What is the Skin Microbiome?
The microbiome is the collection of trillions of microorganisms, consisting of thousands of different species, combined in a particular environment. But what does this mean for you and why is the microbiome important? Read on to discover the answer and how this can impact your skin.
What is the Microbiome?
To help you visualize what a microbiome is like, imagine that you are at a major sporting event, concert, or festival, with a vast number of diverse people attending from all over the world. Now image the event is about to start and everyone is rushing round from all corners of the venue to try to find a location they feel comfortable with. Well this is what the microbiome is like all the time, but we are talking much higher numbers and broader diversity than at any event you can imagine.
The microorganisms that make up the microbiome are sometimes referred to as microbes or microbiota. Examples of these microbiota include things like bacteria, viruses and fungi. As human beings, our bodies are inhabited by an exponential number of these microorganisms, to the point that research suggests there are more non-human cells on and in our bodies than human cells. Some sources put the ratio of non-human to human cells as high as 10:1 but sources like this study suggests that it’s actually closer to 1:1. Either way, given that the human body is likely to contain 30-40 trillion cells, you can start to put the number of foreign cells into perspective.
Are Microorganisms Dangerous for Humans?
Given that such a huge number of microbes existing within our bodies, it should come as no surprise that their impact on us differs depending on the specific type of microbe in question.
Most microorganisms co-exist with our own cells with no risk of harm to us, and there are also those that can provide significant benefits. Some microbes help break down our food or stimulate our immune system for example, and in fact we have a fungus called Penecillium chrysogenum to thank for producing penicillin, and Lactobacilllus for allowing us to produce probiotics, cheese and yoghurt.
Unfortunately, entwined within the mass of good microbes, there can also be harmful microbes present. E. coli. is a common example - some of its strains are responsible for causing diarrhea, vomiting, stomach cramps or urinary tract infections.
Another problem bacterium is Streptococcal, which if not properly treated can, in certain strains, lead to a variety of conditions including ear infections, strep throat and even life-threatening conditions such as pneumonia, meningitis or MRSA.
This may all sound a little frightening, but don’t start to panic just yet. These trillions of microorganisms have been present on and within you for this long already and hopefully they have not caused you any serious or permanent harm. Modern medicine has also come a long way and the vast majority of problems caused by bacteria, viruses, yeast and fungi are treatable or manageable.
Why is the Human Microbiome Important?
Well the human microbiome is fundamental in supporting our immunities, nutrition and development. Remember than most microorganisms are actually beneficial colonizers and help us out in many ways. This makes the microbiome important because:
- It may influence how susceptible we are to infectious diseases or chronic conditions
- It could impact how we respond to drug treatments
- Its continued research could help establish new medicines or treatments
For a more comprehensive look at some of the key research performed so far, you can take a look at the Human Microbiome Project. This was a research initiative led by the US National Institute of Health and concluded in 2016.
The Skin Microbiome
So far we have delved a little into the world of microorganisms, but what does this mean for the skin? Well as the body’s largest organ and the protective barrier covering our entire body, our skin surface, hair and glands are unsurprisingly host to a significant percentage of the microorganisms than colonize us. The makeup of our overall skin microbiome is also influenced by various factors that impact our skin itself. These include:
- Our sex
- Our age
- Our genetics
- The environment in which we live
- Our levels of sun exposure
- Our hydration, diet and overall well-being
The number of variables make our individual skin microbiomes highly diverse, particularly given that our immune systems and the microbiota continually influence and educate each other. Most of the time there is a delicate balance between the two, but disruptions to this balance can occur and the result can be skin infections or disorders.
Whilst the research such as genomic sequencing, metagenomics and functional metabolomics is helping increase our understanding of the microbiome on our skin’s type and health, there is still substantial progress to be made before the understanding can be deemed thorough enough to produce products and treatments to harness the our skin ecology for medical and cosmetic reasons backed irrefutably by science.
How Best to Boost and Protect Your Skin Microbiome
Despite the need for more research, there are an abundance of products that make claims to help manipulate your microbiota for health and cosmetic benefits. These include products targeted at enhancing your good gut bacteria as well as products more specialized for the skin. Whilst we are not looking to refute the claims made by individual companies in this regard, there are several steps you can take which have more sufficient evidence behind them.
Look After Your Skin’s Protective Layer
One of the best ways to do this is to follow a skin care routine that feels beneficial for your skin type. Here is our suggested 3 step routine for men as a good starting point.
Try experimenting with cleansing products until you find the one that feel like they are leaving your skin feeling clean and fresh without feeling oily, greasy, dry or tight. Avoid harsh soaps, especially when it comes to your face. They have more potential to strip away the good bacteria.
Moisturize daily so your skin is hydrated from the outside and supplement this by drinking enough water so hydration is happening from the inside too. The right product will make your skin feel hydrated without feeling like you have a thick layer covering you. It should relieve dryness, tightness and not make your skin overly oily.
Other products to consider are toners and serums that have beneficial protecting, restoring or anti-aging qualities. Research the ingredients and check them against what is most likely to be favorable for your skin.
You can also protect your skin’s outer layer by being mindful of sun exposure and the clothes that you wear. Use SPF 30 or above when in the sun and top up every two hours. Consider wearing natural fibers like cotton more often. Natural fibers like this reduce the risk of skin irritation.
Manage Your Levels of Stress
The modern world can be stressful, so take time every day to practice relaxation techniques and find other ways to reduce your stress levels. Consider having passion projects that make you feel good, spend more time with friends and family and explore meditation and yoga which are proven to help stress if practiced effectively.
Make sure you get enough quality sleep so your body can recharge and replenish itself. Check your sleep environment is optimized and build yourself a routine for when you wake up and go to bed. Avoid too much blue light before you sleep and do something more relaxing instead like taking a bath or reading a book.
Eat a Healthy, Balanced Diet
You are what you eat so balance your food intake to give you the right nutrients without dreading mealtimes. It helps if you learn to understand macros and also what a healthy weight is for your height. A simple BMI calculator will be able to help with this
Don’t Forget Your Gut
Although there is more evidence needed to fully support the theories behind probiotics, there is enough support to warrant trialing a few products to see how you feel. Microbiology has raised the concept of a correlation between gut bacteria and the bacteria on your skin, so investing in products and supplements that can help with this may be worth your while.
We hope this guide has given you a reasonable introduction to the microbiome and there are takeaways that you can use. We encourage you to leave comments with questions, observations, or any added value that you feel is relevant.