In an article in The New York Times Sunday magazine, author Julia Scott spent four weeks testing a living bacterial skin tonic, developed by AOBiome, a biotech company in Cambridge, MA. The tonic looks and tastes like water, but each bottle contains billions of cultivated Nitrosomonas eutropha, an ammonia-oxidizing bacteria (AOB) that is most commonly found in dirt and untreated water. At one time, before we started washing it away with soap and shampoo, AOB was plentiful on the body and it apparently acted as a built-in cleanser, deodorant, anti-inflammatory and immune booster by feeding on the ammonia in our sweat and converting it into nitrite and nitric oxide.
Rather than going the drug route which may take 10 years for an FDA approval, the company is using the cosmetic approach to release their skin tonic more quickly. The company does not market its product as an alternative to cleansers but notes that regular users may find themselves less reliant on soaps, moisturizers and deodorants after as little as a month. The principals of the company have been using the tonic for years. One claims to use soap just twice a week now, one lathers up once or twice a month and shampoos just three times a year.
The third party claims that he has not showered for the past 12 years—he takes a sponge bath occasionally to wash away grime. The author met these men and got close enough to shake their hands and note that they did not seem to be unclean in the visual or olfactory sense.
The company got its start after the founder began wondering why sweating horses liked to roll in the dirt. Could there be good bacteria in the dirt that fed off perspiration? He brought samples of the dirt back to his laboratory where he skimmed off the dirt, and grew the bacteria in an ammonia solution (to simulate sweat). The hardiest strain was an ammonia oxidizer: N. eutropha. To test his theory, he dumped the water with the bacteria over his head and body. The bacteria thrived and the new product was created using bacteria cultures from his skin.
Meanwhile, in her own experiment, The Times author was having second thoughts about not bathing. Her hair was becoming oilier and looked darker, she slept with a towel over her pillow, and kept her arms pinned to her side.
All that changed however, when AOBiome staff advised her to spray herself before and after gym visits. the tip seemed to help. After the third week, her skin became softer and smoother, rather than dry and flaky.
However, while it took the author a month to grow her bacteria, it required only three shampoos to get rid of it.
She asked the AOBiome team which of her normal cleanser ingredients was the biggest threat to the “good” bacteria on her skin. The answer was sodium lauryl sulfate, but nearly all common liquid cleansers remove at least some of the bacteria. Antibacterial soaps are very efficient, but even soaps made with only vegetable oils or animal fats strip the skin of AOB. The company is conducting tests to generate a list of “bacteria–safe” cleansers.
Harvey M. Fishman
Harvey Fishman has a consulting firm in Wanaque, NJ, specializing in cosmetic formulations and new product ideas, offering tested finished products. He has more than 30 years of experience and has been director of research at Bonat, Nestlé LeMur and Turner Hall. He welcomes descriptive literature from suppliers and bench chemists and others in the field.