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Are you too clean? We ask the experts how to save our microbiomes while still staying safe

Good bacteria only.

If 2020 can be summed up by one item, it would probably be hand sanitiser. Back in March, when Covid-19 was first declared a global pandemic, sales of hand sanitisers sky-rocketed, increasing by 255% in supermarkets and selling out entirely online, with supplies among frontline workers scarily scarce. It became one of our key defences against the new virus, and we doused our hands in the stuff at every given opportunity.

Looking back before Covid-19 hit, however, and sales of hand sanitiser had been on a steep decline for years. In 2014, the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced that our fixation with killing bacteria had resulted in worldwide antibiotic resistance, namely due to an over-prescription of broad-spectrum antibiotics, but also due to our obsession with harsh hand sanitisers and germaphobic lifestyles.

Plus, recent revelations on the importance of the microbiome further reduced our use of sanitisers. The microbiome is the collection of all the genetic material in the millions of microorganisms that live on and in our bodies. It may sound disgusting, but this unique blend of bacteria is vital to overall health and cultivating a healthy microbiome full of beneficial bacteria can be key to preventing and managing illnesses, including inflammatory diseases like Crohn's disease, and infectious diseases and viruses. The problem with sanitisers is that they kill all bacteria - good and bad - which messes up the skin microbiome.

So, it seems that 2020 has left in somewhat in bacterial limbo. We must sanitise to prevent the spread of Covid-19. But we must also try to build up a healthy microbiome in order to best protect ourselves from illnesses. We called upon an expert in the field, Dr Marie Drago, pharmacist, member of the French Society of Cosmetic Science and founder of prebiotic, probiotic and postbiotic skincare brand Gallinée, to help clear up our confusion.

Why is the skin microbiome so important?

According to Dr Drago, the skin microbiome is your first layer of protection. "Literally anything that touches your skin touches your microbiome first," she says. "So think of it as your first line of defence, the literal skin barrier. A damaged microbiome can lead to a drier and more sensitive skin, and also leave space for some unfriendly bacteria, such as the ones for acne and eczema. Because its role is also to regulate inflammation, a damaged microbiome leads to redness, irritation and premature ageing (inflammageing)."

Why is hand sanitiser bad for our skin's microbiome?

"Unfortunately, there is no way of destroying the virus without damaging the rest of the skin microbiome," explains Dr Drago. "There is definitely a lot more damaged hands and eczema due to all the hand washing, especially with people working in the healthcare sector. It’s so hard for them as it’s not practical to keep reapplying hand cream all the time."

"After using soap or hand sanitiser, your hand don’t stay sterile for very long: as soon as you touch anything, bacteria arrive on your skin again. That’s why it makes so much sense to use prebiotics in the formula you use, to make sure they feed the right kind of bacteria and help replenish the microbiome as soon as possible."

How can we continue to stay safe, while protecting our microbiome?

Luckily, there are a few ways of reducing the damage to our microbiome, while still staying safe against Covid-19. "The science says that anything that foams will clean your hands, so you can use gentle surfactants (cleansers that foam), and pH appropriate products.

"Wash your hands as often as possible, but keep a hand cream everywhere where you use soap or antibacterial gel - but you should help replenish your microbiome with prebiotic and probiotic products immediately afterwards."

Written by Lottie Winter.

This article originally appeared on GLAMOUR UK.

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