27 Jun 2018

Is an obsession with cleanliness weakening our skin?

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 3:07 pm on 27 June 2018

Why has the prevalence of sensitive skin skyrocketed around the world?

We are over-cleaning our skin and overloading it with a bunch of stuff that can mess with its natural balance, says dermatologist Dr Sandy Skotnicki.

Woman cleaning her face

Photo: 123RF

It's easy to forget that most humans started washing and shampooing every day in the last hundred years or so, Skotnicki says.

As a result, we're a bit confused about the difference between clean and hygienic.

Bar of wet white soap

Photo: Picture Partners

To prevent the transmission of disease handwashing is very important, but even that can be overdone – and actually increase the risk of infection by damaging your skin's natural barriers, Skotnicki says.

Before we had antibiotics and private bathrooms, soap was a great tool for preventing disease and saved thousands of lives.

But it can also be very damaging to skin and contribute to conditions like eczema, Skotnicki says.

The outer part of our skin is like a brick wall, the cells are the bricks and the mortar is our natural oils, he says.

Traditional bar soap – which has a pH of around 10 compared with our skin's natural pH of 5 – strips the "mortar" and leaves our skin more open to irritants and allergens.

"[Soap] binds to your natural skin oils and it removes them or it diminished them."

cute kid with grubby face

Photo: Public domain

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, kids do not need to be bathed every night – several times a week is good enough.

But Skotnicki says it can depend on the climate. If they're wearing sunscreen every day it's good to wash that off.

"To scrub their whole body every day with a body wash and wash their hair every day when it's not dirty, it's not good for the skin because it decreases their barrier, it decreases their capacity to protect themselves."

And they definitely can go without mango-strawberry smelling hair or lavender-scented skin, she adds.

In a recent study, New Zealand ranked 9th out of 60 countries for childhood eczema.

Mother massaging baby

Photo: 123RF

A woman with eczema can prevent her baby from developing it by rubbing their body from the neck down with sunflower seed oil or coconut oil every day for at least the first six months, Skotnicki says.

When it comes to treating acne, less is more, and topical apple cider vinegar can be a good option, she says.

Keep in mind that while acne isn't forever, acne scars can be.

"If you have routine acne that isn't scarring, drugstore things are fine, but if you're getting into scarring you really should see a dermatologist."

Scientists are only just beginning to understand the human skin microbiome – and the effects of removing it when we wash, Skotnicki says.

We now know the skin microbiome of eczema patients is different in the areas where they have eczema, and that some bacteria on the skin can fight other bacteria.

Dr Sandy Skotnick is the author of Beyond Soap: The Real Truth about What You Are Doing to Your Skin and How to Fix It for a Beautiful, Healthy Glow.

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