When you think about bacteria on the skin, “clean” probably isn’t the first word that comes to mind. Yet we’ve come to actively embrace foods specifically for their microbes — yogurt, kombucha, probiotic supplements — as part of a “clean” diet. These differing perceptions show our shifting relationship with the microbial world, one that’s growing by the day.
Bacteria have become an important new area of focus in the medical community. We’re even creating drugs based exclusively on microbes to treat challenging intestinal diseases, like C. diff and IBS. Even though there’s much left to learn, we’ve accepted the idea that a healthy microbial ecosystem is a cornerstone of internal health.
But externally, on the skin, we’re still at war with the microbial world.
The belief that bacteria on the skin is bad has shaped the general public's ideas on dermatology, personal care, and beauty. Our obsession with “clean” is apparent in our daily routines. The intentions have been good; we only really hear about the bad bacteria out there, so we assume a bacteria-free world (and body) would be healthy.
But the data suggests otherwise.
More than half of all women and men claim to have sensitive skin, and the products marketed to them are taking up more and more space on store shelves. More than 50 million Americans suffer from acne (it's not just for teenagers anymore). Eczema cases have tripled in the last three decades in children alone. We’re seeing more skin allergies and other inflammatory issues like psoriasis, rosacea, keratosis pilaris, and staph/MRSA. Even celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Cara Delevingne are speaking out about their ongoing struggle with psoriasis.
There’s no shortage of products or information on all of these conditions, but despite the ever-expanding roster of cleansers, toners, creams, gels, masks, peels, and scrubs, our skin issues not only persist, but they grow. Perhaps it's time to start over and revisit what we assume to be true.
The tremendous insights we’re gaining on the gut microbiome have triggered drastic changes in all our judgments about bacteria, even those on the skin. Here’s what we’ve learned so far, and why you should care about your skin microbiome: