This guest post was written by Jasmina of Mother Dirt. She is deeply passionate about educating others on skin health and providing environment-friendly, nourishing products. I encourage you to check out Mother Dirt’s blog.
We’ve become very comfortable with the important role bacteria plays in the gut. Even though there’s a long way to go in understanding the gut microbiome, there’s enough evidence today that has shaped our daily lives. It’s become the “right thing” to take probiotics, and eat certain foods for their good bacterial content. There are now also pharmaceutical companies creating therapies to serious diseases based on bacteria.
When it comes to the skin, however, we’re less accepting of bacteria. Our store shelves and homes are filled with products that tout killing 99.9% of bacteria. The antibacterial personal care market has grown to a whopping $44B industry. Even the preservatives found in virtually all of our products are in there to kill bacteria as well.
We set out on our anti-bacterial path with the best intentions. We knew bad bacteria were culprits for our skin problems and so we worked to eradicate all of them. Despite our seemingly logical approach, our problems with our skin have continued to grow. The number one reason for dermatologist visits today is acne. Eczema is growing rapidly in children. Over 50% of adults claim to have sensitive skin. These problems have contributed to the growth of the natural products industry, especially as consumers have become more aware and make healthy choices ahead of issues. However, we still don’t see the numbers going in the direction of health. Why is that?
Just like in the gut, there are both good and bad bacteria that live on the skin. The bad bacteria aren’t actually causing havoc just by their presence. It’s the rest of the microbial community that helps keep things in balance and keep problematic microbes from actually causing problems. A great example of this is p. acnes. This bacteria is present on most people’s skin, yet it doesn’t cause acne for all of them. Why is that? For those where breakouts are not present, research is showing that the rest of the microbial community is at work keeping everyone happy and in balance. In cases where p acnes is cause inflammation and pimples, the microbial community wasn’t able to keep things in check and the problem bacteria are acting more like an angry mob, rather than functioning members of the community. Similar examples remain for other bacteria like staph.
In conclusion, we’re finding that it isn’t bad bacteria itself that causes problems, but rather an imbalance in the ecosystem that create the opportunity for them to cause problems. The medical community has started calling this “dysbiosis.” When we think about things that way, maybe being “too clean” is creating the imbalance in the ecosystem of our skin, leading to many of the inflammatory skin problems we see today. By trying to kill all the “bad guys” we’ve definitely killed off some of the good guys too. In fact, as it relates to the skin, we know there are peacekeeper species that we have wiped out as recently as the last 50-75 years. We already see parallels of this in the gut, where problems like c diff occur after taking antibiotics.
Perhaps this idea of restoring balance to the ecosystem, just like we are doing with the gut, might be a more appropriate approach for the skin as well.
If you’re interested in making your routine more biome-friendly, here are some tips:
Go easy on the soaps
Strong surfactants (the ingredient that creates lots of lather) are actually more damaging to bacteria than you might initially think. Many of the good bacteria on the skin are quite sensitive to them. While not all surfactants have the same negative effect on the biome, avoiding anything with very ones like SLS and SDS is a great starting point. Surprisingly, castile soap is also a very strong surfactant that negatively affects the biome. If you use castile soap be sure to dilute it greatly.
By extension of the above, we don’t need to lather up all over our body in the shower every day (and for some of us, twice a day!). Most of our bodies don’t actually get dirty. Plain water will wash things off most of our bodies. When you lather up, focus on the areas that actually do get dirty (ie: like the areas that have the most sweat glands, you know the parts we’re talking about!).
Go easy on the antibacterial
Recent studies are showing that antibacterial hand products are not much more effective than regular hand products. Unless you work in a hospital or are around sick people constantly, the need for antibacterial products is likely minimal. Hand hygiene obviously still matters. Keep washing your hands. Plain soap and water will do unless you work in one of the environments above.
Less is more
We’ve become accustomed to using so many products every day. This wasn’t the case one generation ago. See if you can use less or try and wean yourself off of some of those products. You might find you don’t need as much as you think. You might also find that your skin has the ability to take care of itself. You can also feel good by knowing it’s that many fewer chemicals you’re exposing yourself to.
Re-evaluate your deodorant
Recent studies are showing that using deodorant might actually be making us smell worse. Why? Because it creates such an imbalance in the underarm area that it allows the bad bacteria to thrive, making us smellier unless we use the deodorant of course. We’ve also seen research emerge about the damaging effects of aluminum and antiperspirants. See if there are easy swaps you can make here to something less harsh for a very delicate part of your body.
Spend time outdoors
The outdoors and the environment help us build our microbiome, internally and externally. We spend less time outdoors today than we did before, especially those in urban areas. In fact, children play outdoors 50% less today than they did 20 years ago. Get outside, take a walk, garden, swim in the ocean, or whatever you might enjoy outside. It will make you and your microbial friends feel very good.
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