Drop the soap
Have you ever thought of the ecosystem of microorganisms that live on our skin? The diversity of life there is remarkable. The microbes on our forehead are completely different from those residing on say our elbow. And surprisingly our skins most diverse community of bacteria doesn't reside in our smelly armpits or between our toes but rather our forearm (44 species on average). The least diverse area is behind the ear (19 species on average).
This skin ecosystem is established at birth, and its development is heavily influenced by the method of delivery and later by personal care products, types of clothing on the skin, medications, time spent in contact with others, and time spent in nature. But our modern obsession with cleanliness and sterility, together with changes in lifestyle and diet have dramatically altered our skin microbiota leaving people with less complex and robust microbiomes. This in turn leaves us more susceptible to many skin problems and diseases such as eczema, psoriasis, acne and rosacea. But, this is not a reason to stop washing your hands! That said, you are probably showering way too often and using products that damage the skin biome, which in turn damages your skin. It certainly gives reason to rethink the overuse of antibacterial and antimicrobial soaps on the skin.
Shower less? You ask in disgust. Well just consider that Napoleon Bonaparte once wrote to his beloved Josephine “I will return in five days. Stop washing,” . I highly doubt he was concerned about the health of her skin ecosystem but rather he was instructing her not to bathe in order to retain her natural scent.
Lets also consider that we are one of the few mammals that don't roll around in the dirt or sand after the age of three. Scientists actually hypothesised that rolling around in dirt plays an evolutionary role in the health of these animals. This led to the discovery of a beneficial soil bacteria (Ammonia Oxidising Bacteria or AOB) that once naturally existed on our skin but has been wiped out in the last 50 to 75 years with modern hygiene and the chemicals we use in our everyday routine. There are now skin care products containing this type of bacteria in order to restore and maintain the good bacteria on the skin (Mother Dirt products). They claim that by applying AOBs back to your skin, you’re restoring your skin to a native, healthy state. This sounds genius but only if people are ok with spraying bacteria on themselves.
Personally I don't plan on buying such products or giving up my daily shower any time soon but I do take reasonable measures to nurture a healthy skin ecosystem:
- I’m not afraid to get dirty. This is easy if you have small children as we are frequently outside playing in sand or soil.
- Do less to your skin! I don’t wear makeup and have a very simple skin regime . Makeup and cosmetics have been shown to alter the microbial composition of the skin with time.
- I use non toxic soaps and moisturisers. Consult the EWG Skin Deep database. I’m a fan of Dr. Bronner’s and Earth Mama Angel Baby for both myself and my kids.
- I avoid antibacterial soaps.
- I try to wear natural fibres. Research has shown that synthetic materials harbour bacteria that are not native to or are out of balance with the human skin ecosystem, while natural fibres like cotton, linen and hemp hold a more natural balance of bacteria. Also consider that washing your clothes does not kill microbes but drying your clothes in the sun may better disinfect clothing.
- I try to sweat as often as possible. There is evidence that sweat may contribute to healthy skin bacteria by serving as a prebiotic.
Fancy making any changes? Or do you like your skin ecosystem just fine?