Some disturbing news: We all have a ton of skin bacteria living on our faces right now. Yep, it's an uncomfortable thought that makes you want to immediately wash your face ASAP, but aggressively cleansing your face is exactly what you shouldn't do. Not unlike our guts, our skin has a community of microorganisms in it called the microbiome. This includes, yes, bacteria, fungi, viruses, and mites. In theory, this probably sounds gross, but it's actually a good thing to have these active microorganisms to keep your skin glowing and hydrated.
WHAT IS THE MICROBIOME?
The microbiome is a community of living microganisms made up of mostly bacteria, but can also contain fungi, viruses, and mites. It works to protect the skin and keep the skin barrier functioning. Dermatologist Dr. Mona Gohara compares the microbiome to the '80s cartoon The Smurfs. "If you think of the Smurfs, they were this little community within themselves where someone was designated to do every little job to make the community work as a whole," she explains. "That’s what your skin’s microbiome is like — a little community of microorganisms that make your skin work better."
WHY IS A HEALTHY MICROBIOME IMPORTANT?
When your microbiome is disrupted or off-balanced, skin diseases and conditions like eczema and psoriasis could flare up. "When the microbiome is not in equilibrium, things like acne, atopic dermatitis, skin inflammation, and irritation can occur," says board-certified dermatologist and celebrity skin expert Dr. Anna Guanche. "If there is predominantly good bacteria (non-pathogenic), then this is when our skin is best. It’s all about balance and protecting the microbiome." So yes, in this case, bacteria is a good thing. "People often times think that bacteria is bad and always means infection, but the reality is that we’re born with a whole host of bacteria on our skin that’s absolutely protective and necessary," says Dr. Gohara. "If that gets disrupted, then we can see skin disease."
SO, WHAT DISRUPTS YOUR MICROBIOME?
Well, if you started scrubbing your face once you learned you had bacteria on it, that's exactly what can disrupt your microbiome. "Scrubbing the skin, using really harsh cleansers with soap, and waxing and shaving are all things that can disrupt the microbiome," explains Dr. Gohara. "With certain conditioners like eczema and psoriasis, there is a correlation to flare ups and a disruption in the microbiome." There's also a connection between the microbiome and acne. "P. acnes, a bacteria that causes acne, is a part of our microbiome, so we know that if there's a disruption it can cause a case of acne," says Dr. Gohara.
WHAT CAN YOU DO TO KEEP YOUR MICROBIOME HEALTHY?
Aside from not scrubbing your face, using gentle products that are free of soap and sulfates can help keep your microbiome balanced. "Soap can disrupt the microbiome because it's typically harsh and can create a chemical environment that can be disruptive to certain bacteria," explains Dr. Gohara. "Use products like a PH-neutral cleanser. Sulfates can also be harsh on the microbiome, too." Similar to all of the probiotic and prebiotic supplements out there to balance gut health, there's also topical products with these bacteria in them that claim to enhance your skin's microbiome. However, there's a difference between these products and ones that are microbiome-friendly. "There’s a lot of products out there right now that claim to have probiotic and prebiotic properties in them, but there isn’t a lot of science that adding those things topically have any benefit to the health of the microbiome," says Dr. Gohara. "But, there are products that are microbiome-gentle. I work with Dove, and they have a designation that Dove Body Wash is microbiome-friendly, which means it doesn’t disrupt the microbiome, and they’ve done studies to prove that."
The bottom line: Be gentle on your skin, from how you wash your face to the ingredients in your products you're using. Your microbiome will thank you.