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How to Get Rid of Bad Skin Bacteria Without Wiping Out the Good

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Photo: JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty Images

The idea of bugs hanging out on your face is the stuff of nightmares. But that’s what’s happening, at least on a microscopic level—and it’s actually the dream scenario.

Your gut has its microbiome—the 100 or so trillion bacteria lining your GI tract that are involved in everything from brain function to your weight—and now researchers have found that skin houses its own special bacterial blend vital to its health. About a trillion strong, the microbes on skin differ from those in the gut as well as from person to person. (Here's everything you need to know about your skin microbiome.) "Just as cacti grow naturally in Arizona but not the Midwest, every bacteria has an environment where it thrives," says dermatologist Whitney Bowe, M.D., the author of The Beauty of Dirty Skin.

Getting to Know Your Skin's Bacteria

In the past, experts thought of these organisms mostly as foes or benign friends. Now they’re discovering all the good that bacteria do, like signal cells to perform key tasks or turn genes on or off. For example, specific strains tell cells to produce the fats and ceramides needed to maintain the skin barrier. That’s crucial for keeping moisture in and irritants out, says dermatologist Jeffrey Dover, M.D. And recent research from the University of California San Diego found one strain that produces a compound to help suppress cancer cells.

But there are bad apples too. Certain bacteria trigger inflammation and play roles in acne, rosacea, eczema, and psoriasis. Obliterating them isn’t the answer—even if you could do so without also wiping out all the beneficial microbes. "No [one type of] bacteria is good in abundance; balance is key," says Dr. Dover. So is diversity; the more and varied the strains, the healthier the skin. When one pathogenic bug dominates, trouble ensues. In those with eczema, it arises when a common strain of Staphylococcus aureus gains a foothold over others, Dr. Bowe says. An off-kilter microbiome also compromises the skin barrier, contributing to dryness, sensitivity, inflammation, and possibly aging.

Healthy Gut, Healthy Skin

Studies show that microbes in your gut affect skin too. Bacteria there make up 70 percent of your immune system, says Dr. Bowe. When the bacterial balance is off, “some patients may experience gas or bloating, but for others, the sole manifestation is in the skin,” she says. A healthy gut microbiome also maintains a tight intestinal barrier, which keeps toxins quarantined. An imbalance, however, makes the gut leaky, releasing them into the body and triggering inflammation all over, Dr. Bowe says. (Related: Everything You Need to Know About Leaky Gut Syndrome) The gut-skin link may go beyond immunity. “The literature is showing effects [of probiotic supplements] on hydration too,” says Gregor Reid, Ph.D., the chief scientist at Seed, which has developed a probiotic supplement. 

How to Bug Out

Support your microbiome through your lifestyle, diet, and skin care.

Be kind to skin’s inhabitants. Avoid harsh antibacterial soap and hand sanitizer, and never scrub skin aggressively. "It disrupts the terrain where bacteria thrive," says Dr. Bowe. Instead, use cleansers and moisturizers with niacinamide or ceramides to bolster your barrier.

Get a little dirty. Our world is way too clean, Dr. Bowe says. Because we indiscriminately kill bacteria with cleaning products, we’re not exposed to many of nature’s microbial goods. Researchers in China found that those who live in megacities have less diverse skin microbiomes, which may explain why urban areas see more skin inflammation. "You don’t need to never shower," says Dr. Dover. Just limit cleansing to once a day.

Try microbiome-targeting skin care. If the skin is generally healthy and you use gentle products, you probably don’t need to overhaul your routine, says Dr. Bowe. But if you have sensitive skin, dryness, or acne, biome-centric products could help. Consider prebiotics that feed skin bacteria, found in Naturopathica Manuka Honey Cleansing Balm ($62; dermstore.com) and Joyome Illuminating Day Serum and Intensive Overnight Repair ($153 for both; joyomeskincare.com), as well as probiotics, meaning actual bacteria, found in Mother Dirt AO+ Mist ($50; amazon.com). (Check out these other probiotic skin care products.)

Eat well, stress less. Load up on fiber-rich produce and foods with probiotics and prebiotics—yogurt, bananas, onions, and raw asparagus. Also, know that stress changes the diversity and number of bugs in your gut, according to a study in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity. Counteract with exercise and sleep, which studies show directly help balance microbes. (Try these 7 ways to bolster good gut bacteria.)

Pop probiotics daily. Preliminary studies show various strains of probiotic bacteria may improve skin by boosting hydration, calming inflammation, helping prevent UV-induced barrier disruptions and oxidative stress (which triggers aging), and more. They do this not by worming their way from the GI tract to the skin but by changing how your gut microbiome functions in ways that influence skin or even by releasing bene cial metabolites that make it to skin via the bloodstream, says Reid. Try the strains in Seed Female Daily Synbiotic ($50; seed.com), which are Bifidobacterium longum SD-CECT 7347-SP, Lactobacillus casei SD-CECT 9104-SP, and B. lactis SD-CECT 8145-SP. Also, be wary of supplements that make outrageous claims. "No one on the planet is always totally healthy," says Reid. Probiotics offer a way to tip the scales in favor of better health.

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