Newsflash: there’s a tiny, invisible ecosystem living on your skin that’s totally harmless, but plays a vital role in the health of both your skin and your immune system.
Not only is the skin your largest organ – weighing in at around 8 pounds and covering a mighty 22 square feet1 – but it plays host to all manner of life and activity through a clever colony of microorganisms that makes up what’s known in the business as skin microbiome.
You’ve probably never heard of the skin microbiome, let alone have any understanding of what it is, right? Well, don’t worry, you’re not alone. But the truth of the matter is that this abundant and diverse eco-system could well be the key to understanding your skin and all its quirks and foibles.
Ahead, we spoke to Kimberly Capone, PhD, former Head of the Microbiome Platform at Johnson & Johnson Consumer Inc. about the skin microbiome and why this little known, but hugely important system of life is something worth recognizing. Dr. Capone is a top microbiologist and what she doesn’t know about the skin microbiome is simply not worth knowing.
What Exactly Is the Skin Microbiome?
Also known as skin microbiota or skin flora, the microbiome is an ecosystem of over a trillion microorganisms living on various layers of the skin. These microorganisms have evolved over many centuries and include bacteria, fungi, viruses and even mites (what the…?). All of these have their place, however and most are completely harmless, if not beneficial to the health of your skin.
“The skin microbiome is defined as the community of microbiota occupying the skin’s surface within the hair follicles and pores. It refers to the bacteria themselves as well as the various activities or functions they perform,” explains Dr. Capone.
Such microorganisms are not only present in the many layers of your skin, but also in the lining of your gut. And, just like that of your gut, your skin microbiome plays an important role in your health and is completely unique to you.
Microbiota also differ on various areas of your body due to your skin’s variation in thickness, folds, texture, number of hair follicles and level of oiliness.
“Your microbiome is different in an oily environment versus a dry environment because the resources available to the skin bacteria vary,” says Dr. Capone. This means your face microbiome might contain completely different flora to that on your legs, for example.
All this makes the skin microbiome a very complex topic to understand and potentially why it’s slipped under the skincare radar until recent years. Today, however, learning about the function of this unique ecosystem is critical to understanding how it relates to the look, feel and health of your skin.
“The primary function of the skin microbiome is to keep invading bacteria at bay,” says Dr. Capone.
“It does this by colonizing various environments within the skin and maintaining acidity at the surface to create a less hospitable place for pathogenic bacteria to thrive,” she adds. Again, just like the gut, the skin microbiome is all about good bacteria defeating the bad.
“From birth, the microbiome helps educate a baby’s skin immune system to recognize healthy bacteria from potentially harmful ones. Then, as a child ages, the skin microbiome helps trigger skin cells to produce anti-microbial compounds which help inhibit pathogenic bacteria as they occur. This mutually beneficial activity is one reason human life has co-evolved with the skin microbiome.”
It’s a tricky subject to get your head around, granted, but once you get the basic premise that your skin hosts a unique ecosystem of good and bad bacteria, the ins and outs of your microbiome should start to make a little more sense. And the good news is that there’s still a great deal of research being done on the benefits of the skin microbiome, so it’s relatively uncharted territory. Therefore, don’t feel bad if you don’t understand all the science quite yet.
Your Microbiome Is Constantly Evolving
In an ideal world, your skin microbiome would run like clockwork from the day you’re born until the day you die. It would be faultlessly balanced and exist in complete harmony with your skin barrier to maintain the perfect environment for good bacteria to defeat the bad.
But life doesn’t work like that. Not only is your unique microbiome part of your predisposed biological makeup, but its balance shifts dramatically throughout your lifetime according to various disruptions from both external and internal factors such as the environment, your age, diet, skincare habits and lifestyle.
And this all starts from the day you’re born. Within the first few weeks of living, your skin microbiome begins to colonize and establish itself so it can adapt to its composition, function and surroundings.
“The skin microbiome in infants is dominated by Streptococcus and Staphylococcus species, but, along with the structure of the skin itself, this changes and evolves over time,” explains Dr. Capone.
“At puberty, for example, increased sebum production in the face and upper body causes the microbiome to shift to a Cutibacterium and Staphylococcus dominated community.”
Cutibacterium acnes is a major player in a healthy adult’s microbiome. It has long been linked to the development of acne, but research shows that while some strains of Cutibacterium acnes induce an inflammatory response in skin, others found in non-acne skin do not.
“This is an interesting example of where the function of the microbiome member is critical in affecting the health outcomes of the skin,” says Dr. Capone.
Take eczema sufferers as another example. Research shows that people with eczema are lacking in various good strains of bacteria which causes an imbalance in the microbiome.
“When the skin’s environment is destabilized, such as in atopic dermatitis or eczema, the skin microbiome community is severely affected,” explains Dr. Capone.
“People with eczema experience inflammation that damages their skin barrier leaving it dry, itchy and prone to rashes. These eczema rashes have an elevated pH and are associated with a less diverse skin microbiome.”
Throughout adult life, various external stressors can also alter the equilibrium of the microbiome. Lifestyle habits such as daily hot showers, excessive cleansing with chemical-heavy products or a sugary diet can all upset the balance, while the natural aging process causes a further hit to the microbiome.
“Skin aging is characterized by wrinkling, loss of elasticity, dryness and a fragile skin barrier,” says Dr. Capone.
“It is also associated with an increase in pH along with a decrease in sebum, sweat and immune functioning, which, together, may influence the composition of the skin microbiome. Studies show that levels of sebum-loving Cutibacterium acnes are reduced in aging skin, while an increase in levels of Corynebacterium species can often be seen.”
Interesting stuff, right?
3 Ways To Help Maintain A Healthy Skin Microbiome
So, in the absence of a time machine to take you back to your plump 8-year-old skin, what can you do to help conserve and support a balanced microbiome and, consequently, healthy skin?
1. Be Super-Gentle with Your Skincare
What you put on your skin plays a major part in the health and balance of your microbiome. Overloading it with anti-bacterial cleansers, for example, will not only destroy the bad bacteria, but the good guys will also feel the hit so you should try to avoid using them if you can. In fact, all harsh cleansers and facial scrubs are a no-go. Instead, go for 100% SkinSAFE cleansers that are pH-balanced and formulated without the top common allergens and irritants based on clinical data from both ourselves and the Mayo Clinic. These common irritants include things like fragrance, preservatives, parabens and dyes.
Treading carefully with gentle skincare goes for every step in your routine, especially if your skin barrier and microbiome are compromised and have resulted in problems like eczema, psoriasis or acne.
“The causes of an unbalanced skin microbiome are related in part to the skin environment the bacteria find themselves in. As such, the first step when the skin barrier and microbiome are compromised is to restore your skin to its healthy state. This means gentle, hydrating lotions and creams for dry skin and eczema, and routine cleansing and proper moisturization for acne,” recommends Dr. Capone.
“Good hygiene and skincare practices will limit disruptions to your skin microbiome and almost certainly provide it with a happier home in which to function more efficiently,” she adds.
2. Evaluate Your Lifestyle
As with your entire being, eating well and leading a healthy lifestyle goes a long way in helping to keep your skin (and indeed your gut) microbiome balanced. Stay hydrated and include lots of fresh veggies, healthy fats, protein, and fiber in your diet, but try to limit known skin irritants such as dairy and gluten. And it goes without saying to avoid overloading your diet with sugars and processed food.
You should also up your intake of prebiotics, probiotics and postbiotics to help promote good bacteria in your gut and consequently your skin. But first, let’s take a quick look at what these are.
Prebiotics are nutrients that contain microorganisms which act like fertilizers to encourage the growth of healthy bacteria2.
Prebiotic foods: asparagus, yams, garlic, onions, leeks, bananas and oats.
Probiotics are living microorganisms in their own right. They help increase the population of healthy bacteria by stimulating growth and/or activity.
Probiotic foods: yoghurt, kombucha, kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, sourdough bread and soft cheese.
Postbiotics are the byproducts produced by probiotic fermentation.
Postbiotic foods: see above – probiotic foods are the source of postbiotics.
Biotics offer an almost infinite number of benefits for your health and well-being (too many to go into now) but, needless to say, more and more studies are proving their positive effects on the skin. This is especially good news for eczema sufferers who lack a number of good strains of bacteria in their skin microbiome, and acne-prone skin whose microbiome often contains too much harmful bacteria.
“Prebiotics, specifically, help provide a competitive edge to your healthy skin microbes to fight off overgrowth of bacteria related to dry, itchy skin and acne,” explains Dr. Capone.
“Staphylococcus epidermidis, for example, can help inhibit Cutibacterium acnes bacteria, which can often be the cause of inflammation in acne skin,” she adds.
As well as eating a diet rich in biotics, you could consider taking a supplement. But tread carefully – always look for ‘live’ bacteria and CFUs (colony forming units) in the billions because anything less won’t work as well. There are a dizzying number of probiotic and prebiotic bacteria out there – all still in fairly early stages of research – so it’s also prudent to speak to your doctor or dermatologist before taking any kind of supplement.
3. Introduce Prebiotics & Probiotics in Skincare
Another effective way to help promote good bacteria on the skin is through the introduction of prebiotics and probiotics in your skincare routine.
“Probiotics can really help in skincare to calm and nourish the skin. In topical skincare products, most of the probiotics used are no longer living. Instead, they’re fermented and called probiotic ferment lysates or probiotic lysates.
“These probiotic lysates are full of calming and hydrating benefits that help nourish and moisturize the skin. They’re also full of postbiotics,” says Dr. Capone.
“Sometimes these compounds can be isolated and used alone as a postbiotic ingredient in skincare. Lactate is a great example of a postbiotic produced by probiotic bacteria. It’s the same compound that Lactobacillus acidophilus produces to turn milk into yogurt, and why yogurt is so good for your skin.”
A huge amount of research is still required to confirm the stability and efficacy of biotics in topical skincare, but if you’re thinking of adding some to your skincare routine, check out our list of irritant-free products, here(prebiotics) and here (probiotics).
Article By: Georgia Gould