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Get to Know Your Skin Microbiome

Written by Meghan Rhodes MCPP MAPA

You may have heard of the gut microbiome - the 'friendly' bacteria that live in your gut and help you with everything from digesting your food to bolstering your immune system and supporting your mood. But did you know the gut isn't the only area of your body with a microbiome? You have one in your mouth, your reproductive organs and even your skin.

So in this article in our microbiome series, let's get to know your skin microbiome.

fresh calendula flowers on a wooden table surrounding a jar of calendula cream

First facts about the skin

Before we dive into the details, let's get to know our skin on a practical level. Did you know:

  • The skin is our largest organ?

  • It provides a barrier of protection for the rest of our body?

  • What we put on our skin absorbs directly into the bloodstream, bypassing this digestive system? This is why footbaths and body oiling are so effective at distributing the medicinal benefits of herbs quickly throughout the body, like when you use a footbath to clear stuck chest phlegm.

  • The skin is one of the three pathways of elimination? The other two are our urinary tract and bowels. This means if the downward exits are blocked, your body will try to clear toxins and waste products through the skin, resulting in breakouts, rashes, etc.

All of these skin facts adds up to reasons why the following should be your skin mantra - don't put anything on your skin you wouldn't eat. Why? Because you don't want anything going in your body that isn't nourishing and supportive and your skin is the largest entry and exit point for the rest of your body.

What is the skin microbiome?

The skin microbiome is a complex microscopic ecosystem of bacteria, fungi and other microbes that live on the skin. They help protect us from various pathogens, illnesses and infections. In other words, it's sort of like a diverse team actively working as part of your immune system on the largest organ you have - your skin. Not a place you want to leave with its guard down!

What sorts of things damage your skin microbiome?

Unfortunately, most of the common substances our skin comes into contact with - not just daily, but in many cases constantly - damage our skin microbiome.

Chemicals in conventional toiletries, laundry detergents and household cleaners, alongside harsh cleansers like anti-acne treatments are major culprits. These synthetic chemicals are all designed with specific purposes, typically either to sterilise, act as a preservative or simulate a particular texture or smell we perceive as pleasant. None of these actions are compatible with the flourishing of natural beneficial microorganisms.

Think of it this way - when we look at non-organic farming methods, we see pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers being used. These chemicals are designed to obliterate insects and weeds (sterilise), force all plants in large fields to be ready to harvest at the same time (preserve) and make the crops grow bigger and brighter to look more appealing to the end consumer (simulate). And yet they all leave harmful chemical deposits on the crops, damaging the soil along the way.

Now imagine that farmer's field is your skin - your face, your arms, your torso, etc. - but instead of pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers, your 'field' is being covered in bright blue body wash, purple laundry fragrance and stinging salicylic acid cleansers. Anything trying to live and thrive on your skin is going to be cleared off and the skin itself is going to get more and more damaged.

It's a similar - and perhaps even more pointed - story with the array of 'antibacterial' soaps, handwashes, hand sanitisers (and now even laundry detergents!), as these are specifically designed to kill off any microorganism they come into contact with. They're not created to be nuanced, leaving behind the helpful bacteria, which is partly why we see mainstream medicine now starting to warn about the overuse of antibiotics and antibacterial substances. The more bacteria get cleared off, the fewer helpful bacteria are left behind to fortify our immune systems and the faster the unfriendly bacteria evolve.

What might a compromised skin microbiome look like?

But if our skin microbiome is microscopic, how do we know if ours is healthy or not without sending some sort of swap off to a lab?

This is where the genius of our skin comes in. It's one of our body's most direct means of communicating with us because unlike our heart or our nerves, we can see it. The messages we receive are visual, helping us act quickly.

If you've got 'sensitive skin', you'll know what I'm talking about. But let's reframe it. Sensitive skin doesn't mean there's something inherently wrong or weak or abnormal about your skin. On the contrary - it means your skin is excellent at sending you messages swiftly that something is off. Tried a new cream and broke out straight away in a rash? That's your skin saying there's something in that cream your body doesn't like. Feel like you react to pretty much every topical thing you try? That's your body insisting on the mantra - don't put anything on your skin you wouldn't eat. It's saying it absolutely doesn't want chemicals that damage your skin microbiome, negatively impact your immune system and often disrupt your hormones (endocrine disrupters). Personally, I'd rather know! So think of it this way - you're not overly sensitive, you just have high standards!

A compromised skin microbiome might also be dry, itchy, red and irritated skin. You might be prone to rashes and breakouts or have eczema or dermatitis. All of these are your skin's very visual way to delivering the message to you that your skin microbiome needs support (and likely your gut microbiome, too).

What's the best thing you can do to protect and maintain your skin microbiome?

First and foremost, ditch those chemicals and retrain your senses to take pleasure in natural smells and textures rather than synthetic ones. That doesn't mean you have to go for the most expensive greenwashed product on the shelves, either. Stick to the basics - Dr. Bronner's Castile Soap is a brilliant, basic, non-chemical soap that can be used to clean just about anything (body or home) without stripping away all the goodness. Look for organic cosmetics or pair back your cosmetic routine. For cleaning, you can achieve pretty much everything you need with white vinegar, sodium bicarbonate, lemon juice and a bit of hydrogen peroxide. The fewer products and the fewer ingredients, the better. And remember - if you wouldn't put it in your body, don't put it on your body.

Avoid antibacterial products and harsh antiacne products. Unless you're in an operating theatre, a completely sterile environment does more harm than good.

Take care of your gut health. Focus on healthy regular bowel movements and eating foods that nourish you, rather than those that often cause reactions on the skin (e.g. dairy if you're eczema prone).

Finally, get your hands in the dirt! It may sound simply (or silly!), but good soil is full of beneficial microorganisms that love to join our skin microbiome and help it thrive. So do some gardening, stand in the soil with bare feet, or just give the earth a rub when you go for a walk.

What if I need something specific I can use topically?

While you're building and maintaining your skin microbiome, herbal balms and creams can help soothe and heal irritation from the outside in. And of course you can be sure all of my topical herbal remedies are slow-infused with the herbs themselves to lock in their benefits and although I don't recommend eating them, all of my blends abide by the skin mantra standard.

If you need support with painfully dry, cracked skin, Liquorice & Centella Balm is your go-to. I formulated this blend for a private client whose hands were constantly bleeding and in pain after a year of intensive hand sanitiser use. After three months, her hands were soft and smooth again - no more cracking and no more balm needed!

If you tend to have red, itchy, irritated, inflamed skin, Clean Green Cream is the herbal remedy for you. It's full of cooling, soothing herbs like neem and aloe and is the one I always recommend when people ask me about their really red, painful skin.

The Eczema & Dermatitis Balm is specifically formulated for people who struggle with these two particularly uncomfortable skin conditions. Always support from both the inside and outside for eczema and dermatitis, so consider pairing with the Eczema Tincture Blend, and have a close look at foods and/or topical/environmental irritants.

As skin is one of the questions I always get from members, I've provided lots of options for topical herbal support, but remember to always come back to the microbiome and mantra.

Have you got any signs your skin microbiome needs support? Are there changes you can make to your skincare and home cleaning regimes? Is there anything going on your body you really wouldn't put in it?


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