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All About Your Skin Biome

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The Violet Files

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Why you should want your skin to be covered in (the right kind of) bacteria—and how harsh treatments disrupt this balance to negative effect.

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Ten years ago, the only people talking about “gut health” were GI doctors and habitués of food co-ops. Fast-forward to 2018, where a daily probiotic is considered sacrosanct. Well, just like your stomach, your skin is colonized by a complex microbiome made up of trillions of bacteria and microorganisms. And the ability of this microbiome to affect your complexion—positively or negatively—is the next big conversation in skin care. We spoke to four skin care insiders who are, with their work and product innovations, furthering the conversation about barrier function and the microbiome to determine how to build a regimen and follow best practices that are ultimately supportive of both.

That’s right, there’s more than one; in fact, your body has five microbiomes (skin, gut, respiratory, vaginal, and oral). “Think of them as communities of microorganisms that work together,” explains chemist and skin care veteran Marie Veronique. “It’s like an ecosystem so the environment contributes to whether these little organisms thrive or not. When the system is out of balance it leads to certain conditions that are problematic.” A cascade of factors from stress to diet can slow mobility in the gut and throw the harmony of its microbiome off key, spurning the overgrowth of unhealthy strains of bacteria; this is known as SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth), or, more commonly, leaky gut. “Just as we can have a leaky gut, we can have leaky skin too,” says New York dermatologist Dr. Whitney Bowe, author of The Beauty of Dirty Skin, which takes a deep dive into the topic. “When we upset the delicate balance of bacteria on our skin it actually compromises the skin barrier, paving the road for a number of chronic conditions like rosacea, acne, eczema, psoriasis, and premature aging.”

So what is the skin barrier? Found in the outermost layer of your epidermis, the skin’s barrier does exactly what it’s name implies: protect everything beneath it. “It governs the moisture levels in your skin and protects it from outside assault,” says Veronique. “Even though barrier function seems like the most obvious thing, we’ve actually just started to pay attention to it.” Likely because we’re just realizing the cumulative effects of many years spent ignoring it. That effect is a deeply rooted imbalance that leads to inflammation, accelerated aging, and a host of skin conditions. “The biggest thing I have seen with my clients is that the integrity of their barrier function is not being respected,” explains facialist and skin care specialist Kristina Holey. “For too many people their skin care regimen is more about taking away rather than infusing and nourishing and supporting the barrier layer.”

According to Bowe, the number one skin care mistake that’s leading to a collective breakdown of our barrier function is over-cleansing and over-exfoliating. “We’re a nation obsessed with that squeaky-clean feeling,” she adds. “It’s a vicious cycle, because when you have an impaired barrier you can create an unhealthy microbiome. If you’re constantly cleaning and rubbing and scrubbing your skin’s barrier, the terrain that your microbes live on, you’re ruining their environment. We’ve come a long way with how we wash our hair and the same should be true of our skin.”

There are some best practices to keep in mind when tailoring your skin care routine to be barrier-friendly. “Strengthen, never disturb, so this means no stripping, sulfates, or harsh soaps, no vigorous treatments, nothing too alkaline, no over-drying ingredients like alcohol, no mechanical or surface aggression, and be aware not to use super-hot water,” advises Sue Nabi, founder of natural skin care line Orveda where the mantra is: works with your skin, not against it. “It’s not about having a ‘no pain, no gain’ mentality anymore.” When Veronique and Holey decided to collaborate on a line of products, restoring and repairing barrier function was their core principle. “The goal with our regimen is to help skin reach a point of stability,” explains Holey. “When skin is strong, knows how to work, and isn’t depleted, you can have a crazy hormonal fluctuation or be in extreme conditions and you won’t have a complete skin breakdown.”

“The gut and skin microbiomes really have an impact on each other, so what you are putting on topically is only part of the picture,” explains Veronique. “What you’re doing internally is also hugely important.” A diet rich in prebiotics (think dandelion greens, garlic, leeks, asparagus, onions) and probiotics (fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso paste), plus a routine that curbs chronic stress and allows for plenty of sleep will all help preserve the gut microbiome and allow for good bacteria to flourish. “If we don’t have that diverse array of bacteria in the gut or on the skin then they’re not capable of communicating with our immune system to dial down inflammation which impairs the barrier,” says Bowe who explores the gut brain skin axis in her new book. “We’ve been talking about the word barrier for years but now we finally realize how essential the microbiome is to the barrier.”