The Skin Microbiome


Sculptures by Ivana Basic. 

No two people have the same reaction to skincare. What works for Person A might yield acne or inflammation for Person B. That’s because, genetically, we’ve all got different skin. Even two siblings will have different reactions to the same thing. So it’s hard to provide universal advice on “having clear, healthy, smooth complexion” unless you approach it from a place of balance.

There are two ways that every human’s skin is the same: We all have a natural pH level of about 5.5 on the 14-point scale (which ranges from 0, which is acidic, to 14, which is basic or alkaline). It’s a chemistry thing, but essentially, the products we apply to our skin also have their own pH levels and can steer our skin’s pH away from its healthy, harmonious 5.5. Also, having skin that is naturally oily or naturally dry will pull you away from this 5.5 level. (Which proves that 5.5 isn’t necessarily “natural” for everyone, but it is the point on which our skin experiences a peaceful, nourished, equilibrium.)

Secondly, we all have an entire ecosystem of bacteria living on our skin—the same way we do in our gut. It’s the good kind of bacteria, which fends off the bad kind (the stuff that can cause breakouts, infections, or irritation). And often, if we overwash ourselves, then this microbiome also experiences severe compromise. That’s no excuse to skip a shower, but it might be reason enough not to take more than two a day. Plus, in a year when washing and disinfecting ourselves is more important than ever, it can be hard finding a middle ground when it comes to cleanliness. But, at the very least, we can isolate the over-washing to our hands, and keep the rest of ourselves more balanced, at this microscopic bacteria level.

These pH levels and microbiomes are inherently linked. It’s easy to compromise one when you compromise the other. You’ll sooner witness and feel the effects of an out-of-whack pH balance—perhaps from using a skin-parching astringent, forgetting to moisturize after a hot shower, or not cleansing enough while accumulating lots of oil. However, both of these things keep our skin balanced; they prevent irritation, inflammation, breakouts, and more.

So, if you’re left wondering how to keep your skin clear—and if nothing yet works—then try looking at it from this point of view. Try preserving these balances. There are two ways to approach it.

One is to pick products that blatantly advertise being “pH balanced” or “pre/probiotic”. In the latter, the difference is that prebiotic products “feed” the bacteria on the skin with their ingredients (perhaps natural sugars or fibers), while probiotic products often include some kind of fermented ingredient (yogurt is a common probiotic ingredient). These typically have a shorter shelf life than chemical-packed products, but they’re far less likely to dry out the skin or lead to irritation. Plus, they still last long enough for you to get full use out of them.

As for products that tout pH balance, you can count on these to do their job without pushing your skin far from its 5.5 pH “center”. Many of them also help reset the pH balance—like alcohol-free toners—after an otherwise disorienting product, like a cleanser. However, there are gentle versions of all types of products, even cleansers, that honor the pH levels in the skin. You may have to dig around more for them, but it’s all one internet search away.

Pair your skin regimen with a healthy diet—one that agrees with your body and doesn’t cause inflammation. Then, minimize stress, frequently wash towels and bedsheets, stay hydrated, and get ample sleep. When you count all of these things, suddenly your life has all sorts of balance—and it’ll reflect itself harmoniously on your skin.