Itchy, red, inflamed skin isn’t exactly welcome anywhere on our bodies. But for most of us, the face is probably one of the last places we’d pick if given a choice. Alas, several clients have told me they’re experiencing dermatitis on their faces this winter. I love that I get to tell them there’s good news: research on the skin microbiome over the last 15 years has brought us new insights into the microscopic causes of dermatitis and eczema. And in response to this research, soothing plant-based face creams and oils can promote repair of this important barrier.
The topic of the skin microbiome is a big one. In this post, I’ll keep my focus on dermatitis and eczema — especially on the face — and share practical tips for how to avoid damage and promote repair.
The Skin Microbiome — What Is It?
The word “microbiome” translates to a “large community of small life.” So the skin microbiome is the ecosystem of tiny organisms residing on our skin. Mostly bacteria, but also fungi and viruses.
Like the beneficial microorganisms in our gut, microbes on the skin help protect against pathogens that could otherwise cause imbalance and bring disease. Beneficial microbes on the skin also appear to “educate” the immune system about threats and help break down natural substances on the skin’s surface.
What Happens When the Skin Microbiome is Disturbed?
When the barrier created by the skin microbiome is disturbed, there’s a breech in the protective system. Your body becomes more vulnerable to disease — on the skin and elsewhere.
Let’s look at the most common type of eczema, atopic dermatitis. Two studies from 2017 showed that an imbalance of Staphylococcus aureus bacteria contributed to skin inflammation in flare ups of atopic dermatitis. The findings also suggest that a barrier of diverse beneficial skin-dwelling microbiota can indeed protect against pathogens.
Aside from pathogens, a disrupted skin barrier is more susceptible to dehydration because moisture escapes the body more readily. Dehydrated skin, in turn, is more susceptible to inflammation and disease, creating a downward spiral.
What Causes Disruption of the Skin Microbiome?
As I’ve noted in previous posts, skin is our first line of defense against irritants, pathogens, and environmental stressors. Skin is a beautifully complex layering of lipids, fatty acids, wax esters, and cells that keep moisture in and pathogens out.
What disrupts the balance:
- UV exposure
- Excessive exfoliation
- Harsh cleansers
- Psychological stress
- Long-term use of steroid creams (while steroids can help relieve the discomfort and itching from irritated skin, they don’t solve the underlying problem, and long-term use of steroids is not recommended for a healthy skin barrier.)
In cases involving a genetic predisposition, the condition may worsen in response to:
- Food allergies
- Skin infections
- Irritating clothes or chemicals
- Change in climate
Genetic predisposition? Yes, a gene mutation has been found to play a causal role in atopic dermatitis (the most common type of eczema). People with mutations in the gene coding for filaggrin, a binding protein in skin, are more likely to experience dry and irritated skin. Nearly 50% of severe cases of eczema appear to have at least one mutated filaggrin gene.
How To Support the Skin Microbiome and Barrier Repair
Now for the good news. Plant oils can promote repair of the skin microbiome! Focusing on repair of the skin barrier allows the skin to use its own healthy bacteria, antimicrobial strains like Staphylococcus epidermis and S. hominis, to fight the atopic dermatitis.
“Plant oils are now being increasingly recognized for their effects on both skin diseases and the restoration of cutaneous homeostasis,” wrote the researchers behind a 2018 data review.
After studying 19 oils — from common oils like coconut and olive to the rarer rosehip oil — they concluded that the constituents of plant oils (triglycerides, phospholipids, FFAs, phenolic compounds, and antioxidants) may act synergistically to:
- promote skin barrier homeostasis
- neutralize free radicals that cause oxidative stress
- reduce inflammation
- promote healthy microbial balance
- support natural wound healing
Highlight: Virgin Coconut Oil
In a 2014 study of children with mild to moderate atopic dermatitis, virgin coconut oil applied to the skin decreased the severity of the disease and improved barrier function. Coconut oil also protected the skin from minor UV radiation, and the group treated with coconut oil showed lower levels of inflammation after exposure to UVB radiation.
Coconut oil is packed with monolaurin, which makes up nearly 50% of coconut’s fat content. This compound has been shown to help dissolve the lipid membrane of bacteria known to cause skin problems, including Propionibacterium acnes (linked to acne) and Staphylococcus aureus (linked to dermatitis and eczema).
Because harsh cleansers can disrupt the skin barrier, I often recommend Eminence Organics’ Coconut Milk Cleanser to clients with irritated skin. One of its key ingredients is virgin coconut oil. This gentle cleanser was created to comfort dry, irritated skin while correcting irritation at its source — the skin microbiome.
Highlight: Camellia Oil
Here, the emphasis is on hydration and fostering resilience. Rich in oleic fatty acid (omega-9), camellia oil is highly transdermal — able to penetrate the skin’s outer layers, hydrating deeply. It also delivers vitamins A, B, D, E, and omega-3 — antioxidants that reduce oxidative stress by neutralizing free radicals — to the lower layers of the skin. Deep absorption also means camellia oil won’t leave skin feeling greasy or block pores.
Because a disrupted skin barrier allows moisture to escape more readily, and dehydrated skin is more susceptible to inflammation and disease, I recommend Camellia Glow Solid Face Oil to clients experiencing dermatitis and eczema. It deeply moisturizes and nourishes with oil distilled from cold-pressed camellia seeds.
With deeply penetrating oils such as camellia oil, biologists behind a 2020 data review recommended sealing the skin after use with coconut or shea butter. (I recommend two of my favorite moisturizers for eczema and dermatitis below.)
Perfect Pairing: The Nourishing Microbiome Collection
Coconut Milk Cleanser + Camellia Glow Solid Face Oil: Using the two products in this collection, morning and night during the winter, will best serve to repair the skin barrier function. Both products are from Eminence Organics, a skin care line with plant-derived, science-backed ingredients that get results. All Eminence products are grown and harvested using regenerative, organic farming methods. They’re also cruelty-free and made without harsh chemicals.
How to use the Nourishing Microbiome Collection
- On dry skin, using clean hands, apply one pump of Coconut Milk Cleanser. Emulsify with wet finger tips and massage gently in circles for a minute or two.
- Remove cleanser with tepid water (not a washcloth), and gently towel dry.
- Next, apply a pea size of the Camellia Glow Solid Face Oil.
- Apply a moisturizer containing shea butter on top of the face oil. For morning or daytime use, I recommend the Calm Skin Chamomile Moisturizer, which contains shea butter as a key ingredient. Or, for a nighttime skin ritual on top of the face oil, I love the Rosehip & Lemongrass Repair Balm. This contains Eminence Organics’ proprietary Natural Repair Complex, which uses rosehip and rosemary extracts to repair and calm dry skin as you sleep.
- When experiencing active atopic dermatitis, avoid exfoliation, including scrubs, synthetic retinoids, and alpha hydroxy acids.
- Pro-tip: Clients can still receive facials but, as the esthetician, avoid exfoliation.
Aside from itchy discomfort (which is bad enough), dermatitis and eczema on the face is likely a sign that our skin microbiome is out of balance. I’m grateful for recent research shedding light on the unseen causes of these skin irritations, and glad that I can offer clients plant-based, science-backed solutions that balance microbiota, replenish moisture, and support repair of the skin barrier at its source.
If you think your skin microbiome may be out of balance, then schedule a consultation with me today. We’ll take a closer look at your specific case, and I’ll recommend the best products for you during this season of life.