By Christine Caron, Parenting Reporter, New York Times
What is the microbiome?
The microbiome is a community of bacteria, fungi, viruses and other microbes that live inside your body and on its surface. Just as in a community of people, you’ll find both good and bad actors: Some of the microbes, like the gut bacteria that help you digest food, are beneficial, while others, like certain viruses, can be dangerous.
Everyone’s microbiome differs, depending on your age, gender, diet and immune system. And the types of microbes on one part of the body may be different from those on another.
“Imagine the microbiome as basically like a rainforest,” said Jonathan A. Eisen, Ph.D., an evolutionary biologist who directs the Microbiome Special Research Program at the University of California, Davis. On any given spot on the skin, he said, there might be hundreds to thousands of different species of microbes, which can come in hundreds of different strains. “With E. coli, you can’t just say you have E. coli on your skin, because some E. coli make vitamins and others kill you,” said Dr. Eisen. “So this is incredibly complicated.”
Even something as simple as showering can affect the composition of your skin’s microbiome, he said, depending on the temperature of the water, the products you used and the length of time you spent in the water.
Scientists know that babies receive helpful microbes from their mothers, who pass them on to their children through the birth canal and breast milk, but the specific benefits derived from those microbes are not fully understood.
Should parents be skeptical of products that claim to support the microbiome?
In short, yes. The “microbiome” has become a buzzword that vaguely signifies “good bacteria,” so some advertisers have promoted their products as being “gentle” on the body’s microbes. But without studies showing that these products are truly beneficial to the helpful microbes, experts have said that consumers should be wary.
“It’s become incredibly hot as a scientific area, but also the realm of snake oil,” Dr. Eisen said.
With that in mind, Dr. Eisen created an “Overselling the Microbiome Award” on his blog, which exposes questionable research as well as companies that are touting unproven claims about the microbiome to sell products. “I could probably give out one of them a day if I had time,” Dr. Eisen said.
When Dove started running ads for microbiome-friendly lotion and bath soap, for instance, Dr. Eisen began dissecting the claims on his blog, one by one, including the idea that Dove was nurturing the microbiome.