When we think of biodiversity, we most often imagine the oceans filled with exotic marine life or mammals roaming the mountains. It rarely conjures up images of the trillions of microbiota that our bodies play host to. But each of us has an entire ecosystem living on and in our skin that plays an integral role in our overall health and wellbeing. And it is directly impacted by the health of Earth’s ecosystems and our interactions with the natural world.
Let’s dive into exactly what the skin microbiome is and the role it plays in our holistic health, and what you can do to care for your skin’s microbiology.
What Is the Skin Microbiome?
Skin, the largest organ in our body, is the primary interface between our bodies and the outside world. On it lives a vast ecosystem made up of many different habitats and microbial communities, determined by our genetics and shaped by the environment.
The skin microbiome is a rich microbial community of bacteria, fungi, viruses, archaea, and small anthropods that colonize the skin surface. It is estimated that 1 billion bacteria inhabit just one square centimeter of skin. Most are beneficial or harmless, and they play a critical role in our immune system, ultimately affecting all organ systems including the brain.
“Locally, microbial-immune interactions in the skin are vital for optimal barrier function, pathogen defense, and tissue repair with the production of key anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial compounds to maintain healthy tissue homeostasis,” researchers wrote in a recent study of the impact of modern environments on skin.
The environments we experience throughout our lives, our age, gender, and habits each play key roles in determining our unique microbiome makeup. The microbes we were introduced to as infants helped to shape the maturation and function of our systemic immune system. And as we go through life, our microbiota helps us adapt to new environments.
How Does the Skin Microbiome Affect Our Holistic Health?
Our bodies and minds are influenced by our microbiome. A healthy skin ecosystem supports the immune system, can inhibit inflammation both locally and systemically, protects us against infection, and defends us from environmental toxins. The skin microbial communities, the surface microenvironment, and the immune system work together to inform the body’s regulatory responses.
The microbiome prefers a relatively acidic pH of 5, inhibiting the growth of harmful bacteria by crowding out the overgrowth of pathogenic organisms. So, when we introduce alkaline substances to the body in cosmetics or other topical products such as soap, it can throw off the delicate microbiome balance. This imbalance can set off a chain reaction of systemic immune dysregulation and a higher risk of inflammatory disease.
The symbiotic relationship between our skin microbes and the hormones manufactured by our skin ultimately influences our whole-body state and emotions. Researchers suggest that inflammatory skin issues can be a warning sign of internal inflammation and potential disease. Acne Vulgaris, eczema, psoriasis, or dandruff are associated with strong and specific microbiome alterations–that “imbalance” mentioned above–which can also be impacted by our surroundings.
“As our primary interface with the external environment, the biodiversity of skin habitats is heavily influenced by the biodiversity of the ecosystems in which we reside,” according to a 2017 study published in the World Allergy Organization Journal. “The built environment, global biodiversity losses and declining nature relatedness are contributing to [the] erosion of diversity at a micro-ecological level, including our own microbial habitats.“
Every square inch of our body has a unique microenvironment and microbiota makeup that is influenced by the ecosystems in which we live. Climate change, rapid urbanization, environmental degradation, and gross biodiversity loss are intimately intertwined with rising rates of global disease on both microbiological and macrobiological levels. Our deepening disconnection with nature is apparent even on our skin’s surface.
Ways to Care for Your Skin Microbiome
Caring for your skin microbiome can be as simple as getting back into balance with nature. Now, in today’s world, it may be more challenging than ever before, but there are a few key steps you can take to improve your skin health and overall wellbeing that won’t cost you a dime. And others that will help you save money in the long-term.
Spend Time in Nature and Get Your Hands Dirty
As humans have removed themselves further and further from nature, the biodiversity of the microbial community that lives on our skin has diminished. Go forest bathing and expose your skin to beneficial phytoncides. Touch the dirt and introduce your body to new, mighty microorganisms.
Eat Healthy Foods that Cultivate Good Bacteria
Your gut microbiome influences what’s happening to the skin. So, stick to real foods like complete proteins from animal sources, A2 dairy products with beneficial probiotics, colorful vegetables, and purified water.
Get rid of processed foods and carbohydrate-dense foods such as grains and cereals that increase inflammation in the body. And limit sugar intake–even sugar that comes from fruits–as much as possible.
Get a Good Sweat In Regularly
Our sweat glands have their unique microbiota, and when we work up a sweat it helps regulate the growth and colonization of microorganisms through an acidification process. Increased circulation of blood flow to your skin through vasodilation can have a positive impact on the vasculature that supports skin health.
Go Natural With Your Hygiene Routine
We may be using more disinfectants and hand sanitizers than ever before, but that doesn’t mean we have to completely compromise our healthy skin microbiota. Try using more gentle surfactants like coconut-derived products and hand sanitizers with natural ingredients like aloe vera to help maintain a balanced environment. Moisturize your hands regularly after washing and sanitizing. And replace products that contain parabens, phthalates, and other endocrine-disrupting chemicals with all-natural ones.
Build Cognitive Resilience
Stress doesn’t only affect our mental health, it has a direct correlation with our physical health as well. And our skin is no exception. Find a natural stress management routine–or more than one–that works for you.
This article is for informational purposes only, even if and regardless of whether it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. We have to remember that we are complicated organisms. You are the best health expert for you. Pay attention to your health. And consult a medical doctor when appropriate. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.