Read on to learn what you can do to support your skin’s innate defense mechanisms to maintain a clear, glowing complexion and preserve youthfulness.
But first, let’s explore the microbiome.
Did you know that your human skin is full of fungi, viruses, bacteria and even mites? Don’t worry though, you need these little companions. The colonies of bacteria, invisible to the naked eye, are referred to, perhaps more endearingly, as ‘microbial flora’ (Scharschmidt, T. C., & Fischbach, M. A., 2013).
Most of you are familiar with the importance of a ‘healthy gut microbiome’ thanks to the overwhelming number of gut-friendly beverages in supermarket aisles — kombucha, kvass, kefir and other probiotic drinks and supplements.
Skin scientists are just starting to unravel the complexity and diversity of the skin microbiome, some of which I’ll present to you in this article in the context of maintaining healthy, radiant skin.
Researching the topic of skin microbiome for the last 9 months has reminded me of my soil science coursework as a Cornell undergrad. To put it simply, we are an ECOSYSTEM… and “If you don’t like bacteria, you’re on the wrong planet.” - Steward Brand
Microbiota vs. microbiome
In 2001, microbiologist Dr. Lederberg coined the term ‘microbiome’ to define all organisms residing in a living being as well as the environment in which they evolve.
The microbiome is thus an ecosystem that encompasses its inhabitants (the microorganisms — the microbiota) and the environment in which they reside (Dréno, B., et al. 2016) and with which they interact (all the chemical substances produced by your organs, cells, mucosa etc.). Each part of the body has its own microbiome. Thus, you have a very specific microbiome inside your respiratory system, genital area, scalp, mouth, skin etc.
Your cutaneous microbiota encompasses all the bacteria at the surface of the skin and in the first layers of your epidermis (the top layer of your skin). This flora is the result of an equilibrium defined by the living conditions of your skin (Scharschmidt, T.C., & Fischbach, M.A 2013) and varies between us. It is dependent upon your age & sex; the area in question (face, hair, armpits, back); and on internal factors such as your immune system, lipid and protein content, and of course, pH!
This microbiota is your own personal identity, just like a fingerprint. It is unique to each individual.
The environment in which your microbiota evolves, your microbiome can be influenced by environmental factors such as temperature, humidity level, UV exposure etc. Your own personal microbiota will thus evolve and is dependent upon the environmental conditions it is in, your microbiome (Luna, P. C. 2020).
A true symbiotic relationship
As we’ve been told in the context of the gut flora, not all bacteria are 'bad bacteria'. In fact, this cutaneous flora plays a major role in your immune system, and is truly the first line of defense against infection (Brown, M. M., & Horswill, A. R. 2020).
The human skin houses bacteria, allowing for a symbiotic relationship between the host (your skin) and the bacteria able to ward off microbial infections. This type of synergistic relationship is so often seen in N A T U R E—
Take for instance nitrogen fixing plants like peas and beans. In the roots of these plants lies nitrogen-fixing bacteria that live in ‘nodules’ in the roots (the host). These bacteria feed off the plant and in turn provide it with bioavailable nitrogen, a key nutrient necessary for plant growth.
When pathogens come in contact with your skin barrier, your skin flora will then ‘enter battle’ and will start to consume nutrients that might otherwise fuel the pathogenic bacteria (Pickard, J. M., et al., 2017). Your skin microbiota is capable of recruiting your immune cells by emitting ‘messengers’ in case it needs assistance. In fact certain beneficial bacteria are capable of secreting substances that kill pathogens (Sanford, J. A., & Gallo, R. L. 2013).
Thus, in times of healthy homeostasis, you are literally protected by your microbiota. Who knew the surface of our skin tissue was so active?!
Does the role of your skin as a ‘barrier’ make more sense now?
Skin microbiota alteration
To ensure ‘helpful bacteria’ colonization, your microbiota needs to:
⫸ Be able to adhere easily to the skin
⫸ Adapt to the natural phenomenon of desquamation (your skin’s internal cell-turnover process to eliminate dead skin cells).
⫸ Live in an acid environment
Just like our planet's S O I L S are subject to human pesticide overuse, human activity is damaging our microbiome – a lot. Our enthusiasm for antibiotics and antibacterial products means that to target a few bad bugs, we are disseminating entire species that had been there for millions of years, just co-evolving inside and on us (Blaser, M. J. 2016).
Unfortunately our cutaneous flora is endlessly put to the test. Synthetic clothing, creams, cleansers & soaps, deodorants, medication, hot water & showering frequency have an effect on your cutaneous ‘environment’ and as such affect the integrity of protective bacteria (Sinha, S. et al., 2021). When your microbial ecosystem is perturbed, the skin’s immune defense is weakened and the skin barrier can inadvertently let pathogenic bacteria disrupt homeostasis. The protective bacteria populations decline, leaving room for excessive numbers of pathogenic bacteria — this causes skin havoc and sometimes skin disease. Scientists and dermatologists have discovered that acne, eczema, psoriasis, rosacea are all tied to an impaired skin microbiome (Lynde et al., 2016; Grice, E. A., & Segre, J. A. 2011). In fact, recent studies suggest skin aging is closely related to the diversity of your cutaneous ecosystem (Li, Z., 2020; Luna, P. C. 2020; Boxberger, M., et al., 2021).
How can you support flourishing cutaneous flora?
The key here is to preserve a robust hydro-lipidic film (also known as acid mantle) so that our cutaneous bacteria has the perfect living conditions (microbiome) to protect your skin in case of an attack.
1. Favor good quality cosmetics
If you're buying water-based creams and serums they need to be expertly formulated. I’m seeing a lot of fruit, mushroom, and the latest Amazon Jungle superfood-based creams on Etsy and DIY blogs along with mold-growing horror stories. Stay away! Water-based creams should be pH balanced by a chemist to mimic the skin’s innate pH. (More on this in section 4.)
2. Remember your microbe friends during your daily hygiene routine.
Showering (with hot water and harsh soap) can be a huge culprit when it comes to microbiome disruption. Soaps and shower gels usually have a pH that is far beyond that of the skin (pH around 5.5). This leaves an unfavorable terrain for the development of your microbial flora.
The mechanical effect of washing can also remove the bacteria that protects us daily.
As such, over-washing and over-exfoliating with inappropriate products removes lipids that are key to healthy skin and deteriorates skin proteins … all of which leads to an adulterated hydro-lipidic film which can in turn lead to cutaneous dysbiosis (Hamblin, J., 2021).
3. Cleanse your skin gently
Especially your face.
If you’ve been an Anato CommuniTree member for a while you know that I am not a proponent of face washing with soap. I think soap is useful to clean your smelly parts and excessive grime from a day outside when dirt sticks to the sunblock on your legs for instance. Washing your hands with soap is obviously important to kill pathogens. I shan’t debate how many times a week to wash your body because soap is a key aspect of societal hygiene and infectious disease management (Bloomfield S.F., et al. 2016). But I favor cold-process bar soap over harsh commercial bars and shower gels. Read this associated blog post 'What you need to know about soap' to learn how to shop for the best soap and learn more about the topic.
If you want to read what scientists like Dr. Skotnicki and Dr. Hamblin (M.D.) have to say about the dirty soap industry (and why the latter does not bring soap into the shower anymore), I recommend their respective books ‘Beyond soap’ and ‘Clean’.
Now, if you’re wondering about special pH balanced ‘soap without soap’. My purist point of view says those are the result of overly-refined or synthesized materials. I believe that skincare grows in forests, not in labs. Labs are for research and testing.
4. Use oils and balms
At Anato we formulate oils and balms because these products do not alter the pH of your skin. Oil does not have a pH and therefore cannot alter the pH of your skin. As indicated above, selecting good quality cosmetics is key, but even natural brands incorporate 'natural' ingredients such as alcohol in their formulas as preservatives. Worst yet, alcohol is often hidden inside ‘plant extracts’ in the INCI ingredient panel of a cosmetic. Alcohol destroys your cutaneous flora; that’s why alcohol is used to disinfect wounds.
This is where Anato differentiates itself from other brands. I have researched and analyzed all the options when it comes to incorporating active ingredients from plants into our skincare line, and the methods we use to incorporate phytochemicals (plant chemicals) into our formulas are alcohol-free extracts in favor of oil extraction.
For me, incorporating an alcohol-soluble phytochemical (that’s not oil soluble) into a skin product does not outweigh the negative effect of putting alcohol on skin (alcohol is also very drying which is already an issue for maturing skin).
The best example I can give here is à la mode algae-based face creams. The beneficial compounds found in seaweed are water and alcohol soluble, not oil soluble. That’s why we incorporate the freeze-dried seaweed kelp in our face mask and not our face oils. Our powdered 'Kelp Forest Mask' — to which you have to add water to form a paste — is shelf-stable, extremely potent and remains alcohol-free.
I go to great lengths to create microbiome-supporting cosmetics & routines, and make sure there is no hidden alcohol in our ingredient list. For instance, rose absolute (solvent extraction) is a cheaper (albeit ‘green’ and ‘natural’) way to obtain rose aromatic compounds than from a rose essential oil (distillation process). At Anato, we pay FIVE times more for rose essential oil (vs. absolute often cut with alcohol) in our Regenerative Elixir. Not to mention, organic rose is almost twice the price of conventional.
So whichever company you buy your products from, ask about any hidden alcohol in the ingredient list. And please, stay away from natural alcohol-based deodorants. They’ll disrupt your armpit microbes and might just make you stinkier.
General good practice for your body's microbiomes.
First and foremost, be cautious with antibiotic use (Blaser, M. J. 2016). While you may have read otherwise from marketing claims, according to King’s College London Professor Flohr (microbiome expert), there is no hard evidence to suggest that taking care of your gut microbiome by consuming probiotics internally manifests itself in a healthy skin microbiome. Nonetheless, if like us, you’re interested in functional medicine, Ayurveda, Chinese medicine and holistic wellness you have come to understand that all the things are connected in your body and maintaining a healthy gut microbiome is key to general health (which includes skin health).
In sum, the best attitude you can have to encourage diverse skin microorganisms is to take into account the information above and, as scientist S.F. Bloomfield puts it: get closer to nature by touching plants, soil and animals (Bloomfield S.F., et al. 2016).
In light of this science,
a summary of what makes Anato uniquely positioned to foster healthy cutaneous flora and lustrous skin:
↟ We research and formulate cosmetics with microbiota top of mind.
↟ No hidden alcohol or solvents (that disrupt the skin barrier) in our ingredient lists.
↟ We offer pH neutral skincare products that do not perturb your skin's acid mantle of 4.5-5.5 on the pH scale.
↟ We promote gentle, microbiome-supporting skincare routines
Bloomfield S.F., et al. (2016) Time to abandon the hygiene hypothesis: New perspectives on allergic disease, the human microbiome, infectious disease prevention and the role of targeted hygiene. Perspect Public Health 136(4):213–224.
Boxberger, M., Cenizo, V., Cassir, N., & La Scola, B. (2021). Challenges in exploring and manipulating the human skin microbiome. Microbiome, 9(1), 1-14.
Dréno, B., Araviiskaia, E., Berardesca, E., Gontijo, G., Sanchez Viera, M., Xiang, L. F., ... & Bieber, T. (2016). Microbiome in healthy skin, update for dermatologists. Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology, 30(12), 2038-2047.
Grice, E. A., & Segre, J. A. (2011). The skin microbiome. Nature reviews microbiology, 9(4), 244-253.
Li, Z., Bai, X., Peng, T., Yi, X., Luo, L., Yang, J., ... & Hu, D. (2020). New insights into the skin microbial communities and skin aging. Frontiers in microbiology, 2603.
Luna, P. C. (2020). Skin microbiome as years go by. American Journal of Clinical Dermatology, 21(1), 12-17.
Lynde, C. W., Andriessen, A., Bertucci, V., McCuaig, C., Skotnicki, S., Weinstein, M., Wiseman, M., & Zip, C. (2016). The skin microbiome in atopic dermatitis and its relationship to emollients. Journal of Cutaneous Medicine and Surgery, 20(1), 21-28.
Pickard, J. M., Zeng, M. Y., Caruso, R., & Núñez, G. (2017). Gut microbiota: Role in pathogen colonization, immune responses, and inflammatory disease. Immunological reviews, 279(1), 70–89.
Sanford, J. A., & Gallo, R. L. (2013). Functions of the skin microbiota in health and disease. Seminars in immunology, 25(5), 370–377.
Scharschmidt, T. C., & Fischbach, M. A. (2013). What lives on our skin: Ecology, genomics and therapeutic opportunities of the skin microbiome. Drug Discovery Today. Disease Mechanisms, 10(3-4), e83-e89.
Sinha, S., Lin, G., & Ferenczi, K. (2021). The skin microbiome and the gut-skin axis. Clinics in Dermatology, 39(5), 829-839.