An introduction to the skin microbiome

Skin microbiome

Research made on the microbiome has completely boomed during the past few years and more and more people are talking about it. It wasn’t until recently scientists learned that all humans are hosts to trillions of micro-organisms belonging to thousands of different species: bacteria, viruses, and fungi. So, why is the skin microbiome so important? Why should you take it into consideration when buying your skincare? And how can you help your microbiome? 

What is the skin microbiome?

The microbiome is an ecosystem of micro-organisms such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses that live in different parts on and in the human body. There are so many of them that we actually have more bacterial genes than human genes in our bodies! These micro-organisms live in our large intestines, nose, and mouth as well as on our skin making it the skin microbiome. The skin microbiome can also be referred to as the microbiota or the microflora. This ecosystem controls the overall health of our skin and protects it from attacks by bad bacteria and viruses. 

Bacteria have long had a bad reputation. There’s an irony to that since after all, bacteria were here on earth long before us. They colonized our planet around three billion years ago. Compare that with the history of modern humans, which began a mere 300,000 years ago. We have a deep-rooted tendency to view bacteria as evil, which is an attitude we’ve inherited from the nineteenth century. For a long time, our culture has regarded bacteria mainly as enemies to be eradicated. We can also see this in our lifestyle habits with daily showers or baths, chlorinated water and the usage of soap. We are so focused on keeping clean and on getting rid of bacteria we might have encountered. However, without micro-organisms such as bacteria, humans couldn’t survive. They cooperate with our cells and play an essential role in all aspects of our health. This is the reason scientists are developing new perspectives on our micro-organisms and together with them, it’s time for all of us to start rethinking how we treat our eco-system of bacteria, fungi, and viruses – our microbiome.

Why is the skin microbiome important?

The skin’s micro-organisms protect the skin against attacks by harmful bacteria and viruses and control the overall health of our skin. That is why we want to take care of the micro-organisms living on our skin and not disturb their “home”. A disruption in the balance between the different types of bacteria that live on the skin can lead to disorders such as acne and eczema.

Skin microbiome

If you experience some kind of skin disorder or have sensitive skin, learning more about the microbiome might help you understand and treat your skin in a better way. If you consider yourself having normal skin,  it’s still important to understand that your skin is an eco-system for living organisms. This will help in learning how to best take care of your skin in order to not disturb the balance. This is where the usage of skincare products becomes important. In order to keep a healthy balance in the skin microbiome, you need to be careful with what skincare products you use, how many products and which products you use and how you construct your overall skincare routine. We will look closer to skincare and the skin microbiome in part 2 of the Skin Microbiome-class. 

The fact that there is a microbiome in our gut might not be news to you since it’s been known to most people for quite a while by now. Maybe you have read one of the popular books about it? Or maybe you’ve already experimented with fermenting vegetables or perhaps you make sure to include prebiotic fibers in your breakfast? In order to have a well-functioning gut, it is vital to maintain an undisturbed balance in the gut microbiome. However, recent research has shown that an imbalance in your intestines can lead to skin disorders such as acne, eczema, and psoriasis. In fact, our gut bacteria have an anti-inflammatory effect and combat harmful bacteria.

The gut-skin axis manifests itself in a variety of ways. As an example, people suffering from acne, have more of a specific bacterium called Bacteroidetes in their bowels, compared to those with normal skin. People who are prone to eczema have less of the bacteria bifidobacterial than what people normally have as well as lower levels of the bacteria f.prausnitzii. People with rosacea are more receptive to infections caused by the bacteria h. pylori. These are just some examples of the gut-skin axis that illustrate how important the connection is.

The composition of the skin microbiome – is it the same for everyone?

The composition of the microbiome depends on a combination of genetics, diet, lifestyle and the geographical area we live in. We know today that the skin microbiome differs from one part of the world to another. Due to the difference in how we live and interact with other humans as well as with animals and plants, a lot has changed in the past century alone. Let’s take western people as an example. Generally, western people live in households with fewer people than what they have done historically and many times they live in high residential buildings, several floors up. They spend more time inside with sterile surfaces, even when exercising and commute to work by subway, bus or car. We’re far from living close to animals and plants making our contact with micro-organisms extremely limited today.  

A comparative study has been made of the skin microbiome of American and Tanzanian women, showing that they carry different types of bacteria. Especially interesting was the finding that Tanzanian women carry more of a soil bacterium than American women. This might be explained by Tanzanian women generally spending more time outdoors, in contact with soil and water while American women generally spend more time indoors, in contact with dry surfaces. The bacterial flora of soil, land, and animals differs from our own, and contact with it can actually increase our own resistance and boost our immune system. Research shows that the growing incidence of autoimmune diseases is associated with an increasingly urban way of life.