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Ask a Dermatologist: Microbiome Skincare for Healthy Skin

Your skin’s microbiome is the microscopic ecosystem of bacteria that live on your skin, protecting your skin barrier, influencing your skin’s general health and biology. 

Think of it as the new, cultured frontier in developing routines and treatments to boost optimal skin health. 

Want in? We spoke to Consultant Dermatologist, Dr Malvina Cunningham for more.

Skin + Me: How does a Dermatologist define the skin microbiome? Is it just the ‘top layer of our skin’ that we need to protect or is there more going on than that?

Dr Malvina Cunningham: The skin microbiome is the term used to describe the millions of different organisms that live on our skin. These include bacteria, viruses and fungi. The skin and the gut have the largest number of microbes of all organs in our body. We’ve known that these organisms live on our skin for a long time but it’s only recently that research on this topic – with the help of new techniques and advances – has exploded. It shows us that the microbiome is an organ in itself, consisting of thousands of genes that are able to influence the biology of our skin.

These microorganisms represent millions of genes that are influenced by the environment. It’s this concept that we – the host – form an ecological unit with our microbiome and environment which is a huge opportunity to understand our health and develop new treatments to support the health of our skin.

Skin + Me: It’s mind-blowing to think that we’re each hosting whole ecosystems of flora on our skin. How do we work to keep this balance in check? Can you explain how protecting our microbiome is about more than just using the right moisturiser? 

When it comes to skin health and our skin microbiome, a holistic approach to maintenance is key.”

Dr Malvina Cunningham:

We know the gut has a microbiome too. Our gut microbiome is actually capable of influencing our skin biology and affecting skin disease, a relationship known as the gut-skin axis. The gut-skin axis refers to all connections between our skin and our digestive system.

We know that our skin microbiome differs in healthy skin compared to skin with disease and the gut microbiome reflects this too. Studies are not yet entirely conclusive but early indications suggest that in certain conditions such as rosacea or eczema, influencing the gut microbiome can alleviate symptoms, improve skin diseases and can act as a preventative retrospectively. 

Our microbiome: What we know

When our skin microbiome is balanced, it supports our skin’s protective barrier to keep irritants at bay and protect against conditions such as rosacea, eczema, acne and dryness.

Over-cleansing can strip our skin of the natural oils and change the chemical environment of our skin. This changes the microbacterial communities and how good commensal bacteria thrive, which can directly affect our skin barrier causing damage and worsening of skin conditions such as eczema. 

The skin barrier can also be affected by a cleanser’s pH. Cleansers with an acidic to neutral pH of 6-7 are more barrier friendly. Try to avoid harsh cleansers such as gel and foaming cleansers in the winter and reduce the frequency (or quit using) strong exfoliators such as AHA and BHAs if your skin feels irritated and dry. Moisturisers containing barrier friendly ingredients such as glycerin, shea butter, niacinamide and ceramides or urea are great at repairing our barrier and protecting it.

Microbiome skincare is also linked with the rising trend in fermented ingredients applied to the skin topically. Fermentation in skincare is when ingredients are broken down with bacteria or yeast so they become smaller, more potent and able to penetrate the skin better. 

Fermented food and drink (think kimchi, kombucha black tea, kefir or yogurt) are linked to better gut health, so load up on the good stuff to introduce good bacteria into your body. Fermented foods (and probiotic supplements) as part of a balanced diet can also support our body’s fight against inflammatory skin conditions via the gut-skin axis.

The takeaway

Your body’s microbiome has a symbiotic relationship with the health of your skin. Protect and nurture it to prevent inflammation, sensitivity from environmental stressors and infection. It’s all about finding balance – a truism in skincare and also in life.

Medical facts checked by Consultant Dermatologist, Dr Malvina Cunningham 

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