The microbiome discoveries set to shake up skincare

An earthquake is about to rock the skincare industry.

Whether it’s within the next five or 10 years, I’m not sure, but it’s coming.

That’s because for decades we’ve heard skincare brands and enthusiasts promote products and routines without discussing how they affect the microorganisms living on our skin.

You’ll find plenty of them advising us to go-through multi-step routines involving layering ingredients all in the name of preserving our skin, when its microbiome would rather we didn’t bother.

But those cumbersome skincare routines are likely about to change thanks to strides in our understanding of the delicate make-up of our skin microbiome and the major players within it.

Dr Thomas Hitchcock is a skin biome specialist with an impressive CV, having completed studies and research in genetics, tissue engineering and regenerative medicine at universities including Clemson, Duke and Yale as well as Weill Cornell Medical College.

He has dedicated himself to improving consumer understanding of the skin microbiome and how we are impacting it, co-authoring a book, Rebooting the Biome, and fronting a documentary series Beauty and the Bacteria.

And he has helped developed a skin biome care range designed to encourage the most beneficial microbes on our skin to flourish.

The Holobiont

Dr Hitchcock views the skin not just as an organ but as an environment comprised of many different organisms, something he describes as a ‘holobiont philosophy’.

He explains: “I would consider the skin as an organ comprised of not just the human part of skin, but also the microbes of the skin, the environment of the skin, the things that are secreted onto it from the body, and the microbes that constitute the environment that I would consider part of skin.”

Each microorganism or microbe has a function and should exist in perfect harmony with other microorganisms to optimize our skin and wider health.

“A lot of people forget that antibiotics were discovered in microbes. And each microbe, not all of them, but most of them I’d say, have the ability to secrete antimicrobial peptides that are specified towards certain things and not specified towards other things.

“And they do that in order to create a specific niche where certain things can live with them, certain things can’t. And it’s not always about killing other species. It’s about just balancing, keeping the population down.”

Guardians of the galaxy – C.acnes and staph epidermidis

By way of example, Dr Hitchcock looks at how the two most populous bacteria on our skin, C.acnes and staphylococcus epidermidis help regulate the other.

“The largest components, staph epidermidis and C.acnes, arguably those are the largest bacterial components of the skin microflora.

“They both secrete anti-microbial peptides, which are like antibiotics that are geared specifically towards certain things.

“So staph epidermidis actually spits out certain things that are anti C.acnes, and C.acnes spits out certain things that are anti staph.

“A lot of people think of that as a warfare thing. But I don’t see it that way. I see it as you stay on your property and I’ll stay on my property.

“We tend to see, with acne for instance, more staph epidermidis inside the follicles. That’s not where it should be. It should be on the surface.

“There’s a web that’s all interconnected. So, for instance, the C.acnes produces propionic acid, which is a short chain fatty acid. It helps to lower the pH of skin.

“When you have lower pH, this protease that staph epidermidis spits out, actually it reduces the activity but it doesn’t stop the activity.

“And that’s a key thing for health of the skin, because one of the reasons why we’re thinking we get things like atopic dermatitis is because there’s an over activity of this protease that is desquaming [shedding] the skin too quickly, and so you ruin your skin barrier.”

The pH of your skin is key

Crucial then to the skin’s health is to maintain a lower pH as we age which, according to Dr Hitchcock, is helpful to “symbiotes and commensals” and a less hospitable environment for pathogens.

It’s perhaps no coincidence that oily skin has a lower pH than dry skin.

As our skin ages it becomes drier – and sebum is a major food source for resident microbes. This begs the question is it the horse leading the cart or the cart leading the horse?

Research suggests that the microorganisms on our skin may indeed play a role in skin aging.

This is a gamechanger because it opens up options for rebalancing our microflora through skincare.

Researchers at the Jackson Laboratory in Connecticut found that fluctuating strains of C.acnes and staph epidermidis were associated with a decline in collagen levels, measured via infrared light, among volunteers aged 54 to 60.

Additionally, recent research from the Center for Microbiome Innovation at the University of California San Diego and L’Oréal Research and Innovation, published in the journal Frontiers, found that a more diverse, less regulated microbiome, was connected to increased wrinkling around the eyes.

The findings emphasise the importance of creating an environment on our skin that allows our resident helpful microbes to flourish, with over-use of skincare actives, preservatives and excessive washing among the biggest culprits for drying out the skin and increasing its pH.