Want Flawless Skin? Skip the Soap!

For the first thirty-two years of my life I suffered skin problems: daily bouts with acne, monthly eczema, and seasonal seborrheic dermatitis. Then I stopped washing my face—and my skin problems disappeared. For four years now, I’ve used only one “product” on my skin—yogurt, with added probiotics—and for four years I’ve lived without the slightest hint of my former blemishes.

I only discovered this novel treatment after experiencing a horrid, three-month bout with perioral dermatitis—“POD” in Internet parlance. Wikipedia’s description of the condition is pretty accurate to my experience:

“Perioral dermatitis…is skin disease characterized by multiple small…papules, pustules and vesicles which are localized to the perioral skin (around the mouth).”

Papules. Pustules. Vesicles.

Such hideous words.

I’d tried many different approaches to treating this condition, both conventional and natural, including extra virgin coconut oil, Balmex, sensitive face washes, and antibiotic gel. Each morning, I woke with the hope that somehow, miraculously, my POD had disappeared. And each morning, I felt demoralized by my first glance in the mirror.

Vanity aside, it’s objectively hard to face the world with a face full of papules, pustules, and vesicles. After three months of this heartache, I seriously considered my dermatologist’s first recommendation: a six-week course of internal antibiotics.

And yet, even as I considered the antibiotics, I did not give up my search for a natural cure. As I wrote here four years ago:

“When faced with a health challenge, I read every bit of information available on-line and in print…What I learned about POD…is that it’s often a result of skin sensitivities. On my favored message board, Earth Clinic, many people suggested a simple cure for POD: don’t do anything. Don’t use any soap. Don’t use anything. Maybe just a little apple cider vinegar. Or yogurt.”

The idea seemed so ludicrously simple, so antithetical to my need to do, that I did not take it seriously. (I wished I’d known then what I know now about bacteria and skin health). In any case, after three months, feeling confused by my myriad treatments, and frankly just exhausted by my relentless need to do, I decided to give up, to do nothing.

So I did exactly this. Abandoning the costly skin treatments I’d relied upon for years, I washed my face with nothing but water.

This approach seemed to help, but I did not see quick results. So, as a gentle addition, I started applying yogurt masks three times a day (for up to 30 minutes each application).

My POD improved dramatically in a week, and disappeared entirely within three weeks.

Since that time, I’ve come to believe that my skin problems were not simply the result of “sensitivities” or a faulty skin-care regime. I’ve come to see that skin health is not necessarily dependent on any regime at all. In fact, the absence of soap and addition of yogurt seemed to hint at the opposite: the best possible skin antidote is the one we’ve always been taught to fight: bacteria. 

Yogurt masks cured my perioral dermatitis–and dramatically improved my complexion. Today, I only wash my face with water. Additionally, I apply about one yogurt mask per week.

The skin hosts a diversity of bacterial ecosystems–what researchers have called “communities.” As NPR wrote in 2009:

“Biologists have now taken a census of the bacteria that live on our skin, and it turns out that the diversity of life there is quite remarkable. The bacteria between our eyebrows are different from those on the elbow or in some other nook or cranny.”

And apparently this bacterial diversity is a key to health–on the skin, and in the body.

As Michael Pollan wrote in The New York Times last year:

“A loss of diversity, say, or a proliferation of the “wrong” kind of microbes — may predispose us to obesity and a whole range of chronic diseases, as well as some infections…”

In terms of skin health, then, we might be compromising the variety of our bacterial communities–from our eyebrows to our elbow nooks–by the use of the very products marketed to keep our nasty bacteria at bay.

This is the conclusion, at least, of a new company, AOBiome, who is currently testing a “living bacterial skin tonic.”

As Julia Scott reported recently in the Times:

“The tonic looks, feels and tastes like water, but each spray bottle of AO+ Refreshing Cosmetic Mist contains billions of cultivated Nitrosomonas eutropha, an ammonia-oxidizing bacteria (AOB) that is most commonly found in dirt and untreated water. AOBiome scientists hypothesize that it once lived happily on us too — before we started washing it away with soap and shampoo — acting as a built-in cleanser, deodorant, anti-inflammatory and immune booster.”

Scott participated in AOBiome’s tests of the product, agreeing to not wash or shampoo for a month, and instead to mist her face, scalp, and body with the tonic twice a day. After a few weeks, Scott says, her skin improved:

“My skin began to change for the better. It actually became softer and smoother, rather than dry and flaky, as though a sauna’s worth of humidity had penetrated my winter-hardened shell. And my complexion, prone to hormone-related breakouts, was clear. For the first time ever, my pores seemed to shrink.”

After a month, Scott admitted: “I found myself reluctant to return to my old routine of daily shampooing and face treatments.”

I’ve felt a similar reluctance since I stopped washing my face four years ago–a reluctance that now extends to body soap and shampoo. If my no-soap has been so beneficial for my face how might a similar regime effect my whole body?

For the sake of my wife, I’ll probably stick to my Dr. Bronner’s Soap and Acure Shampoo–at least until AOBiome releases its product. But I have to admit, on the heels of my success with yogurt masks, I’m deeply intrigued by the possibilities of bacteria for skin health.

I love the colors here. [Source: The New York Times]

If any of this information has inspired you to try a more “pro-bacterial” approach, I’d suggest following the advice outlined in Julia Scott’s article. After her experiment, she asked AOBiome which products might be the biggest threat to her skin’s bacteria:

“The answer was equivocal: Sodium lauryl sulfate, the first ingredient in many shampoos…but nearly all common liquid cleansers remove at least some of the bacteria. Antibacterial soaps are most likely the worst culprits, but even soaps made with only vegetable oils or animal fats strip the skin…”

At the very least, avoiding these ingredients and sourcing more natural alternatives, just might improve your skin health. And if you suffer from skin problems like acne or the dreaded perioral dermatitis, I suggest replenishing the diversity of bacteria by using a yogurt mask.

Seth’s Yogurt Mask

I add probiotics to the yogurt to amplify the effects of the good bacteria. Full-fat yogurt is best. And Greek yogurt is a must–other, less thick yogurts, sort of just slide off your face. This recipe is good for a week’s supply, depending on your usage.

1 7 oz. container Fage Total Yogurt (full fat Greek Yogurt is best)
1-2 probiotic capsules, such as Primal Defense Ultra

Place yogurt in a small bowl or Pyrex container. Empty probiotic capsules into yogurt and stir to combine. Refrigerate. Lasts about two weeks.

2 thoughts on “Want Flawless Skin? Skip the Soap!”

  1. I'm sold and I don't even have skin issues. I'm actually planning to have an entire water filtration system installed in the house. After all, skin is the body's largest organ and, well… the shit they put in water!

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