FINDING A BALANCE
In ancient Chinese mythology, Yin and Yang were born from chaos when the universe was created. These opposite forces existed in harmony at the centre of the Earth, where their achievement of balance allowed for the birth of Pangu – the first human. While you might not subscribe to a literal interpretation of this story, it does portray a universal truth – that a balance of forces can be complementary, and that our very existence depends on the balance of nature.
An important – but often overlooked – part of a natural balance in any environment comprises the microscopic organisms that make up the ‘microbiomes’. A vast number of microbes are essential for any functioning ecosystem. Take the ground that we walk on, as a prime example. In one gram of healthy soil, there can be a billion bacteria! In a natural cycle, these organisms break down dead tissues, then create new life by releasing nutrients and converting them into forms that can be used by plants. Unfortunately, modern practices have led to an imbalance. Intensive farming and pesticides have harmed the soil microbiome, and the natural nutrient cycle has broken down. This has led to several initiatives that focus on the soil microbiome. One example is the UK government’s 25 Year Environment Plan, through which farmers are adopting better practices that restore a natural balance for soil fertility.
Put simply, nature requires balance. This is increasingly recognised as requiring balance at the microscopic level, in all areas of our world and in our lives.
A SIMPLE MESSAGE
nature requires balance"
The message of having a balanced microbiome is also being applied to human health. Probably the most well-known example is a widespread quest for a healthy gut – often achieved not just through a healthy diet, but also through probiotic and prebiotic foods designed with the specific intention of nurturing the ‘friendly bacteria’ in our intestinal systems. Achieving a correct balance of ‘good’ bacteria in our intestines is now believed to have an enormous impact on our metabolic functions, protect against pathogens, educate our immune systems, and affect a whole range of bodily functions.
In fact, both inside and out, our bodies harbour a huge array of good bacteria, single-celled organisms known as archaea, fungi and viruses. We call these microorganisms the human microbiota. Different parts of the body play host to different microbe communities. While gut microbes have gained a lot of attention, microbes elsewhere are also important.
SARAH J. HARDING
Specialist in scientific communications | United Kingdom
Sarah Harding, PhD, is a specialist in scientific communications, with 25 years of experience in the speciality chemicals and pharmaceutical sectors.
FASCICOLO SPONSORIZZATO DA
For your average microorganism, the human skin might be considered a hostile expanse. Much of our epidermal layer is dry, salty, acidic and nutrient-poor. Nevertheless, a diverse and important collection of bacteria, viruses, fungi and archaea make their homes on our skin.
"As with any other ecosystem,
a healthy skin requires
a healthy bacterial balance"
From birth, our first microbial colonists help to train our bodies to tolerate ‘friendly’ organisms and reject ‘bad’ ones. All over our bodies, bacteria living on our skin secrete peptides that prevent pathogen invasion, while some digest lipids to maintain the correct acidity, and others produce chemicals that reinforce cell contacts that allow the skin to act as a barrier. When the balance of ‘good’ bacteria is kept in check, our skin is healthy. However, when an imbalance develops, or the skin environment changes, problems can occur. If ‘bad’ bacteria overtake the ‘good’, then skin infections and diseases can develop. As another example, excessive levels of vitamin B12 can lead normally ‘good’ bacteria to produce pro-inflammatory molecules that lead to acne.
Sadly, just as modern farming has disrupted the balance of nature in the soil, so too has modern living disrupted the balance of nature on our skin. Daily hot showers, unhealthy diets, environmental stress and excess ultra-violet radiation are now parts of a ‘normal’ life that can result in a variety of skin conditions – eczema, psoriasis and dandruff – caused by an imbalanced microbiome. These conditions can also make the skin weaker but, often when we try to treat them with skin lotions and creams, we end up depleting skin of its natural oils, which can lead to even more problems.
Described as a “turf war” between different skin microbiota in a recent Nature article, the message returns to a simple one of balance. As with any other ecosystem, a healthy skin requires a healthy bacterial balance.
In the past 5 years, the skin microbiome has been a hot topic for the beauty industry. Mapping the healthy microbiome in association with age, ethnicity or gender is a key area of research. Aligning with a trend for natural beauty, a greater understanding of the microbiome can assist in interpreting the impacts of lifestyle and environmental factors on our skin, as well as allowing the development of products that encourage a natural bacterial balance, or even manipulate the microbiome to ‘naturally’ produce desired effects. This is no longer a niche trend – caring for your skin microbiome is now mainstream, especially among younger consumers. According to global market research company Mintel, 45% of 18–34 year olds were interested in applying probiotics – which contain live beneficial microorganisms – to their skin in 2018, and that number is only growing.
In recent years, numerous active raw materials and finished products claiming to affect the skin microbiome (either directly or indirectly) have been developed. Prebiotics are compounds that induce the growth or activity of beneficial microorganisms. As an example, Dr Murad offers a prebiotic 4-in-1 multi-cleanser that is infused with nutrients aimed to feed and nourish your skin’s good bacteria. Another popular product is Algenist’s alive prebiotic balancing moisturiser, using algae and jojoba seed oil as its main, totally natural, ingredients.
Claims for probiotics in skin care include anti-aging moisturizing/hydrating, nourishing and skin protection. The most common probiotics used in skincare are lactic acid bacteria. For example, Aurelia’s probiotic concentrate is a cocktail of different good bacterial cultures that claim to promote “healthy and happy skin”. Oat Cosmetics offer Aurafirm, a product comprising ‘natural oat fermented actives’ that is produced from fermentation of proprietary colloidal oatmeal with a selective Lactobacillus strain, and claims to restore a healthy skin microbiome and set up an environment for the skin microbiome to grow and thrive. Symrise’s SymReboo L19, meanwhile, is a mildly heat-treated probiotic that maintains organism structure, and claims to stimulate natural defence systems to maintain a healthy, functional skin barrier.
There is also growing demand for conventional products that ‘do no harm’ to the microbiome. This is perhaps particularly relevant right now, as our obsession with antimicrobial products and cleanliness, in efforts to prevent spread of the COVID-19 virus, is stripping away our good microbes on a daily basis. It comes as no surprise, then, to hear that companies such as Gallinée have developed hand creams that claim to “repair the skin barrier and help support the damaged skin microbiome”. In fact, a growing number of marketeers are zoning in on ‘doing no harm’ to your skin microbiome. It comes back again to ensuring a balance.
APPLICATIONS AND PRODUCTS
I think we all try to spend a lot of time trying to find balance in our busy lives. We are constantly striving to balance family time and work time. We struggle in a consumer-driven society to balance our aspirations with what we can afford. (Which reminds me, I must remember to balance my bank account!) We are urged to balance our activities with anything that might counteract the environmental damage that might ensue. A quest for ‘balance’ seems to be an all-encompassing challenge for most of us. It often feels like a constant struggle.
Yet, it is worth that struggle because, when those balances are achieved, our lives are better. Personally, I have found the past year – living through the COVID-19 pandemic – a life-changing time as my focus on family and ‘counting my blessings’ has become more central. Despite the troubles of the past year, I believe that my life is better in some ways and, where that is true, it is due to an enforced balance that has come out of the post-pandemic ‘new normal’.
The delicate balance of the microbiomes that underlie the health of our world, our soils, and ourselves, reflect and emphasise the importance of maintaining a natural balance in all areas of our lives. They can also exemplify what goes wrong when balance is lost. I think we are currently witnessing a global mega-trend for balanced philosophies in all walks of life, health and beauty.
My advice to anyone working in the research and development of new products for personal care and cosmetics would be to not ignore that trend. Appreciation for our friendly little microbial companions is only going to grow in the coming years, and consumers will expect their products to nurture not just them, but also the microbes that give them balance.
Image by Susann Mielke from Pixabay