aureus community seem capable of creating chronic, non-healing wounds in certain immunodeficient patients. More on that next.
What Happens When Your Microbiome is Disrupted?
When the peaceful activity of your skin’s microbiome is thrown into disarray, numerous negative side effects can occur depending on the type of dysbiosis. Perhaps a specific family in your microfloral society has disappeared, driven away by the overuse of a harsh exfoliant. Maybe a poor diet has contributed to the overpopulation of another family, and, drunk off power, they have begun a reign of terror over the other residents. Or perhaps your microbial police force was left understaffed and under equipped, and virulent foreign invaders like Staph and others of his ilk have invaded and begun to take over. Each of these problems present themselves in different ways.
A study at UCLA showed increased overpopulation and strain variance in the P. Acne resulted in more virulent forms of acne, significantly increasing the production of numerous negative chemicals like IL-17, a pro-inflammatory cytokine, and porphyrin. This means that patients who suffer from “mega-outbreaks” where their skin just seems to explode should look less towards more and more powerful new products, and instead examine what they are already using. It’s entirely possible that the extra-super-maximum strength cleanser they’re using, or their misguided attempts to commit the cardinal sin of using bar-soap on their face to “keep it clean” are actually worsening the condition by destroying the microbial good guys capable of fending P. Acne.
Eczema too is characterized by heavy colonization of S. Aureus. (Byrd et al. 2017) showed that during an eczema flare, S. Aureus and the otherwise friendly S. Epidermidis skyrocket in both population and strain variance. And highly varied S. Aureus is simply the last thing your skin needs.
Okay, But How Do I Take Care of My Microbiome?
Your microbiome does a lot to protect you from the external world. They fight dangerous enemies. They work 24/7 without rest to break down nutrients for you. They do their best to keep inflammation down and warn your body of incoming threats. They do a lot. Luckily for you, being a good landlord is pretty simple.
We’ll sum up in two words: BE GENTLE!
We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again. If you’re going to use a skin scrub, make sure to do your research first. While there are plenty of amazing DIY scrubs you can make at home, remember that skin is not the same across your body. Sugar scrubs are great for the body but too abrasive for the face. And even if you are using a gentle scrub, exfoliating too frequently is like a bad hurricane season for your microbiome—everything they build just keeps getting obliterated, and the community begins to wither away. When this happens, dry and flaky skin is the very least of your potential problems.
Use pH Balanced Products!
Your skin’s microflora, tough as they may be, are a rather picky folk. They prefer a very specific type of climate—ideally, a pH of 5.5. This is the perfect level of acidity for your skin, allowing the microbiome to go about its business and your skin to maintain an extra barrier known as the acid mantle.
Don’t Be Afraid of a Little Oil!
Astringent products are excellent at removing oil from your skin—sometimes a little too excellent. The natural oils present on your skin are important for retaining moisture and providing a comfortable environment for your microbiome. Even people with naturally oily skin should avoid using astringent products too often. Routinely drying out your skin is like dropping your microbial community in the middle of the Sahara desert. It gets kind of hard to run a business and hunt bad guys without any water in the desert.
You’re probably familiar with probiotics. A lot of fermented foods and dietary supplements are labelled ‘probiotic’ when they’re enriched with the kind of positive microflora that keeps your gut healthy. Probiotics are basically just reinforcements for the good guys. Prebiotics on the other hand are like aid packages dropped in the middle of your microbial war, full of the food your good microbes love, like saccharides, and the bad ones hate. Postbiotics are the byproducts created by your good guys, almost like a stimulus package for your skin—it’s more of the stuff they produce that you want. Using all of these for your skin can help maintain balance and turn your microbiome into a robust utopia where no one is want for food or shelter and bad guys are myths of a turbulent past.
At the end of the day, remember that to take care of your skin’s microbiome is take care of your skin. A lot of us, quite understandably, get too focused on what we can see in the mirror. Acne. Rashes. Dry skin. But we end up treating the symptoms, rather than the disease. If you’re having any sort of skin problems, rather than looking for the product with the right keyword on its label, instead look to see how your current routine might be disrupting your skin’s microbiome and ways you can help your microbes help you!