Did you know that there is a relationship between your skin’s overall health and the state of of its microbiome (aka flora)? Similar to how our gut flora aids in our digestion and affects our overall health, our skin’s microbiome has a significant effect on our skin’s health, including the prevalence (or absence) of acne.
So what is the microbiome?
Simply put, it is the ecosystem of bacteria and other microbes that live on your skin. Before you get grossed out, realize that a lot of these microbes are good for you and actually help protect your skin and body from harmful microbes. Just like our gut flora, our skin’s microbiome is affected by our diet (gut flora and our skin’s microbiome have been linked in some studies). It is also affected by any substance we use topically, from soaps to shampoos, creams and even our sweat.
What does a healthy microbiome look like?
We, thankfully, don’t have images to share with you of what an ideal bacterial culture would look like, but we can describe what your skin should look like: hydrated, clear, even toned and healthy. If you have acne, or chronic skin barrier function issues, an unbalanced skin microbiome might be to blame.
What not to do
So you grew up being told to dry out your acne, right? “Acne is caused by oil” so that means we need to remove oil. Wrong. The simplest way I like to explain this is by comparing acne to an infected cut. If you cut yourself, and it gets infected, what do you do? You nurture the skin and help your body fight off the bad bacteria that is causing the infection by applying an anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial ointment, right? Would you, say, vigorously scrub the cut with a strong cleanser and apply drying agents to dry the skin around it? Doesn’t this sound like the WORST thing you could do to help your body heal itself? Acne is a bacterial infection that is causing your skin to become inflamed. Looking at acne in this light, you can hopefully now see why over cleansing and applying "drying spot treatments" is not going to be an effective solution. Not only does over cleansing dry the skin, but it also can unbalance your microbiome.
The skinny on antibacterial topical solutions
As we discussed in part 1 of this series, acne is caused by bacteria and is a bacterial infection. So then we should apply a strong anti-bacterial solution to kill the bacteria, right? This answer is a little more complex, and here is where the role of our skin’s microbiome comes in. Our skin is covered in good and bad bacteria, the good ones being the ones that help fight off bad microbes and help prevent infections and acne. By applying strong anti-bacterial agents onto the skin, you run the risk of killing both the good and the bad bacteria. This is why a topical solution with this strategy might deliver immediate results, but will eventually lead to flare ups later on when the treatment is stopped, since your skin’s microbiome has probably been decimated by the treatment and is unable to protect itself.
Natural versus synthetic antibacterial treatments
Not all antibacterial topical solutions are created equal, with some being more gentle, and some more complex, affecting some microbes while leaving others be. Did you know that some essential oils can be composed of over 600 different chemical components? Since essential oils are made by plants, the exact composition of essential oils can change depending on the weather and location of the plant during its life. This makes plant oils very complex and never exactly the same. Some may say this is a disadvantage since it makes them difficult to study, but we believe this is the strength of natural skincare. Because of the complexity of plant oils, bacteria are much less likely to build resistance to them. For instance, tea tree essential oil has been a medically approved antibacterial treatment in Australia since the 1920s, and no cases of resistance to the oil have yet to be reported.
So why does this matter? Because using antibacterial treatments topically will work to kill bad bacteria, but it is important to use topical solutions that do not build resistance and that do not kill so many bacteria that it disrupts your microbiome. Although there are no studies proving that natural solutions such as tea tree essential oil, neem oil and thyme extracts do just that, there are studies showing better results using such natural topical solutions over typical treatments such as benzoyl peroxide.
How to promote a healthy skin microbiome
So how do you manage your microbiome to promote balance and strength that will lead to healthy, clear skin? Here are a few tips you can start today
1. Stop over cleansing.
This is a very common misconception. “My acne is caused by dirty skin, so I have to cleanse more if I am breaking out”. NO. Over cleansing might be causing the breakouts. Yes, causing them! Solution: Use gentle cleansers that don’t leave skin feeling dry and limit the use of soaps and foaming cleansers to only a few times a week. For those of you that have dry skin, we even recommend not cleansing with a cleanser in the morning, and just rinsing your face with water or wiping your skin with an organic cotton pad and an alcohol-free toner.
2. Don’t use strong antibacterial topical solutions.
They deliver immediate results, but they are not a long term solution. It is recommended, however, that you use topical solutions that compliment your skin’s efforts at killing bad bacteria. Using complex and gentle antibacterial solutions, such as some essential oils*, hydrosols, and herbal infusions can be effective in alleviating acne while helping balance or maintain a healthy skin microbiome. Use a green tea and thyme facial mist and facial oils designed with the microbiome in mind (such as this green tea infused one and this thyme and tea tree oil containing facial oil).
(*not all essential oils are created equal. Essential oils are very complex and extremely potent. Using essential oils topically without proper training can lead to a negative impact on your skin. Essential oil are only effective when used at proper dilutions, included in a smart formulation and when the right type of oil is used for the intended purpose).
3. Eat probiotics.
Studies show there is a link between the health of our skin’s microbiome and our gut microbiome. Eating foods rich of probiotics such as live kimchi, sauerkraut, and yogurt can help make skin healthier!
4. Don’t be afraid to sweat or to get dirty.
Going outdoors and out of sterile environments, and breaking a sweat are great ways to help foster a healthy skin microbiome. Of course cleanse in the evening afterwards using a gentle cleanser to help keep pores clear - but don’t necessarily associate getting a little dirty with breaking out!
Check out part 1 of this series to learn more about what causes acne, part 2 to learn about how hormones affect our skin, part 4 to learn about your skin's barrier function, and part 5 to learn about finding balance and our recommended skincare ritual