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Is an anti-bacterial face wash good for the skin?

Is an anti-bacterial face wash good for the skin?

This article lays bare the importance of the skin microbiome and how antibacterial face washes can affect it
Anti-bacterial face wash
Representational Image | Shutterstock

‘Say goodbye to bacteria and hello to healthy skin with xyz anti-bacterial face wash.’ 

 This familiar catch phrase of many advertisements leads us to believe that bacteria are the enemy of healthy skin and anti-bacterial face washes are the way to it. Truth lies deeper than the tagline: it is about the delicate balance of microbes, playing a vital role in maintaining our skin’s radiance. 

The structure of the skin 

A 2013 study published in the National Library of Medicine by Elizabeth A Grice, a researcher and associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania, reveals some interesting information. That the skin has an acidic pH a lower temperature that serves as a barrier against harmful germs and toxins, while also retaining moisture and nutrients inside the body. The microorganisms that make a home on our skin – bacteria, fungi, viruses and mites – work together to protect our skin. 

Are microbes – a nuisance or partners? 

Skin microbiome refers to the community of microorganisms – bacteria, fungi, viruses, and mites -that live on our skin. A 2021 study published in BioMed Central (BMC) by researcher Manon Boxberger lists the benefits of the skin microbiome.   

  • Skin microbes help to renew skin by producing the enzymes protease and lipase that break down lipids on the surface, aiding in the shedding of dead skin cells.  Read about epidermal desquamation here.
  • They keep us safe by educating the billions of T cells (a type of white blood cells that are a part of the immune system) in our skin. These T cells are like soldiers in our body’s army. The microbes train them to recognise and fight similarly marked dangerous pathogens. 
  • A strain of bacteria called staphylococcus epidermidis could produce a nucleic acid called 6-N-hydroxyaminopurine which may shield the skin against skin cancer. 

Disrupting the skin microbiome is not a wise idea, as is evident from the case of Shazia Shakee, 27, a teacher based in Anekal who set out to conquer her acne problem. She says she had made a few changes in her skincare routine to overcome the acne and an anti-bacterial face wash was one of them. However, soon she had other problems. 

Elaborating on her skin struggles she says, “My skin soon became dry, it felt like it was constantly peeling. Several treatments later my dermatologist suggested I change my face wash, and my skin started feeling supple in a month. So, it is safe to say that anti-bacterial face wash wasn’t for me.” 

Key ingredients in anti-bacterial face washes 

California-based Dr Nadir Qazi, board-certified cosmetic dermatology surgeon and founder of Qazi Cosmetic Clinic, says, “The primary ingredient in anti-bacterial and anti-fungal face washes is triclosan.”

Triclosan is a chlorinated phenol. Dr Samuel Hetz, medical director of Concept Medical, says that salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide are infused in anti-bacterial face washes. These work as an antiseptic and an anti-bacterial respectively. Dr Hetz says, “Anti-bacterial ingredients inhibit the growth of bacteria and antiseptics kill the bacteria and stop them from growing further.” 

Side effects of anti-bacterial face washes

Dr Qazi lists the following side effects of anti-bacterial face washes. 

  • Dryness: Both triclosan and the more commonly used surfactants in soaps and face washes strip the skin of sebum. Sebum is the natural waxy lipid our bodies produce to protect the skin from harm.
  • Irritation: Stripped of its natural oils the skin may become sensitive and easily affected by chemical contact or other external factors. 
  • Contact dermatitis: Contact dermatitis is an allergic rash when the skin is exposed to a chemical irritant.
  • Endocrine disruptions: With prolonged use, triclosan may cause disruptions to the endocrine systems and cause hormone irregularity and thyroid disruptions. A 2015 study by researcher Cai-Feng Wang of Shanghai Jiao Tong University, China, and published in the National Library of Medicine agrees that triclosan can cause hormonal imbalances. 

The conclusion: balance

“Anti-bacterial face washes effectively reduce acne by unclogging the pores and decreasing the number of bacteria and simultaneously reduces swelling and redness,” says Dr Hetz.

If anti-bacterial face washes are good, then why should one avoid them?

Dr Qazi elaborates, “Overuse of anti-bacterial face wash can mess with the skin microbiome and throw off the delicate balance of the skin.” Dr Hetz agrees with this and says, “The skin prefers a pH of about 5 which is slightly acidic [on a 14-point scale]. Seven is neutral, and anything over that point is alkaline.” Any movement too far in either direction of the scale can damage the skin’s microbiome over time.  

Hence, for acne-related issues, one can use anti-bacterial face washes but should not overuse them. They should make sure that the pH of the facewash is not extremely high. The goal is to reduce acne with the benefits of anti-bacterial face washes – but certainly not destroy the skin microbiome.

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