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Are You Too Clean?

© David Marquez

Is our compulsion for cleanliness washing away more than we bargained for? Natalie Lukaitis investigates whether our daily shower is actually doing our skin more harm than good...

Our soaps are antibacterial, our household products promise to kill 99.9% of germs and, according to a recent survey, 63% of us Brits shower daily, with the remainder washing their bodies at least five times per week. By and large, we’re so fresh and clean. But is this excessive purity really benefiting us?

Only within the last 60 years has daily showering become a widespread practice. And before you scoff and reach for your hand sanitiser, be aware that there’s still no official guide on how often we should bathe. In fact, dermatologists now believe over-showering can actually damage the complex ecosystem that exists on the skin – an invisible layer of approximately 100 million bacteria, yeast, fungi and viruses: your microbiome. When left to their own devices, this group of microbes works alongside one another harmoniously, but when we throw external agents like astringent soaps into the mix, that’s when the trouble starts. It’s now widely thought this ‘disruption’ could be the cause of problems such as eczema, rosacea and acne, which all thrive in hostile skin environments.

‘If the delicate bacterial balance is disrupted, the strength of the skin’s barrier is compromised, making it vulnerable to inflammatory conditions,’ explains Sophie Seite, international scientific communications director at La Roche-Posay.

‘To ensure healthy growth of good bacteria, these microorganisms require chemical-free water, sources of carbon, nitrogen and macro and micro elements found in our natural environment.’ The germ-phobic living standards we’ve become accustomed to not only wipe out these food sources for our skin’s natural flora (bacteria), but also wipe out many of our skin’s natural ora, period. Looking for better skin balance? Read on...

Skin Microbiome 101

The aforementioned microbes that collectively make up our skin microbiome can niftily travel as far as our subcutaneous fat layer (which sits directly under the skin), signalling an inherent connection and even communication with our immune system. This makes our skin microbiome absolutely crucial in preventing skin infection, as it’s the body’s first line of defence, responsible for fighting environmental aggressors, limiting exposure to allergens and helping to heal wounds. Essentially, when your skin microbiome is in healthy working order, it offers protection against infection by allowing the good guys to take up more surface area, so the bad guys have nowhere to fit in. When it’s not, it will likely tell you about it by becoming irritated, sometimes resulting in in ammation and blemishes.

Get in-formation

Interestingly, between birth and the age of four, everything you come in contact with adds to your microbiome. Your gut microbes

help you digest food, your oral cavity microbes play a key role in preventing disease from entering your body and your skin microbes help form a defensive barrier, adjusting to the environment you live in. What you’re exposed to during this time will set up your microbiome’s communication skills later in life. So, if you’re exposed to ‘bad’ bacteria during childhood, your skin will register that and, if you’re exposed again in adulthood, your skin will know to create ‘good’ bacteria to balance it.

By age four, your skin microbiome looks a lot like an adult’s and becomes stable. ‘This layer of bacteria produces vitamins required to keep your skin healthy, such as vitamin A, B1, B2, B5, B6, B7, B9, B12, E and K, acetate, butyrate and propionate compounds,’ adds Sophie. is can change in response to over- washing, varying diet and puberty, but tends to shift back to its baseline state when healthy.

Disrupting the balance

Your skin microbiome prefers an acidic environment with a pH of 4 to 5.5 (your skin’s natural level). However, harsh cleansers and many soaps disrupt this pH, allowing bad bacteria to thrive (acne-causing bacteria loves a pH of 6 to 7). ‘A healthy microbiome self-manages its communities of bacteria, ensuring no bacteria becomes too dominant. However, this self-management breaks down when your skin is exposed to harsh cleansers that disrupt its pH, as well as environmental aggressors like UV and pollution,’ explains Sophie. Nicolas Travis, founder of Allies of Skin, agrees. ‘Using soap increases the skin’s pH values, making it more alkaline, which studies have shown often leads to acne- prone skin. This makes the skin more susceptible to harmful pollution, UV free radical damage and inflammation.’The answer? pH-friendly products. ‘Stay away from sulfates in cleansers and drying alcohol in skincare to help maintain the pH of your skin,’ suggests Nicolas. ‘Instead, look for products that contain prebiotics, probiotics, antioxidants and essential nutrients like fatty acids (found in plant oils like argan, rosehip etc), ceramides and phospholipids.’

Skin food

The cultivation of our skin’s friendly bacteria is beauty’s ‘new big thing’, with a number of brands infusing their skincare products with prebiotics. Much like in your gut, ‘good bacteria’ – also known as probiotics – already live on your skin. e idea is that by feeding them prebiotics, you can promote healthy growth, in the same way you might do to your digestion with kombucha.

‘By harnessing prebiotics in skin and body care, new formulas are able to preserve or restore both the skin barrier and the skin microbiota diversity,’ explains Sophie. Essentially, by adding foreign bacteria to your skin, the aim is to ‘wake up’ your natural ora, so it functions at an optimal level for a more glowing complexion.

But don’t expect overnight miracles. ‘Whereas the strains of live probiotics we take orally are alive, we are not allowed
to use live organisms on the skin, so any topical probiotic product actually contains dead organisms,’ explains dermatologist Dr Frances Prenna Jones. So, while topical skincare is still beneficial for stimulating your microbiome, it can’t actually feed
the good bacteria living on your skin.

Your Skin-Kind Kit