From kombucha to kimchi to yogurt, probiotic-rich foods have become a diet staple, thanks to the digestion-aiding, immune-boosting benefits of good bacteria. But when it comes to skin, most of us continue to take an anti-bacterial approach—loading up on Purell and obsessively washing our faces, hair, and hands, especially during flu season. I seem to fit the mold: Though I routinely guzzle kombucha in hopes of bolstering my gut health, I am the girl who takes the surfer-stance on the subway in order to prevent any and all contact with the germ-infested poles.
But according to Jasmina Aganovic, president of Mother Dirt, a line of probiotic mists, cleansers, and shampoos, the quest for cleanliness is doing more harm than good. She shares that studies show about half of Americans claim to have sensitive skin, one in six children have eczema, and nearly 80 million people have acne. And there is a heightened presence of these skin conditions in the Western world, where over-cleansing is paramount. "If you look at the diseases we see today, they are all rooted in inflammation," Aganovic says. "You will not find nearly the same ratios of these diseases in less developed parts of the world."
Take acne, for example. Aganovic, who has a degree in chemical and biological engineering from MIT, has studied the presence of ammonia-oxidizing bacteria (a key component of the Mother Dirt product line) in both Western and aboriginal communities. She found that there were almost no acne cases in the aboriginal communities of Paraguay and New Guinea. These communities also shared the universal presence ammonia-oxidizing bacteria in skin cultures. In Western communities, however, acne occurs in 80 percent of adolescents, and there is less than a one percent occurrence of detectable ammonia-oxidizing bacteria on the skin. The absence of this type of bacteria in the West can be traced to the ingredients found in common household soaps and cleansers—and the decrease in time we spend in the great outdoors.
While I am certainly not ready to start gripping subway poles barehanded, Aganovic's claims piqued my interest enough to get me to try Mother Dirt's hero product: the AO+ Mist ($49, shop.motherdirt.com).
Composed of live ammonia-oxidizing bacteria (hence the AO in the name), the patented formula works to "restore balance to skin microbiome, resulting in the improved appearance and resilience of the skin." As per the instructions, I spritzed twice daily all over my body—face, underarms, chest, arms, and hands—with the hope that, in time, I would notice less of a dependence on deodorant, moisturizer (as I have irritable, dry skin), and cleanser (as I also am prone to a breakout every so often).
About two weeks into my microbial experiment, my complexion started to change. The blotchiness of my face, which had been exacerbated by winter's chill, was fading, and I began to notice that my skin appeared less dry and irritated. And while I am a regular user of crystal deodorant, I started to rely on it less.
Aganovic says the bacteria in the mist consumes the irritating part of our sweat, ammonia, and converts it into something beneficial: nitrite and nitric oxide. The nitrite and nitric oxide then work together to keep the bad bacteria in check, while calming the skin. With sustained usage of the AO+ Mist, Aganovic says ammonia-oxidizing bacteria can theoretically re-establish itself on the skin of the user. But there is a catch: swimming in a chlorinated pool or lathering up with harsh soap will kill the new bacteria immediately. Of course, using Mother Dirt's line of hair, face, and body cleansers can help build it back up.
"We didn't think proposing a 'spray-on bacteria' stood a chance," says Aganovic, adding that the mist was sold out for nine months in 2014 and continues to defy expectations. "It goes against literally everything personal care stands for today."
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