The importance of cultivating a healthy gut microbiome for immunity, skin health, brain health and longevity is an established fact with studies repeatedly showing that the good bugs in our gut may deliver many health benefits.
While research is ongoing, there is also growing evidence to suggest that your other microbiome–that is, the ecosystem on the surface of your skin–also plays an important role in our health.
To learn more about this complex ecosystem, we recently spoke with chemist and skincare formulator, Marie-Veronique Nadeau. After suffering from acne as a teenager and rosacea as an adult, she created her own products when she could find nothing on the market that was clean and effective to address her concerns. Working with her daughter, Jay Nadeau, a physicist and bio-medical engineer, the pair created Marie Veronique, a non-toxic skincare brand made up of powerful botanical-based products.
We sat down to discuss the role of the skin microbiome, signs something is off and how to support it.
What exactly is the skin microbiome and how does it work?
“The skin microbiome is composed of about a trillion microorganisms of up to a thousand different species. The microbiota live on the skin’s surface, inside crevices or folds or deeper in pores, glands, and epidermal tissue. Most of the bacteria on the skin are commensal, meaning they work to keep the skin healthy by keeping the skin’s immune system robust. Their primary jobs are to maintain proper barrier function and microbiome balance by repelling pathogenic invaders.
For example, microbiota like Staphylococcus epidermidis, which are in abundance in healthy skin, keep harmful bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus (its nasty first cousin) from overwhelming the skin by releasing AMPs (antimicrobial peptides) to control their numbers. The skin microbiome is an integral part of one’s immune system.”
How does it work in conjunction with the gut microbiome?
“There is some migration of microbes back and forth, so you will find S. epidermidis in the gut as well as the skin. You will find S. aureus in both biomes as well. I’m not sure how much of a direct connection there is between microbial activities in the gut and those in the skin. There is a more direct connection between the oral and skin microbiomes in terms of residential populations.
Diet and what is in our food can influence how our skin and the rest of our body functions. Anything that causes inflammation is going to cause problems. However, inflammation can come from different sources, not just the gut. So it’s important to look at this from different angles.
There’s a lot about the relationship between gut health and skin health that we don’t yet understand. Microbiome research is still in its infancy, so it’s important to continue to be curious and question our assumptions. This kind of critical thinking is what will yield more fruitful answers and possible solutions.”
What are some of the signs your skin microbiome is off?
“If the immune system is compromised to the point where pathogens have gained greater than normal access and are gaining ground in terms of their numbers to the point where they are disrupting normal balance, then you have a potential problem. Imbalances can affect the ability of the commensal or ‘good’ microbes to do their jobs properly. Immune system overload can eventually lead to autoimmune disorders of the skin such as acne, rosacea, eczema, dermatitis, and psoriasis. But before you arrive at that critical juncture, dryness, irritation, redness, and rashes can indicate that all is not well with your microbiome.”
How can you rebalance and support your skin microbiome?
“Firstly, support healthy barrier function. The barrier layer and the microbiome are interdependent and maintaining barrier layer integrity helps skin flora stay healthy, which in turn ensures overall healthy skin. Secondly, use a barrier lipid blend that contains the oils your stratum corneum needs to stay healthy–ceramides, cholesterol, and free fatty acids such as sunflower seed oil.
Yoghurt masks can also help restore ‘good; microbial balance. Make sure your yoghurt contains live bacteria–look at the list of live bacteria on the container for Lactobacillus casei, Bifodobacterium brevi and Streptococcus thermophilus. Take ½ tsp of yogurt and spread it on your face. You can wash it off after fifteen minutes or leave it on all night. May be used nightly.”
What are some of the things you should avoid doing to keep your microbiome happy?
“Exfoliation, washing too much, and washing with cleansers that strip the skin and compromise barrier function. I’d also suggest to stop with the AHAs (except for lactic acid). Many skincare products are preserved with a huge cornucopia of synthetics meant to kill off every living thing that might be growing in the bottle. So of course, these preservatives are going to be doing the very same thing to your precious commensals if you expose them. A little goes a long way when it comes to preservatives, so look for microstatic performing preservatives such as the ones we use at Marie Veronique as opposed to microcidal ones.”
Research in this space is relatively new. Do you think it will soon provide the knowledge we’ve been searching for when it comes to treating various skin conditions?
“It depends on which skin conditions we are talking about. Dermatitis, probably. Acne, maybe. Ageing, not a chance. As for when, well, soon is likely a stretch. The wheels of research turn slowly, which is the way it is supposed to be. Scientists are a cautious bunch.”
What do you predict will be the next frontier in skincare?
“My most honest answer? I am not sure. Microbiome research is interesting but it’s not going to help with ageing skin. If I were to put my money on anything, it would be on the Holy Grail, i.e., genuine help with delaying the skin ageing process. This is most likely to come from senolytics, an emerging class of cell-clearing therapies that work to eliminate senescent cells from the body. And in the meantime, we have retinol and niacinamide.”