Microorganisms are now known to be as important to our health as they are to disease. In particular, the gut microbiome has an enormous influence on many of the diseases that are on the increase in the west today, affecting conditions ranging from obesity, diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease, to cardiovascular disease and mental health.
Work on the microbiome of the skin, our largest organ, is not so advanced. Yet it is known that the skin microbiome has profound effects on how our immune system develops from childhood - in particular, whether we will acquire an ‘allergic’ type of immune system, with a far greater risk of developing asthma, hay fever and eczema (read our blog on this here).
It now appears that in both the gut and the skin, the key to a ‘healthy’ microbiome is one that is biodiverse, meaning it consists of a large range of different species. Just as in our planet’s ecology, the ability to support a broad range of species on our skin and in our gut is the sign of a healthy and resilient system. The western lifestyle coincides with a profound loss of microbial biodiversity in both the skin and the gut. We know this because the skin and gut microbiomes of people living hunter-gatherer lifestyles, where western diseases are rare, have a far greater biodiversity. It is now clear that this loss of biodiversity is due to massive dietary changes, a sedentary lifestyle, the move to indoor living and an obsession with cleanliness - of our homes and our bodies (summarised in 1).
The influence of skin care on our skin’s microbiome
We have written before about our concerns with the way virtually all skin care is formulated. Skin care products typically contain a broad range of synthetic ingredients, and in the context of the skin’s microbiome, the preservatives are of particular concern (read our blog on this here). Preservatives are powerful synthetic anti-bacterial and anti-fungal molecules that must be added to any skin care product that contains water blended with oils and other ingredients. Without preservatives, the product would have a shelf life of days or weeks. Preservatives are included in liquid face and body washes, shampoos, conditioners, moisturisers, serums and makeup products. In the west, we daily cover our hair and bodies with these anti-bacterial products. There are surprisingly few studies examining their effect on our skin’s microbiome, however when they have been carried out, application of preservative-containing skin care products caused a significant drop in the number of microbes (2).
A more recent study has shown that washing the skin with a product containing fewer synthetic ingredients (no synthetic detergents or preservatives) over a 4 week period resulted in an increase in skin biodiversity, which further substantiates this trend (3).
It’s not just the preservatives
The other synthetic ingredients in standard skin care are equally concerning. Emulsifiers, the detergent-like molecules that are added to all water-containing skin care to allow the water and oil to mix, have the potential to upset the skin’s barrier function. A poor skin barrier allows harmful bacteria to invade our skin and set up an inflammatory response (Read more on emulsifiers here). A growing number of scientists now believe that our love affair with synthetic-laden, anti-bacterial skin care products could, at least in part, be responsible for the modern allergy epidemic.
Rethinking our western lifestyle
Perhaps it is now clear to almost everyone that our current way of living is leading to the breakdown of our planet’s ecosystem. We are losing plant and animal species at an alarming rate, reducing biodiversity and thereby the resilience of our ecosystems. At the same time our climate is becoming more unstable. Yet so many of us insist that the status quo must remain.
It is time to understand that the ‘normal’ way of doing things is not intelligent. It’s not better for our health, and does not create happiness or prosperity.
We are a tiny skin care company, pointing out that in one small aspect of our lives, we can make a significant change for the better - for better skin health and a better environmental outcome. As many of our customers will attest, when we stop applying synthetic ingredients onto our bodies, there is a gradual improvement in our skin’s health. For us at Mokosh, the exciting thing is that one thing leads to another. So many of our customers say that when they make the transition to our skin care, they start looking more closely at their diet and its impact on their health and the environment. From there, it is a small step to re-examining how they spend their money, who they vote for and even their life-purpose.
Our new way of life on this planet has to start somewhere. Where will you start?
Prescott, S.L. et al (2017) The skin microbiome: impact of modern environments on skin ecology, barrier integrity and systemic immune programming. World Allergy Organ J. 10:29
Lalitha, Ch. and Prasad Rao, P.V.V. (2013) Impact of superficial blends on skin microbiota. International Journal of Current Pharmaceutical Research 5:61-65
Christopher Wallen-Russell (2018). The Role of Every Day Cosmetics in Alterning the Skin Microbiome: A Study Using Biodiversity. Cosmetics