As a society we are pretty obsessed with a squeaky clean feeling. People with skin conditions, especially acne, can be more inclined to cleanse or exfoliate more often than normal and it can end up making your skin worse!
The skin flora (or skin microbiome) refers to the billions of bugs that live on our skin. There are around 1000 different species on our skin.
We know that certain bacteria may cause different skin conditions and infections, which is why we can benefit from antibacterial and antiseptic creams. But if we over cleanse or over exfoliate we can disturb the natural balance of the bacteria on the skin, which can actually worsen skin conditions.
Certain bacteria that contribute to skin conditions are found on people with healthy skin. So why do some people end up with the condition and others don’t? It can be down to the balance and diversity of the microbiome. The imbalance of the microbiome is known as dysbiosis. For example, C. acnes is considered to trigger acne, but this bacteria is found on the skin of people who do not have acne. Research is showing that certain bacteria can inhibit the growth of C.acnes and reduce the inflammation that causes the condition. The lack of diversity in the skin microbiome can allow strains of C.acnes to cause problems within the skin.
So what are the functions of a healthy skin microbiome?
Looking after the bugs on our skin actually offers us amazing beauty benefits:
1. Protect against infections
A healthy skin flora helps protects against infections in a similar way to the gut flora. The high amount of good bacteria help to crowd bad bacteria, as there is no space for them. The good bacteria also produce antimicrobial substances that help to prevent the growth of the bacteria. For example, Staphylococcus hominis has been shown to secrete antimicrobial molecules that kill S. aureus, a bacteria linked to eczema. Our skin acts as our first line of defence when it comes to infections, so making sure you have a good amount of good bugs on your skin is helpful for general immunity, not just preventing skin infections. The microbiome also helps to keep the pH of the skin more acidic, which favours the growth of good bacteria.
2. Provides a healthy skin barrier
People with eczema and acne are known to have a disrupted skin barrier. This means there are gaps between the skin cells, allowing particles to pass through and cause irritation and inflammation. Visibly this can look like dry, irritated, cracked and inflamed skin. The microbiome helps to keep the cells tightly packed together, preventing water loss and resulting in smoother, softer skin.
3. Reduces inflammation of the skin
The microbiome helps to prevent inflammation by the methods mentioned above, but the bacteria also communicate with the immune system. The skin microbiome sends signals to the immune cells within the skin. Studies have shown that B. infantis can reduce the inflammation in psoriasis and help reduce psoriatic lesions. Certain bacteria can help to regulate the skins immune system, supporting tissue repair and wound healing.
4. anti-ageing benefits
Probiotics may help to stimulate the production of collagen, the main protein in skin which gives it strength and elasticity which breaks down as we age. Probiotics may also help to keep skin hydrated and help to prevent the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. New research is showing that the skin flora can offer protection from UV-induced damage to the skin and help the skin to be less sensitive to UV rays, which is known to cause ageing of the skin. This is obviously NOT a substitute for safe sun exposure and wearing SPF, but it’s amazing that these bacteria can offer so many benefits to the skin!
How to protect your skin’s microbiome:
- STOP using harsh anti-bacterial washes, or foaming cleansers on your skin every day. Using gentle cleansers can be better long term.
- STOP over-exfoliating. This can remove the substances on the skin that the microbiome needs to survive.
- DO try probiotic skincare.
- DO look after your gut. The bacteria in the gut love fibre and they have a significant influence on the health of our skin. Eating a range of fruit and vegetables is the best way to do this.
- DO work up a sweat. Exercise has positive effects on our microbiome, increasing the diversity and beneficial bacteria.