Is Your Shower Ruining Your Skin?

Dr. Janet Zand

November 22, 2019

If you take a shower every day, you probably feel clean and refreshed. But did you know you might be harming your skin? And, even worse, you might be affecting your overall health?

It’s true. The very products we use to feel clean and fresh could be doing our body a huge disservice. But here’s what you can do to make sure your skin – and your overall health – are in great shape….

I recently told you about how the skin’s microbiome can provide important clues in the eczema diagnosis process. Yes, like the gut, the skin has its own microbiome. And imbalances there can lead to a host of skin issues. Eczema is a big one. So is acne.

But the good news is that researchers and manufacturers alike are starting to recognize this issue. So there are more options than ever before to help us keep our bugs in balance.

If you’re a germophobe, what I’m about to tell you might be hard to hear. But stick with me! Your skin is home to about a trillion – yes, with a t – microbes. That includes about a thousand different types of bacteria and as many as 80 types of fungi.

Some of these species match what’s in your gut. Others are unique to the skin. Some are helpful. Others are harmful. Some prefer dry areas. Others gravitate toward moisture, hair, or oil. But any way you divide them up, there sure are a lot of them!

Just like in your gut, you want the good bacteria to outnumber the bad bacteria. That’s right – the goal is NOT to wipe them all out, no matter how much you might want to. Good bacteria aren’t just innocuous. They actually play an important role in our overall health.

Of course, the “good” bacteria first earn that title by keeping harmful bacteria from taking over and creating an infection. They don’t want their home turf taken over. So these good bacteria, not your bottle of hand sanitizer, serve as our first line of defense against a variety of nasty bugs.

And these friendly bacteria also communicate with our immune systems. This helps keep inflammation to a minimum. As you may know, less inflammation is good news for the skin. Where there’s red, angry skin, there’s inflammation. That’s not the “glow” you want. So it’s best to be sure you’re taking steps to keep your skin colonized with the “good guys” and clear of the “bad guys.” 

Is Our Obsession With Cleanliness Ruining Our Health?

You might think that step one in keeping bad bacteria off the skin is frequent hand-washing. And keeping your hands clean can be a good idea. We know that hand-washing before eating or after you know you’ve been around someone sick is a good idea. But our culture’s obsession with cleanliness might actually be backfiring on us.

In general, your skin does best with a relatively acidic pH level – around 5. If it’s been a few years since you took a science class, here’s a quick refresher: The scale ranges from 0 to 14. A pH of 7 is neutral. Anything less than that is acidic. Anything above 7 is alkaline, or basic.

At a pH level of 5, your healthy bacteria thrive. But bad bacteria do better in a more alkaline environment. Yet what do we do every day? We wash our bodies with soap – which has an alkaline pH of around 10!

Now, I’m not going to tell you to stop bathing. But we do need to consider whether our obsession with hand sanitizers and the like is doing us a disservice. We’ve actually gone so far with our modern hygiene habits that we’ve eliminated one particular strain of bacteria from our skin altogether!

Ammonia-oxidizing bacteria, or AOB for short, are everywhere. You’ll find them in the dirt, in the creek that runs through your backyard, and helping your vegetable garden grow. But unless you’re a time traveler, you won’t find them on your skin.

That’s because thanks to all our soaps, detergents, and deodorants, we’ve wiped them out. And it’s a shame because, as the name suggests, AOB feed on ammonia – a major component of sweat. And they convert that ammonia into beneficial compounds for the skin, like nitrite and nitric oxide.

These compounds help the skin function more effectively. They reduce inflammation. They help blood vessels relax. And they even promote wound healing.

In fact, researchers decided to study just what we might be missing out on without AOB. They divided 24 participants into two groups. One group applied live AOB to their face and scalp every day for a week. The other group used a placebo.

The researchers noted significant improvements in the skin of the participants who applied the AOB. The placebo group had no changes. After just a week, the participants were experiencing improvements to their skin’s microbiota. And none of them experienced any negative side effects. 

Having AOB on your skin helps your skin function the way it’s supposed to. Because they feed on sweat, they thrive in places like the underarms and feet. But these areas are also often the first targets of our hygiene practices. And just one shower can wipe out your sweat—and your AOB—completely.

The problem today is that we don’t have a good way to restore AOB to our skin. Most people don’t go jump in a lake right after they’ve bathed! But a few naturally inclined manufacturers are starting to recognize the disservice we’ve done our bodies by eliminating AOB. And they’re creating products that include these friendly critters.

Some such products come in the form of moisturizers or mists. I know the idea of spraying yourself down with bacteria might not sound appealing. But these bugs do literally eat sweat. So think of this as a deodorant! Try using an AOB product right after you've showered to repopulate your skin with some of the good guys. Yes, there are plenty of bacteria that we are better off leaving in the past. But AOB aren’t among them.

Probiotics for Your Skin

AOB mists and lotions are just the start of products that can help support a healthy skin microbiome. If you already take a probiotic to support your gut, you can extend that support to your skin with the same product. Just pop open a capsule, mix the contents with some coconut oil, and apply it to your skin. This can be especially helpful if you have an inflammatory condition like eczema.

Your gut and your skin do share some of the same bacteria strains. So some people find that this strategy works great. But you may also want to look for probiotics that contain skin-specific strains. These products can help ensure that you’re getting the right strains to keep your skin’s microbiome in balance. Many products combine probiotics with other natural skin boosters, like vitamin C, vitamin E, aloe vera, and essential oils.

Probiotic-laced skincare products come in a variety of convenient forms. Serums help target inflammation. Moisturizers can help balance and refresh your skin. There are even acne-focused cleansers that can help you fight pimple-producing bugs by reinforcing the good guys.

Easy Ways to Promote Healthy Skin Bacteria

If you just can’t imagine putting bacteria on your skin on purpose, there are some other steps you can take to help protect your skin’s microbiome. Of course, all the basic lifestyle advice applies. Drink water. Eat plenty of organic fruits and vegetables. Exercise. Get enough rest. Try to manage stress. All of these will directly and indirectly affect your skin’s microbiome.

You might also want to ease off the hand sanitizer. Many contain harmful chemicals, such as triclosan, which is hard on your liver. If you’re applying these products frequently, try to establish a new routine. Wash your hands using a natural soap and water instead after using the bathroom, before eating, when you’re around people you know are sick, or if you actually need to remove something from your hands. Otherwise, try to relax. Yes, your hands are crawling with germs. But most of them are probably the good guys.

Speaking of washing, the next strategy might sound counterintuitive. But research suggests that you can actually improve your skin’s microbiome by washing dishes. Researchers conducted this study with children. But the results probably apply to adults as well. (Sorry!)

For this study, the researchers surveyed over a thousand seven- and eight-year-olds in Sweden. The researchers looked at several health issues, including asthma and eczema. And they found that in homes where people washed dishes by hand, the children had lower rates of allergic diseases.

The researchers speculate that washing dishes by hand increases microbial exposure compared to using a dishwasher. You might think your dishwasher gets the dishes cleaner. According to this study, you’re right. But it turns out that’s not necessarily so great for your health. Eating off the “dirtier” dishes could help your skin and your gut thrive. And that translates to lower rates of skin problems and other allergies.

Despite what the cleaning product commercials tell us, bacteria are unavoidable. But if we embrace them, they can actually help us. From acne to eczema, they can be the solution to a number of skin woes. And by quelling inflammation, mopping up sweat, and generally keeping the skin safe from harm, they can give you the glow you’ve been after. It’s time we give these tiny helpers the recognition and reinforcements they deserve.

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