Skin Microbiome: How to Nurture Good Bacteria & Glowing Skin
We typically think of skin only as it relates to beauty—but it’s essential to our overall health, too. After all, it’s the largest organ in the body and the major interface between us and pretty much everything outside of us. Our skin is also home to a vast array of microbes and their genetic material, collectively known as the skin microbiome1, and research has just begun to piece together the important role they play in our health and more exciting research is on the horizon.
What is the Skin Microbiome?
The skin microbiome2, sometimes called the skin flora, is the term for the trillions of bugs 3 that live on our skin. These microbes are bacteria, fungi, and viruses that are crucial to your health and well-being. They communicate with your skin cells and the immune system to establish and maintain the skin barrier to ensure optimal skin health. When something disrupts the delicate balance of microbes – such as disease-causing pathogens, a breach in the skin barrier or harsh skincare products – skin function is impaired, which can lead to infection and a number of adverse skin conditions.1,2 But there are things you can do to keep your skin – and the microbes that call it home – healthy.
Microbiome’s Role in Maintaining Good Health
The skin microbiome isn’t just one environment. It comprises three microenvironments: oily (sebaceous), moist, and dry. Each has its own unique population of microbes. For example, oil-secreting sebaceous glands, such as those in the forehead, are dominated by the bacterial genera Cutibacterium and Staphylococcus. Areas of the skin that are moist – the bend of the elbow and the bottoms of the feet – have high levels of bacteria that thrive in humid environments, such as Staphylococcus and Corynebacterium. Dry skin typically contains all three bacterial genera.2,3
Microbes protect the human body in several ways.6
- They regulate the formation of the outermost layer of the skin (stratum corneum), facilitating normal skin barrier structure and function.
- They ward off invasion, colonization, and infection from disease-causing pathogens.
- Some species of bacteria on the skin produce their own antibiotics that inhibit the activity of harmful bacteria.
- Microbes play critical roles in the recruitment and stimulation of immune cells in the skin and enhance wound healing.
The microbes that inhabit the skin are especially hardy because the skin is one of the least nutrient-rich microbiomes in the human body. The skin provides only basic proteins and fats, making it a more difficult environment to survive.
To overcome this, skin microbes have adapted to use resources they find in sweat, oil, and dead cells located in the outermost layer of the skin. Environmental factors challenge these microbes daily, including climate, pollution, ultraviolet light, cosmetics, soaps, and antibiotics.2
How is the Microbiome Compromised, and What Happens?
You’re probably familiar with the idea that loads of antibiotics, other medications, and a poor diet can damage the gut microbiome. This is called the “hygiene hypothesis,” and there’s a lot of research to support this important concept.
The same applies for the skin microbiome. Use of antimicrobial hand sanitizers and soaps are important for hygiene and protecting us against sickness—but it does contribute to skin dysbiosis and antibiotic resistance, thus stoking various skin conditions, research shows. An imbalanced microbiome, or skin dysbiosis, is associated with many health conditions, including psoriasis, allergies, eczema, contact dermatitis, acne, poor wound healing, skin ulcers, dandruff, yeast and fungal infections, rosacea, and accelerated skin aging.
It’s compromised by way of two factors: what you put on our skin, and what you put in your body.
1. You’re using the wrong products.
If you’re addicted to “clean,” you could be damaging your skin microbiome. Take soap and sulfates, for example: By their very nature, it’s alkalinizing. That’s how it works to remove dirt and microbes. But our skin microbiome prefers a pH of about 5. At this relatively acidic pH, the healthy microbiome thrives. It’s also understood that the opportunistic bacteria—the dysbiotic players—do better at a higher, more alkaline pH. And soap has a pH of up to about 10. Thus, we may actually be damaging our microflora with soap or other alkaline topical products and setting the stage for increased risk for skin issues.
Also interesting: A recent study showed that kids who hand-wash dishes have a lower incidence of allergies compared to those in families that use a dishwasher. That sounds paradoxical given what I’ve just mentioned about soap, but the authors speculate this has to do with the benefits of skin exposure to the microbes on the dirty plates.
2. Your gut microbiome is compromised, too.
New research shows that anything damaging to your gut microbiome8 also influences what’s happening to the skin. It’s called the gut-skin axis, and scientists are just beginning to understand the connection. To date, much of the research has been done on the gut-acne connection, but the connection is strong: “The lines of communication, as mediated by gut microbes, may be direct and indirect, but ultimately influences the degree of acne by a systemic effect on inflammation, oxidative stress, glycemic control, tissue lipid levels, pathogenic bacteria, as well as levels of neuropeptides and mood-regulating neurotransmitters.”
3. You over-do it with skin care in general.
While this is a very recent area of study and hypothesis, most dermatologists and experts are coming to the understanding that the very act of applying too many skin care products has the potential to damage our skin barrier and throw our biomes out of whack. This is likely because potent actives in topicals change the behavior of the skin, and therefore the bugs that live on it.
4. Modern lifestyle.
It’s good to get outdoors and in nature for your physical health, mental health, and it turns out, your microbiome. And unfortunately, people are increasingly living in urban environments—some without regular access to green parks, meaning human micro floras are becoming less diverse overtime.
In fact, research finds that contact with nature—or the lack of contact—directly influences your microflora diversity. “In industrialized countries, non-communicable diseases have been increasing in prevalence since the middle of the 20th century,” the study elaborates. “While the causal mechanisms remain poorly understood, increased population density, pollution, sedentary behavior, smoking, changes in diet, and limited outdoor exposure have all been proposed as significant contributors.”
The study went on to show that exposing yourself to greenery—be it the rugged outdoors or even urban green landscapes—improves the diversity of your microflora9 in a beneficial way. And what’s happening is actually simple: The microbes found in nature literally transfer to your skin (and nasal) biomes through the simple act of touch and breathing. (While this is exciting to understand how closely human and earth biomes can be connected—the researchers couldn’t draw any conclusions on long-term benefits of this exposure yet, and noted more research should be done in this area so we can better understand how to improve our skin microbiomes.)
The Connection Between an Unbalanced Microbiome and Skin Conditions
Much research is underway to determine if an imbalance in the skin’s microbiome causes skin conditions – or if the skin condition leads to an imbalance in the microbiome.3
- A loss of diversity of skin microbiota might contribute to acne. Bacteria called p. acnes trigger an inflammatory response that forms a biofilm or barrier, making it difficult for antimicrobial acne treatments to penetrate the skin.3 (Blue Light from our LED Light Therapy Treatments effectively kill this bacteria without harming the beneficial bacteria to treat acne and restore balance to the skin’s microbiota)
- Dandruff is linked to fungi that are thought to cause an overproduction of oleic acid. This disturbs cells in the outer layer of skin and causes an inflammatory response on the scalp.4
- Atopic dermatitis, also known as atopic eczema, might occur when the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus overwhelms the resident microbiota.5
- Although the exact cause of alopecia areata (non-scarring hair loss) is unknown, some research links it with an imbalance in the microbiota found in the hair follicles.4 See 4 Ways to a Healthier Scalp That Can Help Prevent Hair Loss
- Skin cancer and actinic keratosis are associated with imbalances in the skin microbiome. It’s thought that a decrease in bacteria that offer protection against UV damage are partly to blame.3
The Future of Research: Enhance the Skin Microbiome to Improve Health
Research continues to explore the relationship between the microbiome and skin health – and there are some promising results. Oral and topical probiotics, particularly Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, have been linked to improvements in oxidative stress, photodamage, and skin barrier dysfunction. Some research has found that probiotics might aid skin hydration.7
Another area of study is skin microbiota transplantation – based on the same premise as fecal transplantation, which repopulates an ailing gut microbiome with healthy microbiota to treat digestive disorders. Researchers are investigating methods that can “knock out” a compromised skin microbiome by using antibiotics and replacing it with a healthy microbiome. The idea is to one day use a healthy and balanced skin microbiome to treat skin conditions, such as atopic dermatitis.5
Defining the role of the skin’s microbiome in health and disease is a fast-moving and evolving topic, with much to be discovered. While research works out how to harness the power of the microbiome to treat skin conditions, there are things you can do to improve the overall health of your skin.8
- Avoid antibiotics unless absolutely necessary.
- Protect skin from the sun. Use sunscreen, wear protective clothing, and seek shade when the sun is intense.
- Don’t smoke. Smoking depletes the skin’s nutrients and increases the risk of squamous cell skin cancer.
- Be gentle. Limit bath time, avoid strong soaps, and moisturize skin regularly.
- Eat a healthy diet, including plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins.
- Reduce your consumption of sugars and carbohydrates which not only feed the not-so-beneficial bacteria, yeast and pathogens that produce their own waste and toxins, and cause inflammation. (in addition to glycating your cells and aging your skin)
- Take care of your gut by consuming fiber or fiber rich foods, taking prebiotics and probiotics, fermented foods, and supplements such as l-glutamine.
- Identify and remove trigger foods that contribute to inflammation such as conventional dairy and gluten (both are associated with exacerbating a range of skin issues, including eczema and acne)
- Drink plenty of water to keep skin hydrated.
- Manage stress. Get enough sleep, scale back your to-do list, and make time for enjoyable activities.
- Exercise and stay physically active. If you’re eating well, the sweat you produce is likely a fortifying prebiotic for the skin microbiome plus physical activity leads to better skin health overall, as when you exercise, you increase the blood flow to your skin, nourishing your skin with vital nutrients and oxygen.
- Avoid mouthwash as these contain alcohol and other ingredients intended to kill bacteria (Stick to flossing and brushing and consider oil pulling and tongue scraping)
PLEIJ Salon offers probiotic supplements containing several strains of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium to support a healthy skin microbiome from the inside out.* In addition to drinking plenty of water, Collagen Plus from Thorne contains HydroPeach, which is derived from Japanese peaches and supplies ceramides – lipid molecules that help maintain the water balance of the skin.* Ceramides occur naturally in the skin but decrease as one ages.
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- Swaney MH, Kalan LR. Living in your skin: microbes, molecules, and mechanisms. Infect Immun 2021;89(4):e00695-20.
- Byrd AL, Belkaid Y, Segre JA. The human skin microbiome. Nat Rev Microbiol 2018;16(3):143-155.
- Callewaert C, Knödlseder N, Karoglan A, et al. Skin microbiome transplantation and manipulation: current state of the art. Comput Struct Biotechnol J 2021;19:624-631.
- Carmona-Cruz S, Orozco-Covarrubias L, Sáez-de-Ocariz M. The human skin microbiome in selected cutaneous diseases. Front Cell Infect Microbiol 2022;12:834135.
- Boxberger M, Cenizo V, Cassir N, La Scola B. Challenges in exploring and manipulating the human skin microbiome. Microbiome 2021;9(1):125.
- Harris-Tryon TA, Grice EA. Microbiota and maintenance of skin barrier function. Science 2022;376(6596):940-945.
- Ratanapokasatit Y, Laisuan W, Rattananukrom T. How microbiomes affect skin aging: the updated evidence and current perspectives. Life (Basel) 2022;12(7):936.
- Skin care: 5 tips for healthy skin. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/skin-care/art-20048237. [Accessed Nov. 9, 2022.]