What is microbiome-friendly skincare?
Understanding and protecting your skin barrier.
I've been using the term "microbiome friendly" skincare lately when I talk about my products, so I thought it would be helpful to post a basic overview of what that means here on the blog.
This concept is why my completely natural and minimalist skincare products work. Because they effectively cleanse and nourish your skin without disrupting its delicate microbiome.
So what is my skin's microbiome?
When I talk about the microbiome, I'm talking about the good bacteria and microbes that live on your skin. Did you know that your skin is crawling with little microscopic creatures? And that they're helping to keep your skin balanced? Crazy, right?
These beneficial bacteria strains fight potentially harmful bacteria that can cause infections or inflammation (and breakouts,) so it's essential to keep them protected and happy if you want healthy, glowing skin. All of this good bacteria lives in your skin's barrier layer - so any skincare you use needs to protect and support the skin barrier.
What is the skin barrier?
The skin barrier is the layer of oil (sebum) that your skin produces naturally. It's where the good bacteria live, so it's essential to keep this protective layer of oil on your face. (Yes, this is the opposite of what we learned about skincare growing up in the 1990s.) Science has come a long way in understanding the microbiome, even just over the past few years, so once and for all, please forget everything you think you know about oil being the enemy and ditch any product claiming to remove oil from your face. Oil is good. The oil IS the skin barrier. Healthy skin barrier = beautiful, healthy skin.
Very important note: the skin barrier is acidic. Sometimes it's also called the "acid mantle."
The skin barrier, the protective layer of oil that houses your microbiome, has a slightly acidic pH level. The good bacteria thrive at a pH of about 4.5-5.5, so the skincare products you use should never create an alkaline environment on your skin. (By the way, pH is the potential hydrogen of a substance. It's how we measure if something is acidic or basic. On the pH scale, which ranges from 0-14, 1-6 is acidic, 7 is neutral, and 8-14 is alkaline.) Alkaline cleansers strip the skin barrier, creating an inhospitable environment for the microbiome to thrive.
Now, it's important to note that your skin doesn't exist in a vacuum. Many environmental and biological factors can affect your skin's pH level, and it's constantly working to balance itself. It's impossible to keep your skin at a perfectly acidic pH level all the time, but when it comes to skincare, there are some simple choices you can make daily that will hugely impact the integrity of your skin barrier layer.
And why do I want to protect my skin barrier, aka the acid mantle, again?
In addition to housing the microbiome, i.e., all of the good bacteria that fight infection, your skin barrier keeps your skin protected and moisturized by preventing transepidermal water loss. A damaged skin barrier leaves your skin prone to problems: like extreme dryness, irritation, eczema, allergic reactions, breakouts, rosacea, psoriasis, and premature aging. So chances are, if your skin is dry, sensitive, reactive, and breakout-prone, what you've got is a weakened skin barrier. This is why microbiome and skin-barrier-friendly skincare is a must!
Here's a short and non-exhaustive list of things that damage your skin barrier and microbiome:
- too alkaline cleansers (soaps and anything that foams are too alkaline)
- using too many products with too many active ingredients
- using water-based moisturizers that aren't pH balanced (they should be in that 4.5-5.5 range)
- over-exfoliating and scrubbing
- using too many/too strong acids on the skin
- using products that contain a too-strong dilution of essential oils, or applying essential oils to the skin neat
Here's a short and non-exhaustive list of things that can repair your skin barrier and microbiome:
- using a gentle, ph balanced, non-foaming cleanser
- using a slightly acidic toner to re-balance the skin's pH after cleansing
- using natural oil-based moisturizers to replenish the skin's natural oils and balance the skin's oil production
- simplifying your routine and reducing the number of products you apply overall
- exfoliating just 1-2 times per week
- using products with a low, safe dilution of essential oils, or using essential-oil free products
- managing your stress
So how does this apply to my skincare routine?
I recommend that everyone start with a gentle, basic 3-step skincare routine and my travel skincare set, which contains everything you need for a microbiome and skin-barrier-friendly regimen at a great price.
Cleansing is essential for removing dirt, harmful bacteria, and environmental pathogens from your skin daily, but it needs to happen with the microbiome in mind. To protect your skin barrier, you must ensure that you're cleansing with gentle, non-alkaline cleansers. My non-foaming powder cleansers are perfect for this task. I've been washing my face with natural flours and clays (and nothing else) for six years now, so I promise you don't need any foam or bubbles to cleanse your skin effectively! Oil cleansing is also very effective at dissolving dirt and the old, hardening oil buildup in your pores while nourishing and replenishing your skin's natural oils.
Toning is also essential! Toning is the skincare step that makes all the difference for most of my customers. So if you only take one thing away from this post: add my toning mist to your routine after cleansing. Toning mist is slightly acidic (my toning mist hits around 5 on a pH strip,) so it re-balances your skin's pH after mixing and rinsing off your powder (or oil) cleanser with too-alkaline tap water.
Oil-based moisturizers (like my facial oils and butters) are full of moisturizing fatty acids and antioxidants that repair and heal the skin barrier and fight the free radicals that cause premature aging. Even if you have oily skin, moisturizing with oil will balance your skin's oil production. (Often, too-oily skin is just your skin trying to self-correct and re-balance itself after cleansing with a too-alkaline product anyway!) Remember: your skin barrier is oil. Oil is your friend. Moisturizing with oil can help replenish the barrier layer and protect your skin.
And that's it?
Yes! No fancy serums or crazy strong products are necessary. Keep it simple, as gentle as possible, and stop washing away your skin barrier so it can do its thing to protect and heal your skin!
I find this hard to believe. Don't I need something more? Something fancier?
I don't think so! As I said, I love offering a minimalist, sustainable approach. If you have a microbiome-friendly routine, feel free to experiment with other products. Just stay barrier-aware and lookout for products that cause sensitivity, dryness, and other negative reactions. I think that if you keep it simple with a gentle routine, you'll find that you don't need much more.
But why should I believe you?
I started learning about the microbiome and skin barrier after experimenting with my powder cleansers for the first time back in 2016. I'm not a scientist or a doctor, but I wanted to understand why it happened that washing my face with a simple blend of rice flour, tapioca, and kaolin clay was so much better for my skin than anything I had tried before! Honestly, after years of research, a lot of this knowledge is kind of second nature to me at this point. I try to summarize everything I've read to make it simple for you on my blog, but here are a few of my favorite resources if you'd like to learn more and have actual scientists and doctors back up my claims:
- A great book for you: Dirty Looks, The Secret to Beautiful Skin, by Whitney Bowe, MD
- A documentary on Netflix, if reading isn't your thing: Vox: Your Skin, Explained
- A couple of old but good NYTs articles: All of Those Products are Making Your Skin Worse and This is Your Skin on Stress
Can I ask you some more questions?
As a one-person business it's not feasible for me to offer one-on-one skincare support to everyone these days, but, you're welcome to leave a question on the product pages of my website, and I'll respond there ASAP! I also host a Q&A session for members of my Patreon community every weekend. Of course, there are samples of all of my skincare products available online, so I always recommend just giving them a try to see how they work for you!
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Wishing you the happiest skin!