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.
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.’
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
Dry skin is a tricky one as it favours staphylococci, a bacteria linked to acne, and inhibits the growth of beneficial organisms that help balance it, so hydrating your skin is key. Allies of Skin's Molecular SaviourTM Mist, £48, has an aloe and rose water base and contains a powerful blend of probiotics and antioxidants such as lactobacillus ferment and acai berry to boost your complexion.
The Face Aid
Beauty editor favourite, La Roche-Posay Effaclar Duo (+), £16, has been reformulated with natural prebiotic aqua posae filiformis (APF) and mannose (a naturally occurring sugar that rebalances microbiome to be even better). Its aim? To control acne, reduce in ammation and stimulate the skin's natural immunity.
The pH Balancer
Dr Frances Prenna Jones CLEAN + PREPARE, £54, does exactly what it says on the tin. By day, it neutralises the harshness of water and sets the pH of the skin, preparing the skin for subsequent products; by night, it removes the impurities of the day and any make-up without disrupting your skin's pH balance
The Body Wash
Can't bear to skip your morning shower? Wash with Gallinée's La Culture Body Milk, £27.90. The triple biotic complex of prebiotics, probiotics and exfoliating lactic acid all help to promote the function of your skin's ora, without stripping natural oils or disrupting the skin's pH.
The Gut Healer
Your skin microbiome is intrinsically linked to your gut's microbiome through the nervous system, immune system, and endocrine system. Symprove helps balance your gut bacteria with four unique strains of live activated bacteria, and because it's water-based, can travel rapidly through the acidic, hostile conditions of the stomach and reach your gut without being killed off in the process (unlike tablets). Just one shot of the liquid every morning for 12 weeks will get your gut back on track (12 weeks for £158).