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Is Your Soap Harming Your Skin Microbiome?

I talk a lot about how the bacteria in your gut – those trillions of organisms, collectively known as your gut microbiome – influence your skin health. There’s more and more research showing how strongly the gut and skin are linked. Keeping your gut bacteria balanced is clearly important for all aspects of your health, from skin health to mental health.

But your gut is not the only place that you have a microbiome. There’s also a microbiome on your skin. That’s right – it’s absolutely normal to have bacteria all over your skin. In fact, these organisms can be beneficial to our skin health – but they can also cause harm if the wrong ones grow out of balance. In fact, many common skin diseases, from eczema to acne, have been associated with imbalances in the skin microbiome. It’s crucial to keep your skin microbiome healthy in order to support the health of your skin. 

There are a lot of factors that go into supporting the health of your skin microbiome, from how much time you spend outside to what you eat to what type of skin care products you use. One of the important factors is how you wash your skin. Certain types of soaps have been found to create imbalances in the skin microbiome. It’s good to know what to watch out for, so you can choose cleansing products that are less likely to harm your skin microbiome.

The impact of antibacterial soaps on your skin microbiome

Soap is actually inherently antibacterial to some degree. But some soaps have extra antibacterial chemicals added to them. The problem with this is that it can kill off specific types of bacteria indiscriminately. In fact, studies have shown that when people start using antibacterial soap, their skin microbiome becomes less diverse.

The FDA actually banned certain types of antibacterial chemicals in soap, because it hasn’t been shown to be better at preventing illness than washing hands with regular soap. However, there are still certain antibacterial chemicals found in some soaps, including benzalkonium chloride, benzethonium chloride, and chloroxylenol. Watch out for any claims of being “antibacterial,” and try to avoid any soaps – or other cleansers – that have added antibacterial ingredients.

Soaps vs cleansers

While many people think of soap as the only way to clean your skin, there are actually other options. In fact, for people with sensitive skin, soap is usually not the ideal choice. Soaps are generally harsher, and they may disrupt the skin’s microbiome more. Non-soap cleansers can be less harsh, so they kill off less of the healthy bacteria on your skin.

The pH, or acidity level, of whatever you use to clean your skin is also important. The skin’s natural pH is slightly acidic. However, soaps are highly alkaline, because of how they’re made. Because the bacteria that live on your skin are adapted to live in the slightly acidic environment that’s normal for your skin, using an alkaline soap isn’t great for your microbiome. It’s much healthier to look for a cleanser that’s neutral to slightly acidic – a pH of 5 to 7 is ideal. (7 is neutral.) Non-soap cleansers often have a pH in this range, which helps to preserve the microbiome.

There are also other reasons to be careful about soaps, especially on the face. Soap tends to disrupt the barrier function of the skin, by removing the natural oils and waxes of the skin. This is very drying, and can allow allergens and other irritants to get into the skin, potentially creating inflammation. It’s generally better to avoid soap on the face, and if you have sensitive skin, you may want to avoid it all over your body. Instead, use a gentler non-soap cleanser.

Many of the same bacterial species that are normally present in a healthy skin microbiome can actually cause an infection if the skin’s barrier is disrupted. This is called a “secondary infection,” and it’s a known risk in skin diseases like eczema and psoriasis. Keeping your skin’s barrier function healthy is important to keeping your microbiome from turning from healthy to harmful.

Keep in mind that not all non-soap cleansers are the same. Some cleansers that aren’t technically classified as “soap” can still be very harsh and drying. You’ll want to choose a cleanser that’s very gentle. One way to know that you’ve found a gentle one is when your skin doesn’t feel dry or tight after washing. If a cleanser causes a flare or breakout, it might not be gentle enough for your skin.

Finding the right skin care routine

Taking care of your skin involves more than just choosing the right products to cleanse, moisturize, and protect your skin – although this is certainly important. It also involves keeping a positive mindset and reducing stress, eating enough nutrients, maintaining a healthy gut microbiome, and getting enough exercise and sleep. Creating a skin-healthy lifestyle will also benefit you in many other ways, and it’s definitely worth the time and energy it takes to go on a journey of transforming your health. 

Most people benefit from having support. Inside our MGS Academy communities, you can ask other Skin Warriors for tips on specific products that they find helpful (or harmful), so you can give those a try too. My signature MGS Academy course is a complete guide to creating a skin-healthy lifestyle that you really love and will be happy to stick to for years to come. The brand-new version of the course will be launching soon – head over here to get on the waitlist or to learn more.

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