The microbiome's effect on our health is at the forefront of public interest, and almost weekly a new study appears to purport a link between the microbiome and some condition. Everything from blindness to autism have been blamed on an unbalanced microbiome. Along with this rise in awareness of the microbiome has been a rise in probiotic products, which are supplements that reportedly help maintain or regrow healthy bacteria.
Up until now, probiotics, in the form of foods and supplements, have targeted the gut micro biome. But AOBiome, a company from Cambridge, MA wants to change this with a probiotic that targets the skin.
What was the impetus for its new product? One of the company's founders, Dave Whitlock, a chemical engineer and MIT grad, says it's because there's no scientific evidence that showering is healthy. He believes doing so washes away the healthy bacteria from your skin. Actually, he believes this so strongly that he hasn't showered in, get this, over 12 years!
Whitlock actually may be onto something here because playing the there's-no-scientific-evidence card might be one of the best ways to get out of doing something. Lets' see....
"Sorry honey, I didn't take out the trash because there's no scientific evidence that it's healthy."
"No teacher, I didn't do my homework because there's no scientific evidence its healthy."
"I can't go visit your mother-in-law because.... "
You get the point.
More importantly, the question that remains is whether these products actually do anything for your health? The answer: That's anyone's guess.
The belief that the microbiome has far reaching effects on human health is based on mostly junk science (I wrote about that topic here). However, that's not to say the microbiome has no affect on human health. We have known for a long time that "healthy" bacteria outcompete "unhealthy" ones (like Clostridium difficile) for space and resources, thus limiting or preventing an infection caused by these "unhealthy" bacteria. This process happens in your gut and on your skin. A 2010 statement by leading researchers in the field stated that some probiotics, but not all, may have these beneficial effects. Several products have faced criticism for lying about the amount of bacteria in their products, or overstating their benefits. Dannon lost a suit for overstating the benefits of their probiotic yogurt.
Furthermore, there's little agreement and science as to what constitutes a "healthy" bacteria or a "healthy" microbiome. Both E. coli and Staphylococcus aureus are considered commensal (i.e. healthy) and pathogenic bacteria. Studies have tried to determine common species links in the microbiomes of healthy people, but have failed. So it might be that we either don't have enough data to know what constitutes a healthy microbiome, but it's also possible that there is no such thing.
To date, all of these studies on the effectiveness of probiotics have been on ones that target the gut, but Whitlock's company AOBiome, focuses on the skin. They claim that we have confused "clean" with "sterile," so to compensate, instead of washing dirt off our hands with antibiotic soap we should be spraying on probiotic soap. Its line of products, named Mother Dirt, include deodorants, soaps, and shampoos. Despite releasing its spray-on probiotic earlier this summer, there's literally no evidence as to whether the product works or not, a fact the company freely admits.
AOBiome plans on doing some clinical trials eventually, but to date it has done none. Something smells a little off here, and I don't think it's just Mr. Whitlock.