What is a skin microbiome? Is mine healthy?
Skin is our largest organ, and on it lives an entire ecosystem of microbes, including bacteria, viruses, and fungi. They’re eating each other, competing for nutrients, and they’re forming alliances to fend off invaders. Say hello to your skin’s microbiome. I know this sounds messy, but the reality is that your skin is home to trillions of microbes from hundreds of different species. They live in and on your skin and they all play a role in an intricate ecosystem that is absolutely essential to keep your skin healthy and looking younger for longer. But this is where we humans complicate things by intervening in an extremely complex system that took a few of million years to evolve.
A diverse ecosystem
Picture a tropical forest and picture a wheat field – two very different ecosystems. The tropical rainforest is diverse, home to many species, whereas the wheat field is home to only one species, wheat. It’s a monoculture.
Now, let’s introduce some change. Let’s go with a sudden drop in rainfall and a rise in temperature.
In the diverse ecosystem, some species may die, but others will thrive in the new conditions – the ecosystem shifts, but it will remain vibrant and functional. In contrast, the wheat field will die. Diversity will slowly creep back in if the system is left alone for long enough, but it will take a long time and in the interim, opportunistic species (weeds) will rule.
Diversity provides long-term stability and resilience in an ecosystem. That’s what you want on your skin. Having a diverse microbiome offers protection against environmental changes and pathogens, keeping your skin healthy and slowing the ageing process.
Human skin is a unique environment, and also unique to each person. In its healthy state, it supports a very specific group of microbes – those that have co-evolved with us for millions of years. Unfortunately, our indoor lifestyles and ‘war on germs’ has us adopting habits that leave us out of touch with nature, resulting in a vast reduction of microbial species on our skin.
What happens if we win the war on germs?
Quite a lot, actually. Over the last 100 years, we have lost around a third of our microbial diversity. The microbes we have lost over the years were functional parts of our skin’s ecology, and their loss represents significant damage to our skin’s ecosystems.
Here is the harsh reality: we cannot replace this diversity with just any microbes. They need to be long-term partners. For example, the microbes in a sewer may be diverse, but we certainly do not want them on our skin. Diversity is only beneficial if it is within the very tight subset of microbes that have co-evolved with human skin. So, the damage done by our lifestyles cannot be undone by simply seeking diversity from elsewhere.
We have seen on a macro-scale that when we destroy an ecosystem, it is very difficult to get it back to what it was originally. We can replant the key tree species in a damaged forest, but what about the pollinators and animals that ensured the long-term stability of these ecosystems?
Ecosystems are deeply complex and modelling the thousands of interactions between species is impossible, even with the help of supercomputers. It is now becoming apparent that it is going to be extremely difficult to restore key members of our own skin’s ecosystem, so the bottom line is this: we need to retain, as best we can, the diversity of our uniquely co-evolved microbes from the start.
The question is, how? The answer is simple: treat your microbiome as your best friend, not as your enemy.
Stop stripping off the natural oils that feed it. Stop polluting it with chemicals. Enough with the human arrogance that has ruined ecosystems the world over. We don’t know better than nature. The best we can do is to try to mimic it.
Sapienic minimises the disruption of the skin microbiome by avoiding foaming agents and emulsifiers. Using live probiotics, we can simulate contact with the beneficial microbes that are so abundant in the natural world. We exclude all synthetic chemicals that would pollute the microbial ecology on skin, and we replace lost sebum with eclectic oils that mimic skin’s natural oils and exclude opportunistic pathogens.
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