We all want healthy, glowing skin, and there are plenty of products to help us get it. But what if the secret to healthy skin lies not in a fancy bottle, but...on our skin?
That's right. A healthy microbiome is the key that will get your skin back to how it was before all the issues such as dullness, dryness, uneven skin tone, irritation, and breakouts started to appear.
And luckily, there are many ways to support your microbiome, which is what we will talk about in this article! But first, let's get to know this wonderful universe that comprises our skin.
What Is the Microbiome?
The "skin microbiome" is a term used to describe the community of microorganisms that reside on our skin. This community consists of bacteria, fungi, viruses, yeast, and even mites that live burrowed deep inside our pores.
These organisms comprise the skin's own ecosystem, and they work hard to provide vital functions that humans have not yet evolved to provide for themselves. One of these vital functions includes protection against other, more harmful organisms that are part of the environment we live in.
In order to protect us from harmful organisms, this ecosystem plays an essential role in educating and priming the immune cells to respond when there's something wrong. For example, some specific benefits of the bacteria that live on our skin include preventing harmful organisms from colonizing the skin’s surface by competing for food and nutrients and secreting chemicals to ward off pathogens and prevent them from taking up residence on the skin.
We have more living microorganisms on and in our skin than we have cells in our bodies.
The skin microbiome alone is home to an estimated one trillion microorganisms, which shows us that we have more living microorganisms on and in our skin than we have cells in our bodies, meaning we fully depend on them to perform beneficial actions to help us survive.
Therefore, it’s of utmost importance to maintain balance on your skin because this essentially contributes to a healthy environment for these organisms to thrive and protect you from various environmental dangers.
Where Do the Beneficial Bacteria Come From?
The microbiome is with you from birth when an individual’s skin gathers its first beneficial bacteria from the mother’s vaginal canal. And, according to the research in Clean: The New Science of Skin by James Hamblin, a trained physician and medical reporter, some of this bacteria stays with you for life.
The microbiome only grows from there: It continues to pick up microorganisms from breast milk, human interaction, diet, and the environment (animals, air, soil, and everything you can think of). Therefore, while some people may not use skincare products, they still have microorganisms they can always rely on.
Microorganisms: The Original Skincare Products
Every skincare product that's currently on the market strives to mimic what our microbiome does naturally.
For example, we use cleansers to remove impurities stuck on our skin after a day out. But did you know that the skin is cleansing itself by constantly shedding and replacing the dead skin cells? This is definitely not the cleanse you are used to, but, amazingly, the skin has the ability to basically replace itself when it's time for a cleanse.
We also tend to use moisturizers when our skin is feeling dry, and these products usually contain components known as lipids, which are waxy substances naturally produced by our sebaceous glands and perfectly altered by the microorganisms living on our skin to lubricate the skin's surface and make our skin feel comfortable.
Additionally, we like to use exfoliators to encourage the dead skin cells to shed faster from the skin's surface so that we can enjoy seeing our freshly exfoliated skin glow during golden hour. But besides having the ability to replace the dead skin cells on its own, the skin also has little helpers, which are microorganisms that feed on the proteins that hold dead skin cells together, thus providing a mild, natural exfoliation.
The skin cleanses itself by constantly shedding and replacing the dead skin cells.
We have the acid mantle, a byproduct of the microbiome that has a slightly acidic layer of the skin's surface and prevents bacteria, viruses, and contaminants from penetrating the skin.
And lastly, we have the bacteria that we passionately hate because we believe it's causing us skin ailments such as acne. However, this isn't exactly true, and while bacteria are responsible for acne to some degree, it's actually an overgrowth of bad bacteria and not enough good bacteria that has led to the issue. This is why we employ skincare products that contain antibacterial ingredients to help rid us of the awful bacteria. But we forget that when dealing with conditions such as acne, using an antibacterial product will kill all bacteria, which can easily tip the balance of over-colonization by pathogens.
Our skin microbiome functions as a balanced whole; therefore, adding or removing something will inevitably cause an issue. The trick is not to put an incredible effort into trying to get rid of what you think your skin doesn't need because it's there for a reason.
To kill every microorganism – good, bad, or neutral – at the first sign of trouble will disrupt the balance of the skin microbiome and lead to even more issues than you dealt with initially. This will ultimately cause your microbiome to become compromised and unable to do its job in protecting you.
Signs That Your Microbiome Is Compromised
As you now know, our skin microbiome has many responsibilities. However, several factors such as using too many skincare products, medication, nutritional disorders, and immunologic deficiencies can throw it off balance, and when this happens, you will likely notice some symptoms.
Here's what a compromised microbiome looks like:
A Worsening of Inflammatory Conditions
If you’re dealing with inflammatory conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, acne, or rosacea, you might notice that your symptoms get worse when your microbiome is compromised. This is because the microbiome plays a significant role in maintaining skin barrier function, and when it's not working properly, the skin becomes more inflamed and irritated.
Dry and Dehydrated Skin
Another common sign that your microbiome is out of balance is dry and dehydrated skin. When the microbiome is healthy, it helps to keep the skin moisturized and hydrated. But when it's not working properly, the skin can become dry, feel tight, and start flaking off.
The microbiome plays a significant role in maintaining skin barrier function.
If you notice that you’re getting more skin infections such as yeast overgrowth and acne that seems to appear in clusters, this is yet another sign that your microbiome is not functioning properly.
It’s widely known that stress and high cortisol levels negatively affect the skin, causing cell damage and affecting collagen. However, age lines can also become more visible because of the effects of stress on the microbiome. While more research needs to be done, initial studies published in 2019 have started to link the health of the skin microbiome to the aging process.
How You Can Support Your Microbiome
Luckily, building up your microbiome doesn't take long and is a fairly uncomplicated process.
The first thing you want to do is stop using an excessive number of cosmetic products, both skincare and makeup. Try to limit your beauty routines to gentle cleansing and moisturizing as necessary.
Always research the ingredients inside a product and make sure these aren't stripping your skin off its natural protective layer and irritating your skin, as some alcohols and fragrance components do.
Some other ways to increase your microbial diversity include getting enough sun, spending time outside, exercising, eating fresh fruits and vegetables, having a diet rich in antioxidants and minerals, drinking less alcohol, and avoiding harmful lifestyle habits such as smoking and not getting enough sleep.
With the microbiome still being a relatively new field of study, there’s a lot we don't know about it yet. But one thing is for sure, taking care of your microbiome is the key to achieving healthy, beautiful skin.
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