Covering our skin with petroleum-based chemicals may be one of our most hazardous modern day practices. Research shows that our skin contains billions of valuable microbial allies that leave us vulnerable when wiped away.
As the body’s largest organ, the skin is colonized by various species of fungi, bacteria, viruses and even mites. This ecosystem, or skin microbiome, has been the subject of much research leading some scientists to conclude that skin disorders like acne, rosacea, and psoriasis are exacerbated by “dysbiosis” or an imbalance in the microbial community. (The website Skin Microbiome offers excellent updates on the latest research.)
In light of increasing research encouraging us to work with our microbiome rather than against it, consider these intuitive suggestions for protecting your valuable skin flora:
1. Bathe Less
Only in the last hundred years have we made bathing a daily practice. Are we overdoing it? According to Dr. Richard Gallo, chief of the dermatology division at the University of California, San Diego,
“Good bacteria are educating your own skin cells to make your own antibiotics. . . and they produce their own antibiotics that kills off bad bacteria.” (NY Times “The Great Unwashed“)
Gallo believes showering not only removes lipids and oils that keep your skin from drying out, showering also removes some of the good bacteria.
I have been moving away from frequent bathing since moving to a shampoo-less regimen. (I use rhassoul clay and herbal formulas exclusively. Find out more here.) I use minimal soap, primarily for hand washing.
I also follow the natural bath as outlined in the 1903 book “Return to Nature!” by Adolf Just. Rather than a full bath, the natural bath is done in a tub with cold water about 3 and a half inches deep, so that the seat and the feet only touch the bottom of the tub.
” The water is vigorously dashed over the abdomen with the hollow of the hand. . . Hereupon the entire body is rapidly washed with the bare hands. . . Then the body is rubbed with the bare open hands (not with a towel or flesh brush) until it is completely dry.”
I have found the natural bath to be stimulating not only to my digestive system but to my clarity of mind. I still practice skin brushing as a way to stimulate my lymphatic system and exfoliate, but do so away from cold baths. (Adolf Just’s book is available for download free of charge here. Note: He is a bit dogmatic, but I find his writing intriguing and prophetic.)
2. Go Natural
Chemicals are ubiquitous in our beauty and body care products. Less than 1% have been tested for safety, yet we apply them with abandon and continue to see a rise in the incidence of skin disorders.
Triclosan, the active ingredient in many hand sanitizers and other personal care products, is now under safety review by the Food and Drug Administration. Introduced as a pesticide in 1969, triclosan has been implicated in hormonal disruption, skin irritation and antibiotic resistance.
Sunscreens containing oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate not only disrupt skin flora but may disrupt hormones and speed the development of skin tumors and lesions. (See National Institutes of Health’s Photocarcinogenesis Study of Retinoic Acid and Retinyl Palmitate.)
Thankfully natural skin care products abound. Remember that less can be more when it comes to soap and other personal care products. I have found I use far less soap and don’t need deodorant as my overall health improves and I continue to practice a natural regimen. Consider gentled soap using an all natural soap as the base:
- Grate your bar of soap.
- Place 1 ounce of the grated soap in a glass jar.
- Add 1-2 cups filtered water and leave overnight.
- Stir the next day until well blended.
This gentled soap stores indefinitely in a capped jar. Simply dab your washcloth into the mixture and apply to your skin. (I make and sell natural soap found here.)
3. Apply probiotics
If indeed our skin is home to vital microorganisms why not add them to our skin care regime? One company, aoBiome, is in the process of patenting a topical spray containing Ammonia Oxidizing Bacteria (AOB) which are found in human sweat. New York Times journalist Julia Scott shared her experience using the AOB spray in the article My No-Soap, No-Shampoo, Bacteria-Rich Experiment.
Our skin is naturally acidic with a pH of 4 to 5.5, creating an uncomfortable environment for inhospitable microorganisms. By regularly applying properly prepared fermented products like cream kefir, kombucha or even natto can go a long way to restoring the proper skin flora balance.
4. Avoid Super Sterile
Microbial diversity in our environment has a direct impact on our skin. Dogs have been shown to positively impact our biodiversity. (See the NPR article Bacteria on Dog Lovers’ Skin Reveal Their Affection.)
One study found that teens living with less biodiversity in their environment were more likely to suffer from allergies:
Compared with healthy individuals, atopic individuals had lower environmental biodiversity in the surroundings of their homes and significantly lower generic diversity of gammaproteobacteria on their skin.
Of course this doesn’t mean allowing the home to proliferate with toxic mold or other toxic substances, it simply means that we may need a bit more beneficial microbes. This is why I often clean with sour kombucha or Four Thieves herbal formula. It can’t hurt to add in some friendly microbes while cleaning!
Acknowledging the host of microbes that abound on our skin will not only revolutionize the way we live, it may give a powerful boost to our overall health.