I had the pleasure of speaking with Jasmina Aganovic, the founder of “Mother Dirt.” She is a chemical and biological engineer who always had an ingrained interest in the personal care industry. She took her background and started pursuing a career in the skincare naturals category when brands were first trying to figure out what natural meant. Read on to learn about bacteria on our skin and why it's good for us, if David Whitlock smells after not showering for 15 years, P acne bacteria and if it causes acne all of the time, and Mother Dirt products that you can use to improve skin health.
How Did The Conversation About Mother Dirt Start?
This all started in different stages over a period of time:
- David Whitlock was on a date 17 years ago and the lady he was dating happened to be a horseback rider. She challenged him by saying “If you’re so smart then tell me why my horses roll in the dirt every March?” At first, David thought it was because of insects but the insects are not around in March. He started to dive into this pattern of mammals having this ingrained ritual of rolling in the dirt. If you have pets you have seen them do this. He thought this was interesting because if mammals have evolved that need over thousands of years it must be very important to their survival. Then he started to look at the links between dirt and mammalian skin…
- This is what led him to the bacteria that we do our research on, Ammonia Oxidising Bacteria. He started culturing it then started to get people on board. This is how Jamie Heywood came into the picture. David had one of his early brews of the bacteria in a water bottle covered in tinfoil (the idea was that it was photosensitive but it is not) but he brought this to Jamie and he was talking about how this bacteria is so important. Most people would look and say this is crazy but not Jamie. He thought there was something interesting here.
- Then the first thing that they did was put some of the hypotheses in a lab setting to better understand the bacteria. Then I became involved with the team. Jamie had heard about this woman (myself) that was a scientist but enjoyed consumer products. He knew he needed a scientist to be brought into the mix to be able to respect the creation and figure out how something like this could be brought to market.
That is how Mother Dirt was formed. This bacteria used to exist on our skin but has been removed. We wondered whether or not people would be interested in putting bacteria back on their skin instead of taking it off. We became excited about this concept because we thought this could be very innovative but also believed that our technology and approach was important to public health. It was an important shift for consumers in general.
Is The Skin Interconnected With The Gut?
We are all about gut health, but often we find that the skin is reflective of what's happening in the gut. -Kriben Govender.
We are learning that everything is much more interconnected than we once knew. It will be interesting to see how this point of view translates into the medical community that is traditionally more siloed.
What is going to change once we are going to be able to take a pill that's going to help our gut which will potentially improve our skin?
-Will you go to a gastroenterologist or a dermatologist?
Or what if we apply something topically that affects our heart?
-Do we go to a dermatologist or a cardiologist?
It will be interesting to see how this interconnectedness is perceived in the near future. The microbiome started with the gut and pushed it in the right direction. It is also VERY important to remember that we evolved from nature. That is our origin story. So to think that we have no tie to it is a fallacy. I don't believe that people don't think there is no connection to nature but we forget it all too often. We act as if we don't need it.
There is so much interconnectedness in the different systems in our bodies. Then we have the environmental factors like sunlight and nature. It’s all an interconnected web. We are not a single organism we are part of this huge ecosystem. -Kriben Govender
What Is The Skin Microbiome?
The skin microbiome is all of the microorganisms that exist on the surface of your skin. It is what exists on your epidermis and your pores. For some people, it is viewed as an entirely new layer of how we look at the skin. To give you a visual, imagine that picture of the different layers of skin, there is the:
The microbiome is existing on top of and in your pores and possibly those first few layers of skin cells. It is a combination of many different types of bacteria, fungi, and viruses that exist for reasons that we probably don't know yet. We understand that they are important and there is a lot of research going into how that invisible layer talks to the immune system, helps talk to skin cells, and reacts to the environment that your skin comes in contact with. The skin is a huge organ in the body and its usually affected by the external environment
How Does Acne or Eczema Develop?
Acne and eczema are rooted in inflammation. And that is where their commonalities stop. The root causes for both of these diseases are multifactorial which has made it very difficult for us to “cure” them. The most interesting thing for the diseases are their prevalence and how they are increasing. There has been of interest to scientists that are in the microbiome space. There is this irony that we are cleaner than ever, have more products, more solutions, and yet the rate of these inflammatory skin diseases has gone up and they are occurring earlier and earlier.
Pediatric eczema has been something that has been on the rise for the last 30 years. There is also a correlation with other diseases such as asthma. As the microbiome relates to these we don't exactly know right now BUT this balance is starting to come about. There is an analogy where they talk about the skin microbiome potentially being the eyes and ears to the immune system.
Think of all the different bacteria and viruses as sensors. They exist to see and hear what is going on in your outside world to protect your body. With sterilization, over-cleansing, exposure to harsh chemicals, and lack of interaction with the outdoors, we slowly start to remove certain types of sensors. You are blinding and defining these sensors and you are inhibiting their ability to function to their true potential.
When you are born you are immediately taken over to the basin and washed. After 6-10 years you are exposed to a lot. You probably blinded and deafened this sensor system significantly. This puts the body into fight mode. If it can't see and can’t hear but wants to protect you this is what it will do. It doesn't know what it's fighting and doesn't know if there is a reason to be fighting, but it fights. And that is inflammation. Your body is having an inflammatory response to protect you as much as possible. This all goes back to a disbalance and impairment of this ecosystem that potentially exists for a very important purpose.
It is such a complex system we are only beginning to scratch the surface.-Kriben Govender
What is Your Skin Journey?
All human beings are a combination of all of the different experiences that they had during their entire life. I ended up in a place that seemed logical but it was not a linear path for me. Like so many teenagers, I struggled with acne. 80 million Americans will struggle with acne at some point in their life.
I genuinely don't remember washing my face prior to teen years and I had great skin. THEN my friends started using facial products and it was the cool thing to do. Even though my skin was perfectly fine….. Once I started using all of these different types of products,(I'm not saying this is the cause but I think it is very interesting) I then started to develop acne which was a 10+ year ordeal for me. Then to get rid of this acne I tried everything there is:
Still to this day I have scarring left from it because it was something that lasted for such a long time. Now as an adult I don't struggle with it thankfully. Rooted in this was an ingrained curiosity and I was wondering why this happened to me when I was doing everything that was “best practice.”
-I went to dermatologists
-Took the DIY path
-Made things in my kitchen
-Tried natural products
-Tried old wives tales
I tried everything and I didn't understand why despite all of these approaches that it ultimately seemed that it was “less is more” that helped me grow out of it. I wish I knew back then what I know now. When I look back at all of the different products that I used and what I subjected my skin to, I cringe. I wish I would have left my skin alone, BUT this journey triggered a curiosity with ingredients, chemistry, and a general awareness of the emotional and psychological journey that goes along with it.
As I was talking to Jamie and David in the early days before Mother Dirt was conceptualized, there was a part of me that thought this is so crazy but yet it makes perfect sense. Not saying that Mother Dirt is the cure to acne but bacteria on the skin presents an explanation as to why previous approaches have not worked for everyone. It always brings in a new approach from a cosmetic and clinical standpoint.
Skin issues can affect self confidence. It is a huge issue for a lot of people across the world. -Kriben Govender
Do Many Skincare Products Contain Antibiotics?
There are topical antibiotics for things like acne, however, most products do not contain antibiotics but they do contain antimicrobial ingredients. Many skincare products contain preservatives which, yes you guessed it, are antimicrobial. When we look at how the personal care industry evolved, it evolved rapidly and it coincided with the germ theory of disease. This idea that all bacteria are bad. That was propagated because the bacteria that we did know of were bad. The small data points we had back then showed that bacteria could cause death.
It didn't show all of the invisible silent workers that were doing a good job behind the scenes letting life go on the way it was supposed to. The cosmetic industry started to innovate rapidly after this statement. One of the core pillars of the cosmetic industry is that bacteria is bad. So preservatives are put in every product because you don't want bacteria to grow. There's a strong positive to it but what does that mean as it relates to our skin microbiome and exposing yourself to all of these products over a lifetime?
Then of course some products are intended to kill bacteria. Many of the ingredients for over the counter acne products are intended to kill acne-causing bacteria. We have learned a lot more about P.acne bacteria and not all types of it can cause acne. There is a fundamental theory in this industry that bacteria are bad and it should be avoided. To be clean you need to kill bacteria, and then you will be healthy and look beautiful. That is the theory…..
We killed bacteria to be clean... so that we can be healthy...and we think we are clean but we are not healthy... and our skin has more issues than it did before... so we don't feel like we look healthy or feel clean. It is this moment of reckoning where people are wondering what piece of information we missed.
What Is P.acne Bacteria and Does It Actually Cause Acne?
P.acne is a type of bacteria that at one point was viewed to be the reason that we have acne. When P.acne was discovered, it was tied to the cause of acne. Then came a rush of antibacterial products to kill P.acne assuming if you killed it you would no longer have acne. But once we discovered the microbiome there was an interesting thing we realised. This was that most people have P.acne on their skin yet some have perfect skin and some have breakouts. Why is this? There are a few hypotheses. One being that there are many strains of P .acne. Some cause acne and some don't. Bacteria that are not P.acne play a role and determine if this P.acne stays dormant. Another, being the environment and how the rest of the ecosystem is behaving and acting. There is also the confluence of other lifestyle factors that come into play here too.
They are little tribes on your skin that protect it and if one gets out of balance you may develop an issue with something like acne.-Kriben Govender
Has David Whitlock Taken a Shower?
He has not showered in 15 years. It is such an interesting data point that forces us to think about our hygiene habits and how much of it is required. It challenges what we have been told. I did a radio show with David and it was the two of us and one of the radio hosts did an on-air live smell test on David and confirmed that he does not smell! It forces us to think of why we do certain things and where our habits and routines come from and how they start such as...
Deodorant: There are a lot of research papers coming out that say we don't need deodorant. Yet at some point, we were instilled with this intense fear that we will lose all of our friends if we smell bad for one day. There starts a relationship with deodorant and an intense fear of body odor. When in reality most people don't have body odor as adults.
Skincare Routines: Most women are told about these lengthy skincare routines. If you engage with these routines because of self-love and self-care then that is great! BUT if you are spending a significant amount of money because that is the way to get “perfect skin” then you might be mistaken. We did not evolve having bad skin.... Our natural biology cannot be one of bad skin, smelliness, and inflammatory disorders because we would have never reproduced if things were not great.
What Are The Different Products in the Mother Dirt Line?
The Mother Dirt products are all about reintroducing this bacteria back on the skin for a benefit. They assist in maintaining the skin microbiome without being disruptive. I will talk about them in chronological order so you can see how Mother Dirt evolved.
-The Magic Strain: Ammonia-Oxidizing Bacteria-
This bacteria would have naturally existed on us when you think about us as human beings and how we used to interact with the earth. David landed on this strain because of mammalian skin and the soil. We evolved from nature, we were swimming in lakes rivers and streams, we were walking barefoot in the dirt, these are natural homes to this bacteria. And it would transfer onto our skin. However, we don't interact with the outdoors nearly as much as we used to but tribes do still have this bacteria on their skin. We have introduced all of these products into our day to day life that are meant to strip the bacteria and this bacteria is extremely sensitive. One shower with a basic body wash will completely remove it from our skin. The main goal for us was to figure out “Could we bottle this bacteria, could we get it to people's homes with the bacteria alive?” It took a year to figure out the manufacturing and scale-up. Which led us to our first product…...
This product has the live culture of this bacteria which we refer to as the peacekeeper bacteria. When you spray it on your skin (you can use it anywhere from head to toe) and it is feeding off of the ammonia in your sweat. This is important in and of itself because ammonia has a high pH and a high pH is not good for our skin, it can leave it more prone to other issues. By removing the ammonia it is bringing this pH back down to normal levels. Then on the other side once the bacteria consumes this ammonia, it basically converts it into these byproducts that are beneficial to the skin. They are calming and this is where it gets its peacekeeper reputation. It is a constant cycle that is running on your skin because it is alive, it has an active metabolism. Every time you sweat it starts another cycle and it keeps going until the bacteria is removed from the skin. This bacteria can be removed from:
-A swim in a chlorine pool
-A shower with a harsh body wash
But the AO+ Mist is intended to restore this bacteria. People also use it as a replacement deodorant. 60% of people find that by spraying this on their underarms they can stop using deodorant. This bacteria promotes balance. This should be applied at the last step of your routine. If you wear an SPF, makeup, apply the mist after, that is a finishing step to your routine.
As people were using this product, they started to cultivate a different awareness of what it means to take care of your skin and how critical the skin microbiome is. They started asking us for recommendations for shampoo and body wash. Back in the day, we thought that we could just certify other brands. We were planning on trying to find very gentle natural brands that we could screen and we realised that preservatives were MUCH more of a problem than we thought they were going to be…..
Our bacteria is much more sensitive than we thought. So we were not going to be able to just screen them because we didn't understand how our bacteria interacted with the ingredients and cosmetic chemistry. We started our biome friendly product development platform. This platform is a full-on screening process where we test individual raw materials and formulas for their toxicity to this bacteria. If we can create something that is non-toxic and won't affect our bacterial metabolism then we can assume it will not destabilize the rest of the ecosystem.
We also have to package and manufacture in a specific way since our formulas are unpreserved. We currently have a cleanser, shampoo, and moisturiser which are great for personal or family use! We do not have a conditioner because it is really hard to formulate one with the standards that we have but we are working on it. We will have a few new products launching in the spring!
Is your Product the Only One on the Market That Contains a Live Probiotic Organism?
Two other companies are doing interesting work. BUT we are the only brand that has ammonia oxidising bacteria in our products. One of the things that the industry is trying to work through is the use of the word “probiotic” because it doesn't always mean that it is alive. The reason that the word probiotic is being used the way it is, is an interesting historical question. Probiotics became popular with the gut. In food, there is a way to put live bacteria in products because we have been doing this forever! The trends from the food industry always go into skincare. But the skincare industry ran into a challenge because you can't have live bacteria in your products. You would need to put your skincare in the refrigerator.
The skincare industry then thought of this another way and started to dry bacteria and put it in their products. Or they would break up the bacteria, or use the actives but not the actual bacteria then call it a probiotic. Nothing wrong with doing that but it’s not apples to apples. It has become increasingly important to the industry to standardise what these definitions are. It is important to us to have our bacteria alive because if it is dead it cannot do the same thing.
What is your Skincare Routine?
-The Mother Dirt Cleanser
-Mother Dirt Moisturiser
-I apply an SPF
-Under Eye Concealer
In the evenings it is the same thing just no makeup or SPF. I apply the mist on my whole body. I don't need a moisturizer on my body. My routine is light and simple. I think about my skin very little which is a meaningful statement considering what my thought process was and the mindspace that my skin occupied 10 years ago.Mother Dirt products are great for anyone trying to reintroduce good bacteria into their lives. Focus on feeding your gut good bacteria and feeding your skin good bacteria too! Get outside into nature as much as possible and remember that less is more. Start asking the question of why and start to see if you can use a little less. That is the starting point of changing the relationship with the skin and how you treat it. Remember to stop stripping your skin of all good bacteria and stop using antimicrobial products to improve your skin microbiome. Share this with a friend and embrace the Mother Dirt Line!