Illustration of the skin microbiome
Microorganisms on the skin 'talk' with the immune system, and this dialogue is important for health

‘Good bacteria’ on the skin helps regulate immune function

11 November, 2013

Natural Health News — Healthy skin, like a healthy gut, should have a diversity of microorganisms on it, according to a new study.

What is more, those microorganisms are in constant dialogue with your immune system helping to regulate health.

The human body contains many microbes. Some of these are necessary for healthy bodily functions such as digestion. Others may be pathogenic. Previous studies have revealed links between microbial communities no the skin and outbreaks of inflammatory diseases such as atopic dermatitis. Other have shown how bacteria that normally live in the skin may help protect the body from infection and that microorganisms found in different tissues – skin, gut, lung – have unique roles at each site and that maintaining good health requires the presence of several different sets of friendly organisms working together in a symbiotic relationship.

Your skin ‘talks’ to your immune system

There is little known, however, if the immune system influences the types of microbes that live on the skin and thus potentially prevents disease.

In a new study, published in the journal Genome Researchresearchers studied a group of patients with reduced immune function as a result of rare genetic defects.

Despite the diversity in disease-causing mutations in the patients, all the patients shared an eczema-like skin condition. Samples taken from the patients’ skin showed that they had types of bacteria and fungi on their skin that were not found on healthy people.

This suggests that the immune system does influence the types of microbes that live on the skin, study co-senior author Heidi Kong, of the US National Cancer Institute.

The skin sites specifically prone to disease showed significant differences in microbial diversity. For instance, the skin at the elbow crease, for instance, had fewer types of microbes than found on healthy individuals, while skin behind the ear had more types of microbes. The authors believe that an imbalance in microbial diversity at a given site may contribute to disease.

This, says Kong, suggests that an imbalance in microbial diversity at a given site on the skin may contribute to disease risk and that correcting the diversity of microbes on the skin – not just targeting disease-causing types – may help in the treatment of disease, they say.

Beyond beauty, towards health

While this study looked at people with rare genetic disorders, this research may prove useful for patients with temporary decreases in immune function – such as those with cancer and transplant recipients – by guiding the use of antibiotics routinely given to these patients.

In the last few years there has been a huge outpouring of scientific writing on the human biome in journals like Scientific American and Nature magazine. Previous evidence has shown how the skin microbiome is governed, at least in part, by an ancient branch of the immune system called complement. In turn, it appears that microbes on the skin tweak the complement system, as well as immune surveillance of the skin. The complement system may, in part, be responsible for maintaining a diverse set of microbes on our skin and keeping our skin healthy, which in turn could play a role in a host of skin diseases.

Cosmetic formulators have only just begun to investigate how skincare products might be used to help normalise the skin’s flora. But what seems clear is that maintaining healthy skin – through a combination of diet and not putting damaging products on your skin – has implications way beyond beauty into the very foundations of health.