What are microbiomes? And why are they essential for gut health and glowing skin?

We are preconditioned to believe that bacteria is a bad word, and so we are on a perpetual quest to keep our spaces, bodies, and skin free of it. However, modern research is pointing to what was documented in most ancient wellness disciplines, including Ayurveda, that beauty is an inside job. And bacteria, mould, fungi – microbiomes – all have a major role in keeping us healthy and giving us a glowing complexion.

Follow that gut feeling

“We are what we eat, literally. You keep the trillion-strong gastrointestinal organisms in balance, and your skin will have no option but to glow,” says Pooja Makhija, nutritionist to Bollywood A-listers. According to her, microbiomes – the rainforest of diverse organisms like bacteria, fungi, and viruses in and on our bodies – are the new frontier of medicine that determine what type of diseases you will have, what your mood will be, and even how your skin will look. If you are battling dull-looking skin, blemishes, and are erupting into breakouts, it is an indicator of something amiss within.

“There are about 10 trillion microbiomes living in and on our bodies, and a majority of them are in the gut. Our body has 100 times more bacterial DNA than human DNA, so the health of the gut determines the way we feel and look. Skin conditions such as acne, rosacea, and hives show that our insides are inflamed,” explains Makhija. New York-based dermatologist, Whitney Bowe, in her book ‘The Beauty of Dirty Skin’ points out that the answer to persistent acne could lie in a gut-changing diet. For a glowing complexion, Makhija recommends cutting down on sugar, processed foods, foods with preservatives, additives, and colourings, which are known to cause inflammation in the gut. Also ensure that your body gets its dose of probiotics through natural sources or through supplements.

Why being too clean is not good for acne

Just like our gut, our skin also hosts an entire habitat or an ecosystem, with a single square centimetre hosting a billion microbes, from the deep-down fat cushion all the way up to your epidermal cells, says dermatologist Dr Geetika Mittal Gupta, founder and medical director, ISAAC. In fact, there are more than one trillion bacteria in the skin, originating from approximately one thousand different species. And not all are bad. “Our bodies work in tandem with bacteria from the inside out. These tiny helpers work to keep the bad stuff away, while happily going along, minding their business (sort of like that perfect roommate you never see),” explains Dr Gupta.

We need to think of the skin as fertile soil: It needs proper care and maintenance, along with the right pH to stay healthy and thriving. That’s why products that promise complete elimination of all bacteria can spell danger. “Our skin is naturally acidic with a pH of 4 to 5.5, creating comfort for beneficial bacteria. Alkaline, toxic chemicals, and products that remove 99.9 percent of germs disrupt the natural acid pH balance of the skin, and disrupt the skin microbiome. In short, healthy skin is about creating a healthy environment for these micro organisms,” says Dr Gupta.

Why earth-derived ingredients are better

Any disruptions in your skincare routine and lifestyle can disrupt your skin’s ecosystem. If something as simple as a hot shower can do this, (which is why most experts insist on tepid water showers) imagine how harsh chemicals will impact it. Hand sanitisers, harsh cleansers, soaps, body washes, or even fragrance can cause more damage than meets the eye. Preservatives, by nature, are meant to keep bacteria and fungi away. Skincare laden with synthetic preservatives mess up with the good bacteria on the skin as well. And in the long run, with continued use, an imbalanced skin microbiome results in worsened acne, dermatitis, or psoriasis.

So it is heartening to see the skincare market exploding with more natural, clean, and food-standard ingredients. The general perception is anything that is naturally-occurring is more environmentally-friendly and safer for the skin. However, it is not just because of the ‘wellness’ aspects that green beauty is fast gaining a large market share; it also has to do with the acceptability of these ingredients by the skin. An anti-ageing specialist, Dr Gupta agrees that ‘going green’ is more than a passing trend as anything that is natural/organic has more chances of agreeing with your skin.

“Healthier microbiome can be achieved by using skincare that is gentle, rich in nutrients, low on harsh preservatives, contain oils/ herbs that also serve a prebiotic function. It is also very dependent on maintaining the right sebum/ oil levels, hydration of the skin, and keeping the skin barrier intact,” reasons Prasanthy Gurugubelli, founder Daughter Earth, one of the latest natural, clean beauty brands creating a buzz. Daughter Earth‘s line of skincare essentials is specifically designed to not interfere with the body’s natural biome. “We are not formulating something to simply remove the symptom on the skin by altering skin’s structure,” she adds. Gurugubelli struggled with acne and breakouts for a decade, even resorting to DIY tricks before she found relief through Ayurveda. Ayurveda lists many biomimetic botanical ingredients, which support the natural healing function of the skin by providing it with the best nutrition and in a safe format but without altering the skin’s structure or processes.

Gurugubelli also supports the use of oils to maintain the skin’s ecosystem versus water-based formulations. “Water evaporates whereas oils are better absorbed.” But what about oils clogging oily skin? She insists there are oils for everyone. “Unlike coconut oil, which has a tendency to clog the pores, jojoba, seabuckthorn, avocado, and ricebran are easily absorbed in the body’s circulatory system as their structure is similar to that of the skin sebum.”

Probiotics versus prebiotics

Probiotics are special strains of helpful microorganisms found in foods such as yogurt, kimchi, and kefir. Prebiotics work as a precursor to probiotics and make the probiotics more stable. Dr Gupta believes that they work great in cleansers – you remove the bad microorganisms and leave the skin with good microorganisms, creating a great base for the rest of your skincare routine. Foods with prebiotics include garlic, onions, oats, barley, wheat bran, asparagus, bananas, and flaxseed, as well as a plant fibre known as inulin, found in chicory root. Some of these plant extracts or their derivatives are included in skincare products (like serums and moisturizers) so you can apply prebiotics to enhance your skin’s microbiome.

Here are top 5 ways to keep the skin bacteria in good humour:

1. Investigate, read your labels, and know more about brands before you use their products. Look for products that help maintain your skin’s natural pH balance that helps maintain and grow your skin’s natural microbiome.

2. Check for synthetic chemicals both in skincare and homecare/kitchen products – limiting the amount of anti-bacterial skincare products (which can also destroy good bacteria along with the bad).

3. Don’t over cleanse. Reach for a gentle, pH-balanced cleanser, and wash your face no more than twice a day.

4. Don’t over exfoliate as that can leave the lipid barrier sensitised and with continued use, also damaging it.

5. Use prebiotic- and probiotic-rich products to keep the skin moisturized and delay the signs of ageing. Topical probiotics actually help strengthen the skin’s natural ability to defend itself by forming a type of ‘protective shield’ on the skin’s surface. This makes the skin more resistant to damage from environmental stressors and helps maintain moisture and even helps fight off UV damage.


This article first appeared in LifeStyle Asia


  • Aparrna Gupta

    Transitioning from crafting stories for The Asian Age and Bombay Times to setting beauty trends in Verve, Aparrna Gupta’s journey has always revolved around resonant storytelling. Her prowess in content creation is unparalleled, with articles featured in renowned publications like Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, L’Officiel India, Lifestyle Asia, Elle, and Femina. She also excels in content ideation, trend identification, mood board creation, and product styling. Her expertise has proven invaluable to homegrown brands, enabling them to authentically connect with their audience.

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