“Is my skin dirty?” one of my patients asked me this week when I was explaining the role of skin microbiome and her skin issue. And the answer is YES and we actually want our skin to have a healthy balanced microbiome of bacteria, fungus, yeast, virus etc. on it. When these little critters are in the right place at the right time, they help us be healthy and have beautiful, healthy skin! I thought the conversation I had with this patient and the tips I shared would be helpful for you to hear as well, so here’s what we went over on how to help her cultivate her natural, healthy skin microbiome.

A little background….

So how does this whole skin microbiome thing work anyways?

The answer is…. it’s complex. The microbiome is the collection of microbes that live in a particular environment such as the skin or the gut. Microbes are things such as bacteria, yeast, fungus and viruses. The contents of the skin microbiome are different depending on what part of the body we are referencing. For example, more oily (sebaceous) skin, like the nose, tends to have a different normal balance of microorganisms compared to hot, moist areas of our skin like the armpit. We also tend to have our own signature microbiome, meaning we all have slightly different numbers and types of microbes that live in the areas of our skin that are unique to us, just like we have our own fingerprints. Additionally, the skin microbiome does not seem to act on its own, it seems that it’s related to other aspects of our health and strongest link we’ve noted so far with the skin microbiome is with our gut microbiome and with our brain, also known as the gut-brain-skin axis.

The connection between skin and gut microbiome seems to be mostly communicated by the immune system (although we may discover down the road that there’s more to this). The immune system is a signaling system that scans the body and evaluates whether something is harmful to our health. If it detects something it sees as harmful to our vitality, it sends a signal thru the system to release substances to attack and to make more cells that can engage in the attack. So for each one of us, our immune system has a “sense” of what’s normal for us and what it has determined is ok and what is not ok.

The two biggest areas of our body that get exposed to potential harmful substances are our skin and its interaction with the world and our gut that interacts with what we put into it from the external world. So it’s not surprising to me at all that the skin and the gut seem to be” best friends”. And sometimes what happens on our skin or gut can impact other organ systems and vice versa and this is because the immune system also communicates with all the organs of our body. It’s quite a fascinating and integrative system. I know…I’ll stop nerding out now….

So back to the skin microbiome, now that we know it’s complex, related to the gut, brain and immune system, what can we do to promote a healthy skin microbiome?

5 Tips on Cultivating Your Healthy Natural Skin Microbiome

1. Be gentle with your skin

When you cleanse, avoid scrubbing or using harsh soaps on your skin to be “squeaky” clean. Harsh scrubs and soaps can irritate the skin and impact the skin’s natural barrier protection. When the barrier protection is compromised, our immune system gets activated as it wants to protect the body from microbiome and toxic invaders that could penetrate the skin and potentially harm us.

Instead, use gentle cleansers that remove makeup and debris (see below for some recommendations). If you would like to exfoliate, use exfoliants such as alpha hydroxy acids (example: glycolic acid) or beta hydroxy acids (example: salicylic acid if you are prone to oily skin). Alpha hydroxy acids are water soluble and work on the surface of the skin to gently exfoliate and beta hydroxy acids are oil soluble and can work on the surface of the skin and penetrate a little deeper into the oil glands. Start with using a small amount once a week and follow with a moisturizer. Another option is to use a konjac sponge or Clarisonic Brush a few times per week to do a deeper cleanse.

2. Be mindful of products you use on your skin

With all of the information out there about harsh chemicals that can be found in your skin care products and the mixed information that’s out there, my simplest advice is to use products that have the least amount of chemicals in them and do trials of the products on a small area of your skin first to see how they jive with your skin. Here are a few resources for some organic, natural skin care product lines that I love!

3. Protect your skin from harsh environmental exposures

Heat, excessive sun exposure, sunburns, cigarette smoke, environmental pollution…these all can impact the health of your skin. Bakers and chefs tend to have more aging on their hands and arms due to their chronic exposure to heat. Aging of the face, hands, and arms also comes quicker to cigarette smokers. Excessive sun exposure tends to dry out your skin as well as expose it to higher amounts of the sun’s radiation which can lead to dry skin, sun damage and potentially skin cancer. The microbiome that is normally present in an oily area of the skin is likely to shift to microbes that flourish on dry skin in these scenarios. That shift will indeed be detected by your immune system and you can expect to see inflammation in the skin which may present as acne, flaky skin, aging skin, eczema, psoriasis, etc.

  • Being mindful about protecting your skin from these environmental exposures and use sun protective clothing and sunscreen when appropriate
  • Eat a vibrant, colorful whole food nutrition program full of a rainbow of color of fruits and vegetables every day so that your cells get the phytonutrients they need to protect and repair themselves

4. Keep your gut microbiome healthy

Avoid processed foods and focus your nutrition on food sources made by nature to help keep the gut microbiome healthy. Food choices such as a wide variety and colors of vegetables, fruits (eat all the colors of the rainbow each day) as well as healthy protein and fat sources such as legumes, seeds, oils, nuts. And if you eat animal protein, other sources of protein can be wild-caught fish, free-range poultry, and grass-fed meats. When you shop, try to stick to the outside aisles where these types of foods are typically located in grocery stores. For online shoppers, here are some great resources to get healthier food choices delivered to your doorstep:

  • Thrive Market
  • Metabolic meals
  • Vital Choice
  • Eat prebiotic foods that feed the microbiome of your gut such as dandelion greens, asparagus, bananas, apples, onions, leeks, jerusalem artichokes, garlic, jicama root, and chicory root. These foods can provide a healthy environment for a balanced, natural gut microbiome to flourish. Think of prebiotic foods as fertilizer to grow healthy gut microbes.

Eat probiotic foods that naturally contain live microbes that are created from the fermentation process such as sauerkraut, kombucha, kimchi, miso, natto, etc.

In addition to prebiotic and probiotic foods, you may want to take a probiotic supplement to help assist the microbiome of the gut. There is so much information we are learning about the role of probiotics and its shifting and changing as we gather more information. A combination of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium or one that contains Saccharomyces boulardii are examples of some of the types of microbes to look for in your probiotics. You can access some pharmaceutical grade probiotics here in my online store or you can check out these brands at your local natural grocery store:

5. Mind and the skin

When we are stressed our bodies do not want to focus on skin or digestion. The body shifts to focus on organs involved in the fight, flight or freeze states such as muscles, heart, and lungs. We may find that when we are stressed our stomach hurts, our skin breaks out, our hair sheds more than normal etc. Managing our stress with calming activities such as walking, gentle yoga, stretching, meditation etc can help rebalance the body and restore a sense of peace.

Getting a handle on your stress can be very challenging to do, but when you are able to find some peace and restore your mind, body and spirit, you will likely find that your skin improves. Check out my blog on “Stress and Your Skin” for some great tips on how to help calm your mind, body and spirit.