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An Esthetician’s Guide to Promoting Healthy Skin Microbiota

Recent scientific advances in DNA analysis and new discoveries in how the microbiota of the human skin interact with one another – and with the human organism as a whole – are fundamentally changing the ways in which estheticians approach the process of promoting and maintaining healthy skin.

We’re all familiar with the idea that skin health is related to things we cannot see taking place within the body. We’re now discovering that even on the surface and within dermal layers things are taking place at the microscopic level beyond what our eyes can see – things that greatly influence the health of the skin, and the whole person.

The epidermis plays host to billions of organisms, all interacting with one another in complex ways– and with the very skin they reside on.

Far from being an impermeable membrane to be buffed and shined to perfection, the surface of the skin is now known to be dimensional, resembling a forest ecosystem teaming with life, thicker at the base and thinning gradually as it climbs toward open air.

Maintaining the delicate balance between the living environment of the skin and the microbiata that reside there is a new challenge for estheticians, but it is fast shaping a new understanding of human health and vitality.

The Surprisingly Complex Nature of Microbial Relationships

Despite the fact that the skin is the body’s largest organ, medical and scientific studies of it have lagged behind those of other body systems.

Early studies of skin microbiota were unknowingly hampered by the limitations of common bacterial culturing techniques in use at the time. Some of the first in-depth investigations into the ecology of the human skin were undertaken in the 1950s, when basic lab techniques involved scraping samples and attempting to culture them on predetermined growth media, which would both help identify the bacteria sample and grow it enough that it could be analyzed under a microscope.

But this method failed to detect or identify strains that were not activated by the culture medium and actively flushed out many varieties of flora that could only survive when not in isolation. Although the initial studies identified large numbers of bacteria on the human skin, they failed to capture the variety or the intricacy of their relationships with one another–and with the human organism itself.

Not until the late 2000s did dermatological researchers begin to use highly accurate, sophisticated DNA-based identification. This marked the discovery of a whole new world of skin flora.

Today, the Human Microbiome Project, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, is revealing more data than ever about the makeup of microbiota of the skin. With more accurate and topologically consistent maps of the skin microbiome available, a better understanding of the complexities of the relationships between microbes and the skin is beginning to emerge.

A New Understanding of the Skin Gives Rise to the Concept of “Good Dirty”

Because the early studies primarily revealed bacteria that were harmful or, at best, benign, the original focus on skin health was always to keep it as clean as possible.

Modern views of skin microbiota are more nuanced, however. The recognition that many skin microbes are not only benign, but actively beneficial, has led to a concept known as “good dirty.” The health of the skin microbiome is now seen as more a matter of maintaining an appropriate balance than undertaking wholesale eradication.

For estheticians, this means a more subtle approach to skin care. According to a recent National Institutes of Health report, anything applied topically – cosmetics, soaps, astringents, moisturizers – all contribute to variations in skin microbiota. This means that the products that estheticians use and recommend have a real and appreciable effect on the health of each client’s microbiome.

This new emphasis focuses on working with the elements inside the microbiome instead of attempting to eradicate them. Recently, researchers in Japan experimented by isolating staphylococcus epidermis, a largely benign bacteria commonly referred to as staph and best known for providing an annoying recurrent source of medical equipment contamination. Using it as a base element in a skin care product, researchers conducted a double-blind study and discovered the product was 50 percent more effective in enhancing skin moisture levels than other common moisturizers.

In the future, similar techniques might dramatically alter our understanding of how to approach skin care. Instead of harsh and abrasive peels, you might well find yourself using enhanced and specialized variants of existing microbiota that perform exfoliation naturally. By using enhanced natural processes, the results we’ve come to expect from conventional products and techniques could be accomplished with fewer side effects and even better outcomes.

New findings do not always mean new techniques, however. In some cases, ancient methods have proven to be better aligned with the most advanced understanding of microbiome balance. In particular, oil and milk-based cleansing techniques practiced by the ancients have been found to be less disruptive to important skin pH levels than modern surfactant-based cleansers.

The new understanding of the distinct individual microbiome present on the skin of every person has also placed new emphasis on hygiene in the practice of esthetics. Cross-contamination from your skin to the client’s is not a good way to maintain a balanced microbiome for either of you! The essence of skin care esthetics is in calculating and applying appropriate individual solutions. Random contamination does not serve this purpose.

As Studies Continue, Expect Further Advances in Skin Care Methods

These recommendations are not the last word in skin care, however. Although scientists now have better ways of identifying the key components of the skin microbiome, they are still working to understand how the elements all fit together and what the best techniques are for nurturing a healthy population of microbiota. What is seen as most effective today may not be viewed that way tomorrow.

There is also the very real likelihood that even today’s most advanced DNA analysis is providing only an incomplete picture of the world of the skin microbiome. Further scientific advances are likely to continue to improve our understanding of the true composition of healthy skin, and how best to maintain it.