A Long-Term Relationship: Microbes and Your Skin

December 16, 2021
Dr. Nathan Brown

Here’s a thought: you’re in a long-term relationship and it started when you were born. This relationship is not of the human kind, but rather with microorganisms. And it’s a relationship you’ll never be able to escape. That might sound creepy, but actually, it’s ok; in fact, it’s good for you. Since you were born, there has been an ecosystem of microbes living inside and on you, co-existing, unconsciously, but importantly, symbiotic.

Now, to be clear, we have different microbiomes on and in our bodies; specifically, there is the gut, oral, vaginal, and skin. They all play a part in our health and immunity. Our skin microbiome is really interesting because as skin is the largest organ we have, which spans across our whole body, we actually have different “mini” microbiomes on our skin. For example, the microbiome under your armpit is different from the microbiome on your foot, which is different from your forehead.  

What is a skin microbiome, anyway?

Let’s double click on “skin microbiome” for a minute. What is a skin microbiome actually? Your skin houses trillions of viruses, bacteria, and fungi, which are collectively known as the skin microbiome. Different parts of skin inhabit different sets of the microbiome, hence, microorganisms are found in those regions where optimum conditions for their growth are available. Your microbiome helps your skin in the following ways:

1.  Skin microbes help maintain the skin barrier and prevent potentially pathogenic organisms from invading the skin. In a healthy skin microbiome, symbiotic microbes can prevent pathogenic microbes from growing and produce organic acids that help regulate skin pH.

2.  Microorganisms support your immune system. Microbes have inhabited your skin from the moment you were born. They remain in a close relationship with the immune cells of your body and help your host immune cells combat pathogens in case they breach the skin barrier.

3.  Your skin microbiome promotes the repair process and accelerates wound closure. 

Can your skin microbiome change?

Even though you were born with a specific skin microbiome, there are factors that can change, regulate, or modulate the ecosystem for better or worse, namely environmental and intrinsic factors.

Environmental factors that affect the skin microbiome:

1.  Lifestyle and occupational habits

2.  Quality and nutrition content of food consumed

3.  Medication taken and topical products used

4.  Climate and seasonal changes

Intrinsic factors that affect the skin microbiome:

1.  Age and gender 

2.  Genetics 

3.  Previous infections 

4.  Immune system

5. Water, salt, and sebum concentration on skin

Different locations, different skin microbiomes

Let’s revisit the “mini microbiomes” concept we discussed earlier: at different locations on your skin, you house different microbes where conditions for their survival are prime. Skin is divided into three major types based on physical characteristics.

1.  Sebaceous or oily skin – between eyebrows, on the sides of the nose, inside the ear, back of your head, upper chest, and back. Bacteria present at sebaceous sites include Cutibacteria and Staphylococci species.  

2.  Moist skin – nostrils, armpits, antecubital fossa or inner elbow, spaces between fingers, skin folds between thighs and buttocks, navel, behind the knee, and the heels of your feet. Staphylococci and Corynebacteria species are commonly found in moist regions.

3.  Dry skin – inner forearm, palm, and buttocks. Dry skin areas inhabit Proteobacteria, Flavobacteriales, and Staphylococci.

Microbiome disruption and imbalance = dysbiosis

When there’s an imbalance of the microbiome, meaning that microbial diversity is reduced and there is a loss of beneficial bacteria, including within the skin microbiome, dysbiosis occurs. This imbalance leads to the weakening and deterioration of the protective barrier of the skin, making it insufficient for preventing pathogen invasion. This imbalance of the skin microbiome can commonly give rise to various skin disorders.

Some skin issues correlated with an imbalanced skin microbiome are:

1.  Acne 

Whether on the face or on the body, an imbalanced skin microbiome, along with an overproduction of sebum, can lead to an overgrowth of specific issue-causing strains of Cutibacterium acnes. In these cases, you might experience small or large pustules, otherwise known as breakouts and blemishes, along with redness and inflammation.

2.  Psoriasis

When there's impaired coordination between the skin cells, microbiome, and host immune cells, you might experience an inflammatory condition called Psoriasis. Here, the skin lesions on the elbow and back show higher populations of Staphylococcus and Micrococcus species as compared to healthy skin.

3.  Atopic Dermatitis or Eczema

Multiple studies show that dysbiosis characterized by expansion of Staphylococcus aureus leads to severe eczema, a condition that renders the skin red and itchy. The bacteria produce enzymes and toxins that damage the skin and promote inflammation.

Work with your skin microbiome, not against it

Acne, Psoriasis, and Atopic Dermatitis are just some skin issues that can be caused by an imbalanced skin microbiome. As we learn more about the skin microbiome, we’re learning about other skin conditions, too, and how much these microbes really do impact skin health, in general.

Ultimately, you are in a long-term relationship with your skin microbiome, so it’s important to discover and understand your microbial makeup and make the right choices based on our skin microbiome type. Just as external and internal factors can negatively impact the skin microbiome, they can also be leveraged to improve your skin health. At Parallel, we believe that healthy, radiant skin is really about science and understanding, and we aim to unlock the skin-discovery experience for you.

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About Parallel

A parallel world lives amongst us: the microbial world. This world impacts not only our lifespan, but also our healthspan. 

Our mission is to empower people with real science to make meaningful decisions to improve their healthspan. 

Parallel is a microbial diagnostics and next-level skincare company that aims to revolutionize skin health by providing deep insight and true personalization, through best-in-class testing and targeted, clean microbial formulations.

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