I was brought up to be a germophobe. The lesson was that bacteria and germs are bad; cleanliness is good. Antibacterial soaps (which the FDA banned in 2016) were a must in our house. When I was a child, my doctors gave me a Z-Pak at the slightest chance of a cold. Even a trip to the dermatologist for breakouts meant coming home with both topical and oral antibiotics. My obsession against germs continued into my twenties. After I moved to New York City, I’d wash my hands until they were raw, trying to cleanse away the sooty grime of the city.
Turns out that the war against germs may be doing more harm to our health—and skin—than good. You’ve probably heard of superbugs, strains of bacteria that can’t be beat by antibiotics. The latest research suggests that long-term antibiotic use may be linked to a higher risk of obesity. And that squeaky-clean skin we’ve been conditioned to love? It’s on fire, says NYC dermatologist and author of The Beauty of Dirty Skin Whitney Bowe, M.D., who’s seen skin issues from rosacea to acne to eczema on the rise in her practice. So what’s up? Experts are increasingly pointing to impacts on the microbiome, the vital ecosystem of microorganisms that live in and on us. Here’s your step-by-step guide for protecting it.
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Step 1: Work from the Inside Out
Research has shown that the gut, the brain, and the skin may all be intimately connected. “If we learn to nourish and protect the bacterial components of our body,” says Dr. Bowe, we can find a connection to our skin issues. Your way to a healthy body:
Cut the junk.
Eating fried, sugary, and processed foods all the time can lead to a condition called leaky gut, whereby toxic compounds and bacteria could get into the bloodstream and cause inflammation throughout your body, including your skin, Dr. Bowe explains. Stick with plant-based, whole foods that have a low glycemic index—think fruits and veggies, leafy greens, legumes, and grains like quinoa and steel-cut oats.
Eat probiotic-rich foods.
Dr. Bowe recommends adding fermented foods such as kefir, yogurt, sauerkraut, kombucha, kimchi, and miso to your diet.
Look for probiotics that contain various strains of Lactobacillus, Bifidobacteria, and Bacillus coagulans bacteria, says Dr. Bowe.
Anxiety could also add to your skin issues. “Ongoing, chronic, slow-boil-type stress—not getting enough sleep, constant multitasking—takes a toll on our skin,” says Dr. Bowe. Early research shows that stress may impact the type of bacteria that grows in the gut, and that eating probiotic yogurt may improve skin health.
Cut back on antibiotics.
Dr. Bowe notes that while antibiotics seem like a panacea, we should be less reliant on them. Consider asking your doctor for alternatives, such as antibiotic-free topicals like retinol for acne.
Step 2: Balance your skin
In a world where eight-step cleansing routines are the new normal, it seems crazy to think that your skin was designed to take care of itself. But it was, and if you’re having skin issues, remember: More is not better. When your face is raw, irritated, and angry, it means your skin’s protective layer (a.k.a. barrier) that regulates moisture and includes the microbiome could be compromised. This may be due to a skin condition like rosacea or eczema, or it mightbe from overexfoliating or OD-ing on an intense active retinol. Your prescription for rebuilding your barrier:
Dial back on cleansing.
The focus, says San Francisco holistic skin expert Kristina Holey, should be “less sterilizing, less stripping away, and more nurturing.” Overwashing is a big no; swap out harsh cleansers for gentler creams and oils (we like Dove DermaSeries Gentle Cleansing Face Wash); skip scalding water (heat strips natural oils, which support good bacteria); and cleanse twice a day, tops. Also toss brushes that physically disturb your barrier. Your fingers are all you need.
Keep skin hydrated.
“Water is crucial for microbial growth on skin,” Dr. Bowe says, “so use products with hyaluronic acid and glycerin—things that trap moisture in skin—for a healthy microbiome.” For a finishing step, Holey suggests face oils with ceramides or fatty acids (we like Dermalogica Barrier Defense Booster).
Step 3: Boost your skin’s flora
“Generally, a healthy microbiome is one that’s diverse,” says Dr. Bowe. “You have trillions of bacteria on your skin, and ideally they should arise from many different species. When some species start to overgrow and crowd out others, that’s when certain skin issues may potentially emerge.”
Try probiotic products.
While researchers are still figuring out the scope of benefits from prebiotic and probiotic skin care, incorporating things with skin-nurturing ingredients (we like Orveda The Healing Sap, which is packed with fermented black tea) can only help your skin. As Dr. Bowe puts it, when it comes to good bugs, the more, the merrier.