There is a lot of new research and information coming out about probiotics; the under-appreciated beneficial bacteria that helps regulate everything from our digestive and immune system to our genetic expression and even our emotions and personalities. Perhaps you have heard how 90% of the DNA within the human body is actually bacterial. Our body has been compared to the Earth with as much biodiversity of micro-organisms as there are plant and animal species on this planet.
We are also learning just how much we have messed with this biodiversity. Just as plants and animals are becoming endangered as a result of human activities, our own inner ecology is suffering from a lack of biodiversity - which results in the decline of our health. Our enthusiastic war on germs for the last 150 years has not exactly resulted in the eradication of all disease as we thought it would.
So we try to do better, we are taking our probiotics and have all kinds of smelly fermentation experiments cluttering our kitchen counters. We've mastered making yogurt and conquered kefir and kombucha. But there is one important microbial ecosystem we may be forgetting: our skin.
Having a diverse population of beneficial microbes on our skin can help protect us from major infections from pathogens such as viruses which produce warts, yeast that causes thrush, fungal infections such as jock-itch and athlete's foot, as well as staph bacteria that infects wounds. But we sterilize our skin each and every day with a simple hot shower using chlorinated water and it's not always the good bacteria that re-colonizes first.
Here are some simple suggestions on how you can promote healthy skin bacteria:
1. Get dirty - Don't be afraid to get some soil bacteria on your skin. Your resident bacteria remain healthier if they are challenged by soil based organisms. Certainly wash your hands before eating or after using the bathroom so you can keep pathogens out of your gut system but there is no need to keep your skin sterilized. It will actually improve your immunity to get a little dirty on occasion. Just keep any cuts or abrasions clean and protected.
2. Shower less - We Americans shower way more than is necessary for personal hygiene. Every time you shower or bathe, all those good bacteria get washed down the drain. Two or three showers per week should be adequate for most adults. Think you stink? Try using a natural deodorant (not an anti-perspirant) more often. Or change your diet as junk food will definitely affect your personal odor.
3. Swim in lakes and rivers - Pools use chlorine to kill micro-organisms and keep them from growing in the pool so they will kill your resident skin flora as well. Lakes and rivers however have a more balanced ecosystem with competing micro-organisms present to maintain the environment. Avoid any stagnant water (obviously) and use these tips to protect yourself from potential pathogens in popular swimming areas but overall taking a quick dip in a lake or river is better for your skin than a pool.
4. Use a bathrobe - Don't we all have that ugly old comfy bathrobe that we adore? I know I do. I wear it every day when I get out of bed and it doesn't go in the laundry as often as my clothes do so chances are my skin bacteria live on it too, which may sound gross but it's a good thing because that old robe is the perfect clothing item to put on after a shower or bath if you want to re-seed your skin flora. You can shower less but you will need to shower at some point so wear your comfy old robe with pride!
5. Ditch the antibacterial soaps - Washing with regular soap and warm water eliminates pathogens just as well as (if not better than) special antibacterial soaps without destroying your skin flora or encouraging mutated drug-resistant germs. If you tend to have dry skin you may even consider going without the soap and using just water and a scrubbing washcloth to preserve your skin's natural oils that help keep you moisturized. The extra scrubbing is good for circulation too!
6. Use a shower filter - Chlorine is a great way to keep pathogens out of our water but gassing yourself with chlorine gas every morning won't do much for your health. Do your skin and lungs a favor and use a good shower filter like this one.
7. Use a probiotic wash - When skin flora gets out of balance you can help restore it by using a probiotic wash. Dilute two tablespoons of plain yogurt in 2 cups of warm water. After showering, use the diluted yogurt as a wash for areas of irritated skin. For maximum effect, let your skin air dry rather than toweling off. The lactobacillus bacteria in the yogurt will discourage pathogen growth and help restore the proper pH balance to your skin.
8. Moisturize from the inside out - Most lotions and other skin care products contain antibacterial substances along with alcohol which is both antibacterial and also drying to the skin. Lotion is only a temporary fix anyway. If you can't keep your skin from drying out you need to drink more water and get more fats and oils on the inside, not the outside. Try increasing your intake of healthy oils like coconut, olive and sesame. And stop avoiding those yummy saturated fats that have been demonized for the last 100 years. Your great-great-grandmother ate butter and lard sandwiches and stayed slim and heart healthy. Rates of obesity and heart disease haven't exactly declined since we started cutting these foods out, have they?
9. Snuggle - That's right, snuggle! Get close and personal with those that you love. Especially if they have healthy skin! You share your skin bacteria with those around you, including pets. Which is a good incentive to focus on improving your whole family's health habits too.
10. Get outside - Whenever a mom asks me how she can help her baby get rid of a diaper rash, the advice is always, "Get them naked outside in the sun!" Now, I'm not suggesting you go streaking the neighborhood or move away to a nudist camp but getting those sensitive skin areas exposed to the elements in more discreet ways will certainly help. If sun exposure makes your skin more itchy though, take it as a sign that there is too much waste material in your blood stream and you need to do some deeper cleansing. Talk to your favorite naturopath on the best ways to do that!
To Your (Skin) Health, Everyone!
Kathryn Doran-Fisher is a Traditional Naturopath, Certified GAPS Practitioner and owner of Elder & Sage.