Work with your body’s natural bacteria to improve your skin

Cutting-edge thinking about skin care suggests that nurturing the microbiome is good for your complexion
By Maura RhodesPublished on 10/05/2018 at 11:29 AM EDT
Zulmaury Saavedra/Unsplash

Don’t panic, but your skin literally is crawling with bacteria. Everybody’s is. Although the beneficial bacteria that live in our bellies tend to get all the glory (it’s why foods with live cultures like yogurt and kombucha are so popular), those critters aren’t the only residents of the human body worth knowing about—and caring for. 

The multitude of different types of bacteria that make up the microbiome of the skin perform all sorts of important functions, from holding in moisture (read: plumping up those fine lines) to helping to ward off UV ray damage (but no, you can’t skip your sunscreen). 

The bacteria on our skin even interact intimately with the immune system, serving as microscopic bouncers to help prevent bad microbes from causing infection or other dermatologic disasters. Imbalances in the skin microbiome have been linked to eczema, psoriasis, rosacea, poor healing, fungal infections, dandruff, and even acne. 

Unfortunately, we do all sorts of things every day to interfere with the good work of the beneficial bacteria on our skin, says Kara Fitzgerald, clinical director of the Sandy Hook Clinic, a practice devoted to functional medicine in Sandy Hook, Connecticut. Fitzgerald is a naturopathic doctor (ND) who often focuses on the microbiome when treating patients with skin issues. Most of our murderous acts are done in the name of health and cleanliness, so no need to feel guilty. It’s not that hard to turn things around. Here’s how:

Don’t bathe so often.

Seriously, whether you lather up in the tub or the shower (or both), you strip your skin of beneficial bacteria. Every other day (or even less often) is plenty, especially if you haven’t been particularly active or sweaty. If you simply must bathe every day, consider downgrading your daily routine to focus on your underarms and groin. Note that this recommendation doesn’t apply to your hands: You should wash them often and well, particularly after you use the bathroom, if you’re around people who are sick, and before you handle food.

Stick with pro-bacteria cleansers.

You may be familiar with an ingredient called triclosan, which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned (along with 18 other ingredients often used in soaps and cleansers) in 2017. Triclosan was ousted by the FDA in part because it was found to play a role in making bacteria resistant to antibiotics. Since it’s been banned, you aren’t at risk of using it, but it’s smart to steer clear of any cleansing product that states on the label that it can kill bacteria or other microbes. Look for products that will cleanse without interfering with bacteria on the skin. 

Get sweaty.

Fitzgerald says that perspiration is good for the microbiome. Perspiration functions as “pre-biotic”—meaning it contains nutrients that bacteria can thrive on. No need to get drippy with it every day—two or three times a week should produce enough sweat to fill those bacterial bellies.

Invite new bacteria into your microbiome home. 

Recognizing the need to not only protect skin bacteria but to help it flourish, skin care companies are offering all sorts of microbiome-friendly products. Here are a few of our favorites:

Motherdirt AO+ Mist. AO stands for ammonia-oxidizing bacteria (AOB), which the company claims is a microbiome found in lakes, rivers, and soil that once was plentiful on human skin. This spray can be spritzed on skin to help repopulate it with the live AOB. Purchase on Motherdirt for $49.

Aleavia Restore Soothing Mist contains a prebiotic derived from Acadian sea kelp. Because it also contains coconut oil and aloe vera, the mist is both hydrating and soothing. Purchase on Aleavia for $29.99.

Marie Veronique Pre + Probiotic Daily Mist (pictured). This spray from Credo offers up the best of both skin bacterial worlds. Besides prebiotics and probiotics, it’s formulated with moisturizers and anti-inflammatory ingredients. Purchase on Credo Beauty for $40.

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