“As a civilization, we’ve just spent the better part of a century doing our unwitting best to wreck the human-associated microbiota… Whether any cures emerge from the exploration of the second genome [the microbiome], the implications of what has already been learned – for our sense of self, for our definition of health and for our attitude toward bacteria in general – are difficult to overstate.” – Michael Pollan
Imagine a shower that uses just water – no soap or shampoo – followed by a light misting of bacteria. Voilà, you’re ready for the day! This is the kind of morning routine that AOBiome, a biotech start-up in Cambridge, Mass., hopes people will embrace someday. The company has manufactured a ‘living bacterial skin tonic’ that contains billions of cultivated Nitrosomonas eutropha, an ammonia-oxidizing bacteria (AOB) that can be found in untreated water and dirt.
A 'living bacterial skin tonic' may replace your need for soap, shampoo, and deodorant.
AOBiome’s scientists think that people should start to replenish and care for the microflora that once lived on our bodies, instead of waging war on all bacteria with an incessant barrage of antibacterial soaps and cleansers. Already there is some movement in this direction, thanks to the growing popularity of probiotics.
Even big cosmetics companies such as L’Oréal and Estée Lauder are marketing products that contain bacterial extracts. It doesn’t make much sense, as Julia Scott writes for the New York Times, because “extracts are not alive, so they won’t be colonizing anything.” But the point is that bacteria are becoming ever so slightly trendy.
What can bacteria do for human skin?
It’s hard to know exactly, since we’ve tried to exterminate them for decades, but AOBiome believes that bacteria can regulate sweat production, odour, and inflammation while acting as a built-in cleanser. The N. eutropha bacteria eats the ammonia in sweat and converts it to nitrite and nitric oxide, eliminating the need to use soap to get rid of sweat. Scott, who volunteered to be a test subject for AOBiome’s tonic for one month, found that her skin became softer, smoother, and free from breakouts. Her body odour wasn’t nearly as bad as she had expected.
Bacteria has potential to revolutionize acne and eczema treatments; heal wounds that don’t respond to antibiotics; and alter body odour to repel mosquitoes carrying malaria and dengue fever.
“[The company sees] long-term medical possibilities in the idea of adding skin bacteria instead of vanquishing them with antibacterials – the potential to change how we diagnose and treat serious skin ailments.”
While the idea of spraying myself with bacteria twice a day isn’t exactly appealing, I am intrigued by the idea. I gave up shampoo five months ago and wash my hair with baking soda and apple cider vinegar, which has resulted in much healthier hair that’s easier to manage. I’ve also reduced the amount of soap I use, avoiding full-body lathers and sticking with the so-called “pits and bits.” As a result, I rarely moisturize because my skin doesn’t get dry anymore, nor does it smell sweaty.
It will be interesting to see what happens with AOBiome’s product development, as it moves beyond the preliminary stages of research.