Research on the skin microbiome has revealed an intricate dance between bacteria and the immune system, with the balance of microorganisms playing a critical role in skin health.
The skin is the largest organ in the human body, and it serves numerous functions such as protection against the outside world, regulation of body temperature, reduction of UV radiation damage and retention of moisture.
However, the skin is more than just an organ; it is a complex ecosystem. It harbours trillions of microorganisms like bacteria, fungi and viruses, which are collectively known as the skin microbiome. The composition of the skin microbiome varies amongst individuals based on factors such as age, gender and ethnicity. For example, studies have shown that women have a more diverse skin microbiome than men - and that the skin microbiome of older adults is less diverse than that of younger ones. An imbalance in the skin microbiome can lead to an overactive immune response, which can contribute to skin inflammation and conditions such as psoriasis, eczema, rosacea, acne, and others.
The skin microbiome is a complex and fascinating ecosystem that plays an important role in maintaining healthy skin
Let’s take a little look at some of the bacteria we find in the skin microbiome and what their impact is on the health of our skin.
Cutibacterium acnes thrive in oily environments such as those near the skin’s sebaceous (oil-producing) glands. As it feeds off the sebum (the oil produced by these glands) it grows, and in doing so can clog our pores, causing inflammation. It also produces waste products that irritate the skin leading to further inflammation. The result of all this inflammation… big, angry spots.
But C. acnes isn't inherently harmful. It plays a crucial role in maintaining skin health by producing antimicrobial proteins and keeping the skin acidic, which protects against pathogens. Additionally, some strains of C. acnes are anti-inflammatory.
The key to maintaining healthy C. acnes levels is through moderation. Too much of this bacteria can lead to skin problems, while too little can create an imbalance that could be harmful to the skin. A reduction in the intake of insulin-spiking foods and avoiding pore-blocking products can help keep C. acnes in check.
Malassezia – not a bacteria, but a type of yeast, commonly found on the skin. And just like C. acnes it loves a fatty environment. So given a chance it’ll set up camp on our face, and on our scalp, where we have an abundance of oil-secreting glands. But hormonal changes, stress, poor hygiene, and certain medications can contribute to the growth of Malassezia. This yeast is typically harmless, but excessive growth can lead to skin conditions such as seborrheic dermatitis, dandruff and folliculitis, which can cause redness, flaking and itching. Malassezia does this by producing enzymes that break skin cells’ fats, causing inflammation and irritation.
Staphylococcus aureus is a little bacteria that loves to make its home in our skin. If you look at them under the microscope they look like a little bunch of grapes. But they aren’t packed full of skin-loving nutrients like grapes are. If left unchecked they can be pretty troublesome for our skin.
Although part of the normal skin microbiome, if there is a break in the skin’s protective barrier, such as a cut or scratch, S. aureus can enter the body and cause infections, such as impetigo or abscesses. Eczema sufferers are particularly at risk as the weakened skin barrier makes it easier for the bacteria to penetrate the skin. S. aureus is also known to produce various toxins that damage the skin barrier, aggravating the redness, itching and inflammation associated with eczema.
Staphylococcus epidermidis is a bacteria found on the oily parts of the skin like the face, scalp, and upper chest. This soldier-like bacteria is part of the skin’s natural defence system. It has been shown to produce proteins called natural antimicrobial peptides, which help to protect the skin from harmful pathogens by inhibiting their growth or killing them. By doing so S. epidermidis helps protect the body from infection and maintain the natural balance of bacteria on the skin.
Streptococcus thermophilus could be considered an anti-ageing bacteria. That’s because it is thought to reduce wrinkles due to its role in increasing collagen and elastin production in the skin. These are proteins which help give skin its structure and elasticity. S. thermophilus also helps to increase the skin’s moisture levels. When our skin is dehydrated it accentuates the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. So by reducing this dehydration this anti-ageing bacteria can keep the skin looking plump, making fine lines and wrinkles less noticeable.
So what to take from all this? Well whilst certain types of bacteria can contribute to skin conditions, many others are beneficial and help to protect the skin. By maintaining good skincare practices and a healthy lifestyle, we can support the health of our skin microbiome and reduce the risk of developing skin conditions.
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