What is the skin microbiome and why is it important?
The skin microbiome is made up of millions of bacteria, fungi, viruses and other microbes. It’s a complex and diverse ecosystem that requires a healthy and delicate balance to support these microorganisms and maintain their environment.
The skin microbiome serves to protect against pathogens that could impact people’s skin and their health. It also helps reduce the effects of injuries and infections. For infants, preserving and promoting the natural development of their skin microbiome plays an important role in supporting their long-term health.
Common Disruptors to the Skin Microbiome
There are a number of internal and external factors that can influence or disrupt the skin microbiome; some of which include1:
Age – The composition of the skin microbiome evolves from infancy to adulthood, as the healthy paediatric skin microbiome is distinctly different from those of adults.2 Infant skin should be cared for delicately, as the first 12 months are a critical development period for the infant skin microbiome.
Hygiene – Frequent use of soap or other antiseptics in hand disinfection can damage the skin surface and reduce its protective function.1 To avoid disruption to the skin microbiome, consider using hygienic products with pure and minimal ingredients.
Cosmetics – Active ingredients in cosmetics can help increase or decrease the growth of certain microorganisms depending on the product’s intended function.1 Certain ingredients, or extensive use of many personal care products, may negatively affect the skin microbiome by altering the balance. Using products with pure and minimal ingredients can help to avoid disturbing the evolving skin microbiome.
Exposure to UV radiation – Significant exposure to UV radiation can destroy or inhibit the growth of certain types of bacteria on skin cells.1
Living environment – Where people live can influence their skin microbiome due to differences in regular exposure to microorganisms such as soil, plants, water, animals or other people.1 This is particularly true for infants and the microorganisms they are exposed to in their daily environments, as these can influence their developing microbiome.
Skin Microbiome in Infants
Babies have delicate and vulnerable skin. During the first 12 months of a baby’s life, their skin continues to develop and evolve. The barrier and protective function of the epidermis, the outermost layer of the skin, gradually increases in infants. By the time an infant reaches 12 months, their skin barrier has matured and the water-handling function of their skin is optimised,3 so they don’t lose as much moisture.
There are also specific factors in infants’ lives that can influence their skin microbiome. Some of these may include their feeding type (e.g., breast milk, formula), their mother’s diet if they are breastfeeding or environmental surfaces they come in contact with.
The Impact of Disrupting the Skin Microbiome
Dysbiosis occurs when the skin microbiome is altered from the normal “healthy” microbiome. The balance of bacteria becomes disrupted leading to undesirable skin conditions. This can result in loss of the beneficial bacteria that can support the body’s natural processes and functions or an overgrowth of a single type of bacteria that can lead to infections. Disruptions of the skin microbiome are also often found in skin conditions such as atopic dermatitis, psoriasis and rosacea.4
Early life is an important period for establishing the microbiome and immune responses as they have long-term health implications. Disruptions in skin barrier function can predispose infants to local and systemic immune dysregulations such as eczema, food allergies, asthmas and potentially other inflammatory conditions that can impact their health.4 Understanding the factors that can influence the infant skin microbiome during this period could lead to potential targets for disease prevention.
Talking with Parents about Ways to Protect the Infant’s Skin Microbiome
Many parents may not be aware of the unique composition and needs of their infant’s skin microbiome. Healthcare providers can educate and talk with parents about the importance of the infant skin microbiome and share some simple tips to make it easier for them to understand and care for their infant’s delicate skin, including:
Encouraging parents to use products with minimal ingredients to help minimise the disruption to their infant’s skin microbiome,5 and educating them around the fact that excessive or over-exposure to preservatives from personal care products may destroy necessary microbes in the skin microbiome.
Encouraging parents to frequently change soiled diapers to avoid build-up of harmful bacteria from faeces or urine on the skin, which can impact their skin microbiome and lead to diaper rash or other conditions.