If you love the beach and enjoy taking a dip in the ocean, you may want to know about a research study presented this year at ASM Microbe 2019: the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology. This study concluded that swimming in ocean water can alter your skin’s microbiome and leave you susceptible to a slew of opportunistic diseases and infections.
So what exactly is the skin microbiome?
The skin microbiome refers to the collection of microorganisms that literally live on our skin. This includes an assortment of both good and bad bacteria, fungi and viruses. It is estimated that over 1 trillion bacteria and microbes make their home on our skin, and can be found everywhere from the bottom of the fatty layer, all the way up to the epidermal cells on the skin’s surface.
If you or your children ever played the 1994 PC fish simulator game Odell Down Under, you may recall that there were cleaner-fish whose primary job was to suck parasites off the surfaces of larger fish in order to keep bacterial colonies in check and help them maintain good health. It turns out that humans have a lot in common with this. Our skin plays host to an assortment of bacteria whose job is to prevent harmful germs and toxins from entering our bodies. These good bacterial “freeloaders” play an important role in human immune function by preventing microbes from colonizing and potentially overwhelming our defense systems. Maintaining a strong microbiome is the first step in creating a healthy environment for our bodies.
When our body’s ecological balance shifts, we become susceptible to all kinds of problems.
Marisa Chattman Nielsen is the lead author on a study about how swimming in the ocean can leave you susceptible to illness. She and a group of investigators examined volunteers before and after they swam in the ocean and measured their microbiome levels. Some of the criteria that influenced outcomes included the absence of sunscreen on the skin, the frequency of exposure to the water, and not having taken any antibiotics during the previous 6 months. After swimming and air-drying, all the volunteers exhibited levels of bacterial communities on their skin that were 10 times greater than the ocean water sample, suggesting that certain pathogens are attracted specifically to human skin. The good news is that after 24 hours, their presence was almost completely gone, most likely because the test subjects' healthy microbiomes were able to neutralize their threat.
Aside from the obvious implication that swimming in the compromised ecosystem of our oceans can make us ill, there is additional data that implies a connection between eczema flareups and an imbalance in the skin’s microbiome caused by specific strains of bacteria. When researchers cultured “good” bacteria and applied it to the skin of mice that were colonized with human strains of eczema, it prevented flareups. More work needs to be done to determine the exact mechanism responsible for this vulnerability, but this research shows great promise and hopefully will help unlock the mystery of why some people are susceptible to certain skin conditions, while others are not.
Copyright August 2019 by Sharon Gnatt Epel for La Ishá Inc.
Photo credits: Jeremy Bishop, Shot-by-Cerqueira
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