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Why You Need to Start Paying Attention to Your Skin Microbiome—Especially Now

Skin-care experts break down what the skin microbiome is and how to nurture it for happier, healthier skin.

3/5/2021 12:56:00 PM

Skin-care experts break down what the skin microbiome is and how to nurture it for happier, healthier skin.

Skin-care experts break down what the skin microbiome is and how to nurture it for happier, healthier skin.

.All products featured on Vogue are independently selected by our editors. However, when you buy something through our retail links, we may earn an affiliate commission."Healthy skin is anything but squeaky clean!" says New York City dermatologist Whitney Bowe, M.D., of the dirty truth behind a robust skin microbiome. Just like the gut, the skin has its own unique ecosystem of bacteria, fungi, and viruses that impact how it functions. Keeping it in balance is essential for maintaining a hydrated and glowing complexion. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, where the ultra-hygienic atmosphere has us thinking more about our skin's interaction with its environment, experts break down what the skin microbiome is and how to nurture it for happier, healthier skin.

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What is the skin microbiome?"Our skin microbiome refers to the trillions of microscopic organisms, mostly bacteria, that live on and in our skin’s various layers," explains Bowe. "A healthy or 'balanced' skin microbiome is like a diverse rainforest—the more strains which coexist, the healthier the skin." According to Alison Cutlan, a green chemist and co-founder of sustainable pro-microbiome skincare brand

Biophile, the skin's microbiome is seeded at birth, unique as a fingerprint, and is in constant communication with its environment and our skin. "Our microbes are responsible for protecting our skin from pathogens, controlling skin immunity, nutrient absorption and supporting our skin barrier," explains Cutlan. "I like to say that skin microbiome is like the control center or the 'life force’ of the skin.'" headtopics.com

While still in its infancy, skin microbiome research has awakened a whole new understanding of skin biology and shifted the paradigm of how we take care of our skin and create healthier products. "Skincare needs to work in symbiosis with the skin and its microbiome in order for it to thrive," says Cutlan. "It’s a new frontier."

Why is it important for the skin microbiome to stay balanced?When it comes to the health of our skin microbiome, it’s especially important to focus on the health and diversity of our skin barrier. "It acts as a smart, protective shield whose main function is to serve as the body’s interface with the outside world," explains Bowe. "When it’s healthy and functioning at its optimal capacity, it acts like a biodynamic membrane, constantly making decisions about what is allowed to enter the skin and what is blocked. A healthy barrier traps moisture in, and keeps irritants and potential pathogens out." In other words, a healthy barrier protects against both inflammation and infection.

In contrast, when even one strain in our skin microbiome overgrows and starts to crowd out the others, this leads to "dysbiosis," or an imbalance. Bowe calls this imbalance "leaky skin" (riffing on "leaky gut syndrome") and when it occurs, you begin to see problems in the skin. "Leaky skin can manifest in a number of different ways depending on the genetic predisposition of the person including as acne, eczema, rosacea, psoriasis," explains Bowe. "But it can also can show up as sensitive skin and can even accelerate signs aging in the skin like loss of elasticity, uneven tone, and wrinkles."

What’s compromising the skin microbiome in modern life?It's the way we live today, and how it's impacting our skin microbiome, that inspired Cutlan to start a microbiome skin-care brand in the first place. "Our modern lifestyles, including what we eat, being over-hygienic, the products we use, and our reduced exposure to nature, have decreased our microbial diversity making us more susceptible to dysbiosis associated with chronic inflammatory skin conditions, such as dryness, overproduction of sebum, breakouts, redness, and inflammatory condition." Cutlan also notes that headtopics.com

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has shown that as a whole, our bacterial diversity has dramatically declined from our ancestors’.How is the COVID-19 pandemic having an impact on the skin microbiome?"COVID has naturally led to a hyper-hygienic atmosphere," explains Cutlan. She cites the example of how, by scrubbing our hands with soap and/or using sanitizer throughout the day to reduce viral infection, we've also stripped our skin of its natural oils and the healthy bacteria that protect our barrier. "Our skin is not sufficiently equipped to handle these harsh treatments and it led to a lot of irritated and sensitive skin issues," she says. Maskne, the irritation and breakouts caused by wearing face coverings, is another pandemic phenomenon that has led to new cleanliness protocols. "It's led to more frequent laundering of face masks and spikes in facial skin treatments that target acne including detoxifying cleansers, anti-bacterial, and probiotic topical treatments," says Cutlan.

AdvertisementThe bottom line is that the importance of a healthy and protective microbiome on each part of the body has never been more relevant and important in people’s lives than it is now. "From the barrier-supporting and acne-fighting elements of our skin to the immune boosting power in our guts, a healthy microbiome is our first defense against pathogens," underlines Cutlan.

What are the dos and don’ts of microbiome-minded skin care?Do:Opt for gentle products with clean, simplified ingredient lists. "Being more mindful of your skin’s microbiome will improve your skin’s health at its source," explains Cutlan. "In fact, you may realize that some of skin issues you are trying to address with your regimen, such as dryness, acne, redness, wrinkles, are actually caused by your product usage." When the skin barrier is compromised, Bowe recommends focusing on nourishing ingredients including aloe, jojoba oil, shea butter, and squalane oil.

Don't:Use harsh ingredients (synthetic or natural) or over-treat the skin. "When cleansing, avoid harsh surfactants that strip the skin of its natural oils and denature proteins," says Cutlan, noting that natural soap bars are known culprits as they have high pHs that will disrupt the skin's natural low pH and favor the growth of pathogenic bacteria. Be just as wary of irritating ingredients (synthetic or natural), such as preservatives, essential oils, and other chemicals, in the products you layer on after. headtopics.com

Do:Streamline your regimen. Cutlan's motto is: Less is more. "The 10-step skincare rituals expose the skin to hundreds of chemicals that put a lot of stress on the skin and microbiome, causing imbalances, sensitivities and compounded skin issues," she cautions. On that note, Bowe advises against layering active ingredients that are potentially irritating. "Some of our most powerful active skincare ingredients, the ones with mountains of evidence supporting their skin benefits, are known irritants and can weaken the skin barrier if used incorrectly," she says, adding that you should also build in what she calls “recovery nights,” meaning nights when you don’t use any harsh actives and just focus on hydrating, nourishing biome-friendly ingredients. She is also adamant about skipping any aggressive physical exfoliation steps. "Toss your facial scrubs and your spin brush–manual exfoliation tools and products are terrible for sensitive skin," she explains. "They destroy your healthy, delicate skin barrier."

Don't:Use drying alcohols on the face. "They're often found in toners, and people with acne or oily skin love how they degrease the skin, but this comes at a tremendous cost," says Bowe. "These drying alcohols damage your microbiome, and in turn, your skin barrier." According to Bowe, drying alcohols are often listed on labels as SD alcohol, denatured alcohol, ethyl alcohol or isopropyl alcohol. On the other hand, hydrating alcohols, or fatty alcohols, such as cetyl, stearyl and cetearyl alcohol,

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aregood for your skin. "These alcohols are emollients, meaning they keep skin hydrated and supple—yes, the exact opposite of what you might expect when you see the word ‘alcohol’ on the label," says Bowe.Do:Incorporate pre- pro- and post-biotics that support a healthy microbiome. "These ingredients can help with microbiome maintenance and balance to help the skin recover faster from threatening ingredients," says Cutlan, who suggests using fermentation-derived ingredients, such as bacterial lysates and filtrates, which contain rich secondary metabolites that nourish the skin and microbiome. Better yet, look for a skin-care brand that's certified microbiome-friendly, such as Biophile or Dr. Elsa Jungman.

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