Archana religiously exercised every day. She was a teetotaler and never smoked cigarettes. Being married to an influential bureaucrat, she took good care of herself. She always began her day with a green juice, ate clean and led a stress-free life. But her skin experienced frequent breakouts; It always appeared to look dull, blemished, red, and dry. A close look at her skin revealed clogged pores with junk waiting in there to get squeezed out. To treat her skin woes, Archana tried all the expensive cleansers, creams, sanitisers and special treatments like pore strips, face masks and facials. Her skin stayed exactly the same.
As lifestyle changes did not help her, she felt bored and frustrated with life. Looking to bring back some excitement in her life, she joined her friends on a trekking expedition. The next morning into the trek, she discovered that she had left her toilet kit behind with all her expensive cleansers and soaps. Fast forward to the end of the trek which came about two weeks later, it felt amazing for Archana to notice that the condition of her skin had considerably improved and had gained a certain glow. After initially attributing it to salubrious conditions in the hills, she subsequently realised that the soap and cleanser free days on the trek to be the real magic behind it.
At the end of a soap-free year, as Archana scanned her flawless complexion, her mind began to ruminate on the torment the deep dark red spots, the painful bumps, and the frequent cysts had caused her. A year had rolled by for her without “I can’t leave the house today” blues creeping on her.
The skin of an average human adult covers an area of about 2 sq.m or 22 sq ft. It is the largest organ in the body. There are over one trillion microbes on an individual's skin. Our ancestors developed this symbiotic relationship with the microbes over millions of years ago, which continues to this day and has become part of human-skin-ecosystem. Our physiology has become intimately adapted to the microbial exposures that hold sway since the hunter-gatherer-days, contrary to the clean-living-conditions existing today. Human body odour is remarkably powerful, but our hunter ancestors probably used water, natural herbs and scents beneficial to the human microflora to stay clean and odour-free. Unfortunately, modern hygienic living, sanitisers, environmental pollutants, other skin care products, chemicals, antibiotics are throwing our skin microbiomes out of balance. When we throw our skin's ecosystem off-balance, pathogens appear to take command and wreak havoc and cause many skin conditions as with Archana.
In cities and towns, there's been a growing prevalence of allergies in the last couple of decades, and experts affirm that it is on account of an obsession with cleanliness. The Hygiene-hypothesis suggests that the increased prevalence of allergy disorders and many chronic inflammatory disorders including on the skin corresponds to a changed patterns of exposure to microbes, owing to economic development and changed lifestyles. In 1873, Charles Harrison Blackley noticed that hay fever, which pollens cause, was uncommon among farmers who had frequent exposure to pollen. The skin is not just a physical barrier to the outside world; it is intelligent too. There is increasing evidence that lack of exposure to germs that were part of our evolutionary history has led to messed up-regulation of our immune system contributing to chronic inflammatory conditions. Studies at the Medical College of Georgia have found that babies in households with multiple pets have fewer allergies at age six or seven, not just to animals, but also to ragweed, wild plants, ticks and mites.
Our skin is a window to our overall health. Like our ancestors, we should not be afraid to get dirty. During the major part of human history, we have in the past worked in natural environments and interacted with the outdoor world by contacting soil regularly. Now we are deficient in dirt as we have lost touch with Mother Earth totally. We should therefore spend enough time outdoors doing activities like gardening and camping to get natural exposure to a variety of soil-based microorganisms. Sitting in a park, hiking, and camping can also help our skins come in contact with soil microbes. Learning to harness things that make us dirty will help us radiate a healthy, beautiful glow.
A Swedish study found that in families which wash their dishes by hand, allergic disease in children was less common than that of the children from families who used a dishwasher. Further wearing clothes made of natural fibres seems to hold a natural balance of bacteria, while clothes made of synthetic fibres cause imbalances in the microbial ecosystem of the skin. Washing clothes in a washing machine may help the pathogens and not kill the harmful bacteria. Studies further reveal that washing and drying clothes in the sun is good for the skin as it balances the bacteria naturally.
In my childhood, I loved playing in the mud. I have fond memories of playing in the rain and rolling in the puddles to the extent of being reprimanded and punished by my parents. Scientists have now confirmed that playing in mud is healthy. Today’s sanitised world contributes to increased levels of childhood allergies and asthma. Exposure to dirt and germs work to fuel a child's immune system to prevent allergies. Kids and adults therefore reap enormous benefits from muddy, messy play.
Recent research has shown that dirt contains microscopic bacteria called Mycobacterium vaccae which bolsters the immune system and increases the levels of neurotransmitter serotonin in our brains, which soothes, calms, and helps us to relax. Scientists say regular exposure to the bacteria in the dirt may help reduce a kid's susceptibility to depression. Playing in mud makes one happier! Playing in the mud also induces children to appreciate the environment and develop a connection with nature. A bacterium called Nitrosomonas eutropha found in dirt and untreated water can live on a skin, but we wash it away with soap and shampoo. This bacterium serves as a built-in cleanser, deodorant and immune booster by feeding on the ammonia in our sweat and converting it into nitrite and nitric oxide.
Recently experimented to see how my skin felt if I stopped using soap for three weeks. Over the years, I've spent thousands of rupees on cleansers, scrubs, moisturisers etc. only to discover that water is all I need to keep me as clean as a whistle! Monsoons are not a good time to go soapless as the heat and humidity make a perfect breeding ground for the pathogens to decompose and generate odour. Having plunged into the experiment, I showered with no soap or shampoo. I found it extremely challenging, especially when I came home after a long run soaked in grime and sweat. I later learnt that sweating contributes to healthy skin bacteria by acting as a prebiotic. A week later, I noticed a significant difference in my skin from not using soap. During the weekend, when I had to attend a wedding function insecurity set in, I worried if I would stink. It turned out that bathing with water sufficed for removing body odours. Although I didn't smell like a bouquet of fresh flowers, neither did I smell like a goat nor did I wear a stench.
My skin felt transformed in just one week from a patchy, scaly dry skin to a certain softness. For a moment, I thought I was the only one doing this experiment. When I checked it out on the web, I found that thousands of people had already gone soapless. In fact, I found some of them had gone soap-free for more than a decade. I also discovered that several companies abroad such as “Mother Dirt” “Tula” etc had launched microbe nurturing and live bacterial culture containing skin care and hair care products to populate our skin with beneficial microbes. This amazed me to no end.
For those not willing to ditch soap altogether, there are several natural alternatives or holistic methods for cleansing skin without harming the microbial balance. In India, as recently as 50 years ago, people used green gram and red gram flour mixtures as cleansers. The classic cleanser that kept Cleopatra looking so beautiful was milk. A trip to the kitchen will reveal several natural cleansers hiding in your pantry. Oatmeal, soap nut, lemons, sugar, honey, besan (chickpeas), turmeric, yoghurt, tomatoes, orange peel, cucumber, papaya, aloe vera, Fuller’s earth, baking soda, almond oil, olive oil, coconut oil, eggs, etc. are some of them. Shikakai is an excellent hair cleanser and coconut fibre is an excellent scrubber for the skin. Most of the natural cleansers also provide vitamins, minerals and enzymes. The bacteria just seem to love them. These soap substitutes are inexpensive, time-tested and have proven not only to clean but also improve the skin’s overall texture and appearance naturally without disrupting the fragile ecosystem of the skin.
An average consumer in cities today spends approximately Rs 250 on skincare daily while using 515 synthetic chemicals daily to eradicate dermatological concerns. Why are we such a germ-phobic culture? Why can’t we take care of the bacteria on our skin and keep them happy and harmonious? Why are we ravaging our skin microbiome by applying myriad lotions and cosmetics to cover our skin blemishes to get that glow? The concomitant microbial rage to our insane disruptions of skin is being manifested as flares, breakouts, psoriasis, rosacea, eczema and random bouts of insensitivity.
The power of the gut, skin and brain axis and its role in skin health is mind blowing. The skin thinks and interfaces with the bacteria and the brain. It’s a two-way street, and our skin is a repository of cells equivalent to 16 human brains. The soul of any radiant and healthy skin depends on the creation of healthy symbiosis between the secret world of microscopic bugs and the human skin. Learning to love the bugs in our bodies and protecting our microbial comrades to harness their full potential is the best skincare recipe ever. Our ancestors knew this secret. Archana accidentally stumbled on this dirty secret. Given a choice, would you go for the soap-free life-style of our ancestral hunter-gatherers or opt for the modern-day skincare recipe containing a cosmetic cocktail of toxic chemicals? What would be your choice?
(Dr Jayanth K. Murali IPS, is ADGP (Law and Order) Tamil Nadu. He can be contacted at www.jayanthmurali.com)...