Up until now, the advice given by the medical community about cultivating one’s microbial garden referred exclusively to the gastrointestinal tract microbiome. This ecological community of microorganisms, including bacteria and fungi, are a mixed bag. Some members of the community participate in maintaining the health of their human host while others cause disease. Science has discovered that killing the good guys with the bad, the modus operandi of antibiotics, often has deleterious effects on one’s health. Scientists have moved on from the gastrointestinal tract to the role that various organisms play within the microbiome located on the surface and in the deep layers of the skin. In the same way that oral probiotic supplements bolster levels of good gut bacteria, cosmetic companies are producing various products that are designed to replenish the skin’s microbiome. It needs replenishing because, just as oral antibiotics indiscriminately kill both good and bad bacteria inside the body, soap and shampoo carpet bomb bacteria outside the body.
Researchers are finding that adding bacteria to skin instead of removing it might change how serious skin ailments are diagnosed and treated. Dr. Elizabeth Grice, assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania, studies the part microbiota play in inflammatory skin disease and wound healing. She believes that, along with acne treatment, the diagnosis of and treatment for disease and severe lesions will be revolutionized by a better understanding of the skin’s microbiome. Every individual has their own personal microbiome, and though a few common types have been identified, most have not. In fact, microbiome research has been dubbed “the second genome.” Scientists mapped human DNA, known as the Human Genome Project, and they now have moved on to mapping the thousands of microorganisms in the human microbiome systems.
One company, AOBiome, sells a spray called AO+ Refreshing Cosmetic Mist that tastes, looks and feels like water but contains billions of one type of helpful bacteria. The function of Nitrosomonas eutropha is to oxidize ammonia by consuming it. These ammonia-oxidizing bacteria (AOB) are found in dirt and untreated water and act as a built-in cleanser and deodorant. They are the reason horses and other mammals take dirt baths. They are attempting to up their AOB count. The scientists at AOBiome, a company whose catchphrase is “Bacteria Is the New Black,” believe that AOB also lived on humans until we began killing them with shampoo and soap.
AOBs are rather delicate, and shampoo and soap are anathema to them. While some species of bacteria double every 20 minutes, Nitrosomonas eutropha take 10 hours to double. David Whitlock, the inventor of AO+, decided to see what would happen if he stopped using soap and shampoo and spritzed himself with AO+ on a daily basis. The regimen seems to be going well for him as the M.I.T.-trained chemical engineer last showered in 2002. Other than taking an occasional sponge bath to remove the grime, Whitlock trusts his skin’s microbiome to do the rest. AOBiome’s chairman of the board of directors, Jamie Heywood, shampoos thee times a year and uses soap one or two times a month. They may be on to something. Journalist Julia Scott tried the AO+ challenge for a period of 28 days. Seven days after the experiment ended, the N. eutropha colony she had painstakingly cultivated was wiped out by three soap-and-shampoo showers.
Probiotic skin treatments are intended to supplement rather than replace conventional cleansers. AOBiome’s website notes, however, that after as little as a month regular users might find that they have become less reliant on deodorants, moisturizers and soaps. UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism professor and “liberal foodie intellectual” may sum it up best when he stated in New York Times Magazine that, after spending nearly a century “doing our unwitting best to wreck the human-associated microbiota,” the implications of the scant amount that science currently understands about the second genome are “difficult to overstate.”
By Donna Westlund