The word “bacteria” doesn’t normally bring up sunny thoughts of spring and puppies. We associate the word with disease and infections, and it’s true that bacteria can cause these unpleasant things.
But over the past few decades, we’ve also learned that there are a lot of good bacteria that actually help us live healthier lives.
In the digestive system, for example, lives a community of both good and bad bacteria called the “microbiome.” Scientists tell us we are born with these bacteria, and then we continue to gather more through the foods we eat. Keeping this community in balance—so the good guys outnumber the bad guys—helps us stay healthy in a lot of ways.
A healthy gut microbiome contributes to smooth digestion and a strong immune system, and in some studies has even been connected with improved mood and a reduced risk of depression.
It’s not only the gut that provides a home for these friendly microorganisms, however. The skin, too, has it’s own bacterial community or microbiome.
What is the Skin Microbiome?
It helps to remember that the skin is an organ just like the heart or the liver, and its main job is to protect you from skin cancer, infection, and disease. Those little microorganisms that are part of the microbiome play a part in that job, protecting against organisms that would like to harm you and assisting in other tasks like taming inflammation, healing wounds, and shutting out allergens and environmental toxins.
Everyone’s skin microbiome is different, but there are certain types of organisms that are dominant, and have been found to perform specific activities in the skin. Some release fatty acids that help moisturize the skin, for example, while others protect the skin from redness and acne.
There is also some evidence that an imbalance in the microbes in the skin may be a factor in certain skin problems, like acne, rosacea, and other inflammatory skin disorders like dermatitis and psoriasis.
Scientists believe that in general, we have two groups of microbes living on the skin:
- Resident microbes: These are not harmful and are routinely found in the skin. Even after their homes are disrupted, they tend to re-establish themselves. In other words, they are consistent “residents” and tend to stick with us long-term.
- Transient microbes: These arise from the environment and may live on the skin for hours to days. They don’t become permanent residents.
As long as the skin is healthy and has a strong barrier function, neither of these types of bacteria is likely to become problematic. If the skin is struggling for some reason, though, some of these microbes can grow beyond healthy levels, causing disease.
Staphylococcus epidermis, for example, is often found on healthy skin, but it can also become problematic in people with compromised immune systems. Staphyloccoccus aureus can also be a resident microbe, but under certain circumstances, can become a disease-causing pathogen.
The key to a healthy skin microbiome is balance. When that balance is upset, the skin and body may suffer.
How Skin Problems May be Related to the Skin Microbiome
Scientists are beginning to think that many common skin problems may be related to the skin’s microbiome. Acne, for example, is caused by over-enthusiastic propionibacterium acnes—a common bacterium in skin, but one that can become problematic in some cases. In fact, some studies have shown that in people with acne, the microbiome was less balanced than in people with healthy skin.
Imbalances in bacteria may also be to blame for other conditions like eczema and dandruff, as well as rosacea, which seems to flare up as the microbiome changes in response to inflammation. Studies have found that individuals with atopic dermatitis also had high levels of certain bacteria on their skin like Staphylococcus, particularly during a flare.
Microorganisms on the skin can affect the healing of chronic wounds that are common in those with diabetes and obesity, and in the elderly. Studies show that non-healing ulcers, for example, have different types of bacteria than smaller wounds that heal more quickly.
On the other hand, a healthy microbiome can also help protect us from skin problems. Research has found that a strong community of microbes on the skin can help reduce risk of skin infections and other skin problems, even skin cancer.
“A healthy microbiome can protect against skin infection by preventing the overgrowth of pathogenic organisms,” dermatologist Toral Patel, M.D., told Greatist.
What Affects the Skin Microbiome?
A number of factors can affect the balance of the skin’s microbiome, including:
- Age: As we age, the balance of microbes tends to shift on the skin. Nobody knows why yet.
- Genetic makeup: We get our microbiomes from our mothers when we’re born, which means your particular microbial community will be unique.
- Immune system: The health of the immune system can affect the health of the microbiome and vice-versa. The skin contains immune cells, and these are regularly communicating with the microbial community. If the immune system overreacts to something, it can cause inflammation that disturbs the microbiome. Sometimes the immune system doesn’t recognize resident bacteria and attacks it, which may be a factor in skin diseases like psoriasis.
- Climate: What climate you live in can affect the microbes on your skin.
- Hygiene: How you cleanse your skin and what products you use can either benefit or damage the microbiome.
How to Protect Your Skin Microbiome
We still have a lot to learn about this complex system, but what we do know so far suggests that some of the things we’re doing in our modern-day lives may be damaging it.
One of the most destructive is the overuse of antibacterial products, like antibacterial hand washes and cleansers. These can kill beneficial microbes on the skin, disrupting the balance and potentially leading to dryness and inflammation.
Harsh cleansers and soaps can also annihilate the good bacteria in skin as well as the bad, as can a poor diet or obsessiveness with cleanliness. To help maintain a healthy skin microbiome, follow these tips:
- Avoid antibacterial cleansers and choose warm water and a gentle cleanser instead.
- Eat more high-fiber foods—they’re high in prebiotics that help nourish good bacteria.
- Eat more probiotic-rich foods—these contain beneficial bacteria that contribute to gut health, which in turn, may contribute to skin health. If you’ve had to take antibiotics recently, talk to your doctor about possibly taking some probiotic supplements.
- Be cautious about the products you use on your skin—many contain harsh chemicals that can disrupt the skin’s natural balance. Look for products with natural and safe ingredients that work with the skin to promote optimal health.
- Apply probiotic products to skin—there are some creams and lotions out there today that contain probiotics. You can also apply probiotic-rich yogurt directly to the skin and use it as a hydrating mask.
How do you keep your skin microbiome healthy?
Kong, H. H., & Segre, J. A. (2012). Skin Microbiome: Looking Back to Move Forward. Journal of Investigative Dermatology, 132(3), 933-939. doi:10.1038/jid.2011.417
Pahr, K. (2018, August 27). How to Get More Bacteria on Your Face? ‘Cause That’s Actually Something You Want. Retrieved from https://greatist.com/live/skin-microbiome-how-to-cultivate-good-skin-bacteria