If you are one of the 20% of Americans who have a skin irritation like acne, psoriasis, eczema, or rosacea, like me, you have no doubt tried everything to mask your symptoms including topical creams and medications just to make it go away. These days I have come to realize that to truly solve problems with the skin, we need to look a little deeper.
We know that our skin is the largest organ in the body, yet it is so easy to take its role in our health for granted. Not only does this massive organ enable the absorption of chemicals (good, bad, and ugly) into our bloodstream, but recent research indicates how the skin can actually provide us with important insight into our inner health.
It turns out that the skin is an ecosystem all its own, hosting approximately 1 billion microbes per square centimeter.1 These microbes play a vital role in overall health, and we can unlock some serious benefits with mindful attention to the microbial community of the skin.2 After all, it’s our first line of defense against everything the world throws at us! Just as we aim to take care of our intestinal microbial balance, we must also tend to our skin microbiome. How?
1. Choose what you introduce to your skin’s ecosystem
Cosmetics, detergents, hygienic products, moisturizers, and soaps are potential factors that contribute to changes in skin microbiota.1 I look for products that are with mild cleansers that gently take care of my skin.
In addition, clothing made from natural fibers seem to contain microbial communities that more closely mirror your natural microbiome, whereas synthetic materials seem to alter the quantities of microbial communities. And remember, the skin is a semi-permeable organ, so what we put on it has the potential to get inside of us and affect our inner world. As a rule of thumb, I aim to put things on my skin that I wouldn’t mind going in my mouth.
2. Mind your gut microflora
The microbial communities in our gut and on our skin are intimately connected. If you are having a difficult time healing acne, psoriasis, eczema, or rosacea, you may want to consider looking inward to heal the gut.
- Choose wisely when you take antibiotics, and make sure to replace the microflora they eliminate with a good probiotic. Studies have shown that healthy gut microflora can have nearly immediate benefits for skin conditions like acne and dermatitis.1
- Consume real foods (ideally a plant-heavy diet) and limit your intake of processed and sugary foods.
- Take a look at foods you might be eating regularly (like dairy, wheat, or highly processed foods) that could be triggering sensitivities. When I eat foods high in refined sugar or simple carbohydrates, I break out in acne. This shows me that my body responds to those foods with inflammation.
- Integrate fermented foods like yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, and kombucha into your diet—while it may take time to acquire the taste for some of these foods, your gut will thank you!
3. Rethink “clean”
Be aware of “antibacterial” bath and beauty products that can strip our skin of naturally occurring (and healthy!) oils and living bacteria and other microbes. Soap and water are proven to be as effective at getting rid of germs. “Dirt won’t hurt” is a phrase most folks could stand to embrace a little more—as is the value of spending time in natural surroundings. Opening a window, digging in the garden, and spending time outdoors are all good ways to combat the imbalances that can come from too much exposure to sterile, climate-controlled environments.
When my skin is clear, I am reassured that my outer and inner ecosystem is being nurtured well by the foods I am consuming and the products that are touching my skin. Smooth and glowing skin is awesome, tactile feedback for a thriving body.
Sarah Kolman is the mom of three boys, a Registered Nurse, an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, and has a master's degree in Contemplative Psychotherapy. Her private practice as a health coach blends her experience and career as a nurse with her passion for nutrition and holistic wellness. She is the author of Full Plate: Nourishing Your Family's Whole Health in a Busy World.