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The Skin Microbiome and Exfoliation: Are We Scrubbing Good Bacteria Away?
Healthy skin isn’t pulled off by loading up on concealers and foundations. Accomplishing healthy skin starts with the microbiome. Most people think that the microbiome is only in your gut, but this is not the case 1. Your skin is teeming with bacteria, and that’s not a bad thing. Like your gut, these are a combination of bad and good bacteria. Supporting a healthy skin microbiome is important to help protect your body from bad bacteria and maintain the proper pH balance to prevent skin diseases 2.
Exfoliation is an essential part of skin maintenance. Research even shows that brushing your skin can have benefits to your overall health. While exfoliating your skin will help keep its natural glow, you might not want to do it every day!
This abrasive behavior may cause more harm to the skin microorganisms than good. Let’s take a closer look at the skin microbiome and how overdoing it with the exfoliation might be a bad idea.
What is the Skin Microbiome?
The skin microbiome is a term used to describe the microbial communities which reside on human skin. There are over a thousand skin flora species that derive from 19 phyla 3.
On the other side of the skin are your vital organs and gut biome. So, it’s the job of the skin microbiome to protect these essential parts of our system. It’s our first line of defense.
That’s why our skin is our largest organ. It covers us from head to toes, protecting us from allergens, chemicals, and continual toxins from the outside world. The strength of this filtering barrier is determined by the health of the skin microbiome.
This connection between the skin and our insides is exactly why the skin microbiome has such a profound impact on our immune system.
The Skin Microbiome and Immune System
Your skin is the largest organ of the body. That’s because it’s the first barrier for the human body against the outside world. That makes the skin immune response vital to a robust immune system. A recent study suggests that a healthy population of beneficial bacteria is critical in making sure your skin’s immune system is in top condition 4.
A meta-analysis looking at the skin microbiome stated,
“The skin represents the primary interface between the host and the environment. Microbial profiling has revealed the presence of highly diverse commensal communities along distinct topographical skin sites. Moreover, cutaneous inflammatory disorders such as psoriasis, atopic dermatitis, and rosacea have been associated with dysbiosis in the cutaneous microbiota. Indeed, microbial products from skin commensals are known to exert immunoregulatory effects 4.”
The skin barrier is the moat that protects the castle from potential pathogens like Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus) and Escherichia coli (E.coli). In fact, one study looked at commensal organisms among volunteers 5.
Scientists took human samples from different skin areas of healthy subjects. In each body region, experts found some type of Proteobacteria in each sample. Common skin bacteria classified as Proteobacterium include Helicobacter, Streptococcus spp, Propionibacterium acnes, E.coli, and Salmonella. These opportunistic microbes play a significant role in inflammatory skin diseases, including acne vulgaris, eczema, and psoriasis 6.
Good bacteria are our white knights that keep these pathogenic bacteria away. The most effective way to prevent bacterial overgrowth is to maintain strain diversity among species of bacteria. There is strength in numbers. With a diverse collection of bacteria, one bacterial species is less likely to take over and causes problems on the surface of your skin.
Your skin microbiome acclimates your immune system to the presence of non-pathogenic bacteria. This dipping of toes in water makes your skin’s immune response less sensitive. That way, your immune cells will only react when it’s necessary 7.
Making sure you take care of your skin’s microbiome is essential in disease prevention. One way to strengthen the presence of healthy skin microbiota is by not over-exfoliating.
What is Exfoliation?
Exfoliation is when you take an abrasive substance and rub it against your skin. This action helps open your pores, clean out debris, and balance out oils on your face and the rest of your body.
Typical exfoliants are dubbed on cosmetic products as “scrubs,” masks,” or “creams.” Otherwise, you use physical objects to rub against your skin. These types of exfoliants are sold in health and beauty aisles within close proximity of scrubs and masks.
Some people use all-natural products during their beauty routine. However, others may opt for a chemical-based product. Let’s take a look at the different types of exfoliation techniques and how they interact with the skin microbiome.
Different Types of Exfoliation
There are many different ways to exfoliate, but they generally fall under one of two categories:
- Chemical Exfoliants
- Mechanical Exfoliants
Chemical exfoliants use light acids to gently remove dead skin cells, while mechanical exfoliants use physical materials such as brushes or abrasive scrubs 8.
Types of Chemical Exfoliants
Many feel chemical exfoliants cause less physical pain than mechanical. They break up the lipids and free fatty acids that hold dead skin cells together. Therefore, you can clean out your clogged pores much easier.
The two most common types of acids used in chemical exfoliants are:
- Alpha-Hydroxy Acids (AHA)
- Beta-Hydroxy Acids (BHA)
For a deeper clean, opt for AHAs. They are water-soluble, so these acids can penetrate deep into your spongey pours. Meanwhile, BHAs are oil-based. So, their exfoliation is surface-based.
No matter what, make sure these are all organic sources. Many chemical exfoliants may be synthetically engineered. These can cause adverse reactions, such as drying out the skin or causing a rash.
Types of Mechanical Exfoliants
This approach is more abrasive. It’s like using sandpaper to polish up a wood floor. However, this type of exfoliation can also leave your skin feeling refreshed and bring about a more natural glow.
- Sea Sponges
- Walnut Shells
- Fruit Peels
- Coffee Grounds
- Mineral Salt
Depending on how sensitive your skin microbiome is, it’s crucial to pick a method of exfoliation that works best for you.
From there, make sure you don’t overdo it. Different ways of exfoliation can be used more or less often. If you have questions regarding what type of exfoliation is right for you, we would recommend talking to your dermatologist.
How Over-Exfoliation Can Hurt Skin Microbiome
We all know that maintaining a proper skincare routine is essential to keeping a healthy glow. Exfoliation can be a critical component in retaining that vitality. It also can be beneficial for the skin microbiome because exfoliation helps to remove dead skin cells.
Making sure to exfoliate appropriately is essential, though. If you do not exfoliate correctly, you could end up doing damage to your skin and your skin’s microbiome.
When you exfoliate your skin, you are stripping your skin of its top layer. Therefore, your skin microbiome becomes more exposed. You’re leaving it more prone to infection and irritation. Additionally, you might be altering the pH of your skin, which can contribute to pathogenic growth.
It’s beneficial to give your face a fresh start every few days. However, exfoliating too much can cause more harm than good if done incorrectly. It’s important to be gentle when you exfoliate.
How to Boost Skin Microbiome
Along with being careful not to over-exfoliate, another way to boost your skin’s health is by taking care of your gut microbiome 9. We already know that the health of the gut is directly linked to our skin. Making sure to eat foods that nourish your microbiome is essential. If you want to step up your skincare game, probiotics are a perfect way to do that.
Probiotic Skin Care
Topical probiotic creams and lotions are showing promise in helping to repair the skin microbiome. However, the research is still in its early stages 10.
Future studies will determine if topical probiotic solutions can improve skin problems. Current research on oral probiotic supplements, though, has shown that probiotic skincare is a well-established method of improving your skin health.
Here at Ombre, we provide probiotic supplement recommendations specifically targeted to your symptoms. By making sure to maintain a proper skincare routine without over-exfoliating and by taking care of your gut microbiome, you are well on the way to healthy, glowing skin.
- 1 Fredricks, David N. “Microbial Ecology of Human Skin in Health and Disease.” Journal of Investigative Dermatology Volume 6, Issue 3, Pages 167-169, Science Direct, Dec. 2001, www.jidsponline.org/article/S0022-202X(15)52900-X/fulltext.
- 2 Lambers, H., et al. “Natural Skin Surface PH Is on Average below 5, Which Is Beneficial for its Resident Flora.” Wiley Online Library, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd (10.1111), 19 Sept. 2006, online.library.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1467-2494.2006.00344.x.
- 3 Grice EA, Kong HH, Conlan S (2009). “Topographical and Temporal Diversity of the Human Skin Microbiome”. Science. 324 (5931): 1190-1192. Bibcode:2009Sci…324.1190G. doi:10.1126/science.1171700.PMC 2805064. PMID 19478181.
- 4 Naik, S., Bouladoux, N., Wilhelm, C., Molloy, M. J., Salcedo, R., Kastenmuller, W., …Belkaid, Y. (2012). Compartmentalized control of skin immunity by resident commensals. Science (New York, N.Y.), 337(6098), 1115-1119. doi:10.1126/science.1225152.
- 5 Grice, E. A., Kong, H. H., Renaud, G., Young, A. C., NISC Comparative Sequencing Program, Bouffard, G. G., Blakesley, R. W., Wolfsberg, T. G., Turner, M. L., & Segre, J. A. (2008). A diversity profile of the human skin microbiota. Genome research, 18(7), 1043-1050. https://doi.org/10.1101/gr.075549.107.
- 6 Ayala-Fontánez, N., Soler, D.C., & McCormick, T. S. (2016). Current knowledge on psoriasis and autoimmune diseases. Psoriasis (Auckland, N.Z.), 6, 7-32. doi:10.2147/PTT.S64950.
- 7 Schommer, N. N., & Gallo, R. L. (2013). Structure and function of the human skin microbiome. Trends in microbiology, 21(12), 660-668. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tim.2013.10.001.
- 8 “How to Safely Exfoliate at Home.” How to Safely Exfoliate at Home, American Academy of Dermatology Association, 2019, www.aad.org/skin-care-secrets/safely-exfoliate-at-home.
- 9 “Probiotics Hold Promise for 4 Skin Conditions.” LiveScience, Purch, 24 June 2014, www.livescience.com/46502-probiotics-hold-promise-skin-conditions.html. 10 Farris, Patricia K. “Are Skincare Products with Probiotics Worth the Hype?” Dermatology Times, 8 Aug. 2016, www.dermatologytimes.com/article/are-skincare-products-probiotics-worth-hype.