All About the Skin Microbiome: Expert Skinterview with Jasmina Aganovic

Natural Beauty

What is your skin microbiome and how can we keep it healthy and balanced for healthy, clear skin?

In this interview, I sit down with Mother Dirt founder and CEO Jasmina Aganovic to talk all about the skin’s microbiome.

Welcome to the Expert Skinterviews Series, where I sit down with experts in the holistic health and wellness fields to discuss different aspects of the body system and our health as they relate to the health and appearance of our skin, both from the inside out and outside in.

The interviews are short and quickly get to the heart of the matter — the biggest takeaways and best tips straight from the expert.

Today we’re talking with such an incredibly brilliant and fascinating woman all about the skin microbiome.

Jasmina Aganovic is the President of Mother Dirt, the first line of biome-friendly personal care products focused on restoring and maintaining the delicate balance of the skin microbiome.

Now you’ve probably heard about the gut microbiome before and about how incredibly important it is for not only digestive function but also so many aspects of our body system from mental health and inflammation to skin health. Well the skin has its own biome too.

Don’t get the heebie-jeebies here but there are trillions of bacteria living within the skin’s microbiome.

And guess what? Just as with the gut, most serve a very important and protective role.

So no, please don’t go slathering your whole body in hand sanitizer after hearing this! In fact, after you hear what Jasmina has to say, I have a feeling you’re going to be doing the opposite — looking to support and foster your skins’ biome.

Jasmina is the perfect person to have this conversation with since she and her company are dedicated to transforming human health through products that restore the skin’s microbiome. And I mentioned she was brilliant, right? Jasmina is a Chemical and Biological Engineering graduate from MIT and has worked in the skincare field throughout her career, even before founding Mother Dirt. She is leading the conversation about the skin microbiome and challenging us all to rethink what it means to be “clean.”

In this interview, Jasmina and I chat all about:

  • Jasmina’s personal journey to discover the importance of the skin microbiome
  • The important role of the skin’s microbiome
  • Whether or not the gut microbiome and skin microbiome are connected
  • How certain bacteria in the skin microbiome can even mitigate body odor
  • How to best support a healthy, balanced skin microbiome

[Full interview transcript below video]


Nadia: Jasmina, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today and I’m so excited for our conversation all about the skin microbiome because it’s really just so fascinating and such an important aspect of skin health. And we hear so much about the importance of the gut microbiome these days, but we don’t hear all that much about the skin microbiome. But you are definitely changing that and are really just the perfect person to talk to and learn from. So thank you again. And I’ve already quickly introduced you, but your skincare line, Mother Dirt is really so unique and so I would love to hear just a little bit more about the backstory about how you became so passionate about the skin microbiome and really came to discover just how important it really is to the health and appearance of the skin.

Jasmina: Sure. so we’ll start off with more of my background. My background is a bit more technical. So I got my degree in chemical and biological engineering from, from MIT. And then while I was there decided that I wanted to go into personal care and beauty. I thought that this industry was really creative very early adopting of new technologies. And these were all things that I found to be really interesting in addition to me being passionate about the industry. And so I worked for a few different companies that were in the space, all doing really innovative things in different ways. One company for example, is called living proof. And this is a hair care company that came out of the same lab I worked in at, at MIT. So in essence, I was sort of the person that was taking technology and infusing it into beauty. And so the story for Mother Dirt actually began back in 2014 where I was connected with another group of MIT scientists that were talking about there technology, which happened to be alive bacteria. And that was really where the conversations began. And I came on board to help build out a brand around this bacteria, this technology primarily as a vehicle to have a conversation with the general public about this topic and public hygiene. And this brand of course is ultimately what became other dirt. Some other dirt launched officially in 2015.

Nadia: That’s awesome. And so we tend to think of bacteria on the skin as being a bad thing. So something that’s going to cause acne or infections, but just as what the gut microbiome, there’s good and there’s bad bacteria and the good serve a really important purpose, which is obviously the conversation exactly that you’re trying to bring to the public. And so can you just explain a little bit more about the role of the skin microbiome and these bacteria? So how they’re really so important actually for healthy skin. [inaudible]

Jasmina: Definitely. So I’m going to start off with a statistic that always is really surprises people. And it surprised me the first time I read it, scientists believe that there could be up to potentially 10 trillion different types of on this planet and that we have only identified and slightly understand less than 1% of them, and that less than 1% that we understand have to do with the fact that we like actually see some sort of pathology. We see something happening and unfortunately it typically is associated with a disease, right? And that’s why we’ve come to believe that microbes are bad. But the other 99%, we don’t really know what they do yet. And it’s very likely that a large portion of them have been working invisibly in the background to sustain life on earth. And so I share that as kind of a framework or a reshifting to really understand how powerful bacteria might actually be in our life in addition to other types of micro micro organisms.

Jasmina: So when it comes to the skin microbiome, there are so many parallels that are similar to what we already know about in the gut. So in the gut, we know that bacteria play important roles in things like even helping us digest our food. With our skin microbiome. It’s still very early on and understanding it, but it’s very likely that our skin microbiome helps maintain our moisture barrier, helps our skin stay calm and soothe. It’s also likely that it plays a protective role from our environment both for the sun and any other external factors. So the list goes on and on, but the skin microbiome, think of it as a protective layer between us and the environment.

Nadia: Thank you. And so interesting. And we know that some the “bad” gut bacteria living within the gut microbiome can cause a lot of inflammation. And I wonder, if in your research, you’ve come across that as well? Because we know inflammation for the skin is one of its archenemies when it comes to any sort of skin condition.

Jasmina: Yeah. I think one of the common discussion points right now in the field is reframing the “good” versus the “bad.” So we’ve come to believe in the way that the story has been told and we, human beings always want to make things very black and white that, you know, us certain type of bacteria is bad and it will cause infection. But what might actually be more important is what’s happening in the whole ecosystem. So one bacteria or one microorganism or one colony forming unit on its own might not actually be bad or cause disease or cause harm. It’s when the, the rest of the ecosystem is unhealthy or imbalanced or de stabilized. It creates an opportunity for a microorganism to go from being a functioning member of society to being something that’s potentially very disruptive. And so for this reason, there are a lot of people who are interested in looking at how these different consortia of bacteria interact and how you can facilitate a healthy functioning, diverse ecosystem rather than just like cherry picking certain types of microbes that you might want to have there. So these ideas of good and bad I think are relevant in some cases, but not in a, in 100% of them.

Nadia: And it makes sense too because we all have like candida living within our guts for example, and that’s considered a “bad” yeast when there’s an overgrowth. And the same thing with the P acnes bacteria on our skin — which is the acne causing bacteria. So I totally see what you’re saying, that it’s really about the balance and the harmony within the microbiome. So interesting.

Nadia: And so speaking of the gut: is there a connection between the gut microbiome and the skin microbiome? Are they pretty independent of each other?

Jasmina: So far there hasn’t been anything directly linked between the two. I don’t think that that means that there won’t be in the future. More and more research is showing how much of a connected ecosystem the human body is. And so I think it’s a matter of time where we will start to identify a clear link between these two distinct ecosystems. So I think the answer to that is very much so. TBD.

Nadia: t’ll be interesting to see because there’s so much research coming out about the gut and I feel like it’s only a matter of time too before we start hearing more about the skin microbiome.

Nadia: And so I’m also very curious because I’ve heard that Mother Dirt’s AO+ Mist can also be used as on your underarms to sort of mitigate body odor. And so I’m really curious how this works, how this sort of balance of the bacteria would work in terms of that aspect of our skin.

Jasmina: Sure. Before I explain how the mist works, I’m going to start off by explaining how deodorants and antiperspirants that we are familiar with work today. A lot of people are, are not as familiar with kind of the two mechanisms for that. And that I think will help frame up the fundamental difference with with the mist. So basically odor is not caused by sweat itself. Odor is caused by the interaction of our sweat with certain types of stinky bacteria that exist in our underarms. And so the way that conventional deodorants in any per sprints address this is by one or both of these mechanisms, they either kill all the bacteria that’s there. So something that’s very [inaudible] bacterial or two, they prevent the bacteria from being fed. So basically they block the sweat source so that these odor causing bacteria don’t have food to eat, which means they can’t produce these stinky byproducts or it’s some sort of combination of both in addition to adding fragrances and all of that.

Jasmina: But basically blocking sweat or killing all bacteria is the main mechanism. Neither of those are biologically aligned to how our body had evolved, which brings me to how the mist works. What the mist is actually doing is restoring a micro organism that likely once use to exist there. That also feeds off of the sweat that your body is producing and rebalances that ecosystem in the underarm to presumably reduce the amount of odor causing bacteria and about 60% of our users so that they can cut down or cut out on deodorant. So there is no nuking of an ecosystem that’s happening. There’s no plugging up of, of sweat glands. This bacteria is letting the body do its own natural process like we had evolved to. And it’s just shifting that ecosystem in a direction of more balanced so that the body just naturally doesn’t have as much odor causing bacteria.

Nadia: That is so fascinating. And yes, sweating is totally natural. It’s a natural body process that we really should be doing and need to be doing. And I’ll tell you, my husband… I’ve tried to buy so many different natural deodorants for him and it’s just been impossible because he can’t take the baking soda. It causes a really severe rash for him. And the other ones don’t really do enough in terms of odor control. And so I’m definitely going to be placing an order for this probably right after we talk because I’m just so excited that hopefully — you know, fingers crossed! — there’s some sort of solution out there.

Nadia: And so you mentioned that this bacteria used to exist on our skin in the past. And so I’m just curious, what sort of products and practices do you know skin care practices are we doing and products that we’re using that really disrupt the skin microbiome the most?

Jasmina: Yeah. to frame up exactly how modern hygiene has really affected us, I’m going to go like way back to the days where we humans were much more immersed in our natural environments. So our microbiome, both internally and on the surface of our skin is built both by being seated from our mother as well as our environment in the first early years of life. So literally our interaction with the world around us helps build this microbiome ecosystem both internally and topically. And so first, if you think about how different our life is now, we don’t interact with the outdoors as much anymore as modern humans are. Our lifestyles are increasingly urban and spent indoors. And then two we’ve introduced, especially over the last hundred years, which is a very short period of time in the grand scheme of our evolution as a species. All of these modern personal care products.

Jasmina: So extensive hygiene soaps, soaps to begin with which have very strong surfactins. But as we know, you can walk into one of the main department stores or one of the main beauty retailers and they’re very elaborate routines that we as, as humans now ascribed to and essentially what many of these routines are rooted around even if they don’t market it that way is to cleanse and remove dirt and in particular bacteria. So we’ve always believed that bacteria is, is bad. So the removal of bacteria is core and central to ah, to this industry. So you had asked what are some of the things that really affect our skin microbiome? So lack of interaction with the outdoors is kind of gotten us to where we are right now. A really strong surfactants like a sodium lauryl or laureth sulfate and sodium DOE, deciles sulfate.

Jasmina: So SLS and SLDS preservatives, which are put in product to help prevent bacterial growth, which is important. But over the course of our life, we’re using all of these products with preservatives. And we’re slathering and lathering them on our skin over the course of our entire lives. That definitely is going to impact our skin microbiome. And then the use of antibacterial products on a daily basis. So unless you are a surgeon or a nurse or live in some sort of an extreme environment or have a profession that requires you to be in an extreme environment for, for everyday people who don’t have professions like that or live in worlds like that is it is not necessary for us to be using strong antibacterial products on our skin on a, on a daily basis. There is no research showing that they are more effective in helping prevent the spread of disease than plain soap and a and water. So those are some of the key ones that I point to as a, as really affecting our skin microbiome.

Nadia: Awesome. Thank you. Yeah, and there are actually quite a few studies showing that the more that kids play outdoors and get dirty and aren’t so, you know, sterile in such a sterile environment, the healthier their gut microbiomes are. And so I understand why that would be impacting our skin microbiome as well. And just important for everybody to know to SLS is such a common ingredient in so many face washes and it’s so irritating for many people. And I wonder if one of the reasons it’s so irritating is because it really can impact your microbiome so significantly.

Jasmina: Which is just something potentially full time variants if it’s a strong surfactants. The way that it kills most of this bacteria is it’s so strong that it like rips their membranes apart. And I’m sure that it’s doing something pretty strong to the skin as well. And it’s also a lot too. So some people have had very distinct SLS related reactions around their oral cavity or even internally as a result of toothpastes that have SLS in them.

Nadia: Interesting. And I’ve heard before about a connection between some people with perioral dermatitis — which is dermatitis strictly around the mouth — and [SLS in] toothpaste. So that’s really interesting.

Nadia: And so lastly, what are the best ways that we can support a healthy skin microbiome… in addition to using Mother Dirt’s probiotic-rich products of course.

Jasmina: Yeah. So other than our mist, which I, you know, you can’t find a, you know, a, a similar product on, on the market. And I, I don’t like lightly gave up plug like that, but really and truly you can’t find anything similar to it. Outside of that, I, I think the general premise that we recommend for people is having an objective view of your personal care routine and really engaging with it from a point of view of, of curiosity. You know, why is it that I’m using these products? Do I actually need them? Do I need to use as much of them as I’ve been using? So you know, when someone is showering, okay. So I like lather up head to toe. How dirty did I actually get today? How dirty do I think I am? What do I mean by birdy? Is it that I got sweaty, I smell, maybe if I just lather up on [inaudible] certain areas where I feel like I sweat a lot, maybe that would be better.

Jasmina: Maybe today I didn’t sweat that much at all. And let me just see what just a water only shower feels like in these sound like crazy things. Maybe to some people we’ll put out there. But you know, having been in this industry now for so many years, you’d be surprised. I think the people other when you take multiple showers a day are also the same ones that deal with extremely dry skin and very sensitive skin. And the people that tend to do the least have no issues with their skin and are totally fine. So I, you know, I think it’s a worth just a reevaluation and it’s a personal decision for everyone. And I don’t want to propagate that, you know, one routine is gonna work for everyone, but this is a part of our life that we cultivate from such an early age. And so much of it is so ingrained that we never revisit it. And it’s just worth re reconsidering and, and kind of looking at it from a point of view of, of curiosity.

Nadia: Yeah, just an experiment. And so I’ll just tell you quickly before we wrap up that I only wash my face in the evening. And that was a game changer for me when I was struggling with acne years ago because I had been totally overdoing it and the topicals and just doing way too much. So product after product after product and washing multiple times a day — not even just in the morning and the evening. And switching to a much more minimal skincare routine and just even washing once a day has been huge for me. And I’ll recommend this to clients, and sometimes they, they get a little scared. They think, “Oh my gosh, but I MUST wash my face in the morning!” Well, if you think about it: you just washed your face a few hours ago and what were you really were you doing when you were sleeping? Not very much. You know, it’s not like your skin really got dirty!

Jasmina: Yeah, it’s funny. I’m actually the same. And I think if you told me this like 10 years ago, I would think, “Oh my gosh, you’re absolutely crazy.” But yeah, at the end of the day I wash my face and I use our, our mother dirt cleanser. And it’s of course you know, you’re outdoors during the day. You might have like sweated heavily. You probably are putting on SPF and like washing off all of that I think is important. The morning was a big shift for me. I think just one day I said, huh, like why am I washing my face in the morning and now I just splash water on my face and low and behold, you know, nothing bad happened. Know it was fine. And dare I say, my skin actually felt even more resilient. So it’s just really interesting. These like tiny how and unconventional counterintuitive ones based on what we’ve been told throughout our lives, how much of a difference it can actually make.

Nadia: I love it. So go ahead and experiment!

Nadia: And thank you so much for sharing all this information with us. You’re so brilliant and I’m so excited to have you as part of this and I can’t thank you enough. So thank you. Thank you. One more time: thank you! I really appreciate it. And I’ll have to keep you updated on how the mist works for my husband!

Jasmina: Sounds great. Yeah. Have him spray it on liberally. And I’m really curious to hear!


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