By Lauren Valeenti
"Healthy skin is anything but squeaky clean!" says New York City dermatologist Whitney Bowe, M.D., of the dirty truth behind a robust skin microbiome. Just like the gut, the skin has its own unique ecosystem of bacteria, fungi, and viruses that impact how it functions. Keeping it in balance is essential for maintaining a hydrated and glowing complexion. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, where the ultra-hygienic atmosphere has us thinking more about our skin's interaction with its environment, experts break down what the skin microbiome is and how to nurture it for happier, healthier skin.
What is the skin microbiome?
"Our skin microbiome refers to the trillions of microscopic organisms, mostly bacteria, that live on and in our skin’s various layers," explains Bowe. "A healthy or 'balanced' skin microbiome is like a diverse rainforest—the more strains which coexist, the healthier the skin." According to Alison Cutlan, a green chemist and co-founder of sustainable pro-microbiome skincare brand Biophile, the skin's microbiome is seeded at birth, unique as a fingerprint, and is in constant communication with its environment and our skin. "Our microbes are responsible for protecting our skin from pathogens, controlling skin immunity, nutrient absorption and supporting our skin barrier," explains Cutlan. "I like to say that skin microbiome is like the control center or the 'life force’ of the skin.'"
Why is it important for the skin microbiome to stay balanced?
When it comes to the health of our skin microbiome, it’s especially important to focus on the health and diversity of our skin barrier. "It acts as a smart, protective shield whose main function is to serve as the body’s interface with the outside world," explains Bowe. "When it’s healthy and functioning at its optimal capacity, it acts like a biodynamic membrane, constantly making decisions about what is allowed to enter the skin and what is blocked. A healthy barrier traps moisture in, and keeps irritants and potential pathogens out." In other words, a healthy barrier protects against both inflammation and infection.
In contrast, when even one strain in our skin microbiome overgrows and starts to crowd out the others, this leads to "dysbiosis," or an imbalance. Bowe calls this imbalance "leaky skin" (riffing on "leaky gut syndrome") and when it occurs, you begin to see problems in the skin. "Leaky skin can manifest in a number of different ways depending on the genetic predisposition of the person including as acne, eczema, rosacea, psoriasis," explains Bowe. "But it can also can show up as sensitive skin and can even accelerate signs aging in the skin like loss of elasticity, uneven tone, and wrinkles."
What’s compromising the skin microbiome in modern life?
It's the way we live today, and how it's impacting our skin microbiome, that inspired Cutlan to start a microbiome skin-care brand in the first place. "Our modern lifestyles, including what we eat, being over-hygienic, the products we use, and our reduced exposure to nature, have decreased our microbial diversity making us more susceptible to dysbiosis associated with chronic inflammatory skin conditions, such as dryness, overproduction of sebum, breakouts, redness, and inflammatory condition." Cutlan also notes that research has shown that as a whole, our bacterial diversity has dramatically declined from our ancestors’.
How is the COVID-19 pandemic having an impact on the skin microbiome?
"COVID has naturally led to a hyper-hygienic atmosphere," explains Cutlan. She cites the example of how, by scrubbing our hands with soap and/or using sanitizer throughout the day to reduce viral infection, we've also stripped our skin of its natural oils and the healthy bacteria that protect our barrier. "Our skin is not sufficiently equipped to handle these harsh treatments and it led to a lot of irritated and sensitive skin issues," she says. Maskne, the irritation and breakouts caused by wearing face coverings, is another pandemic phenomenon that has led to new cleanliness protocols. "It's led to more frequent laundering of face masks and spikes in facial skin treatments that target acne including detoxifying cleansers, anti-bacterial, and probiotic topical treatments," says Cutlan.