If you’ve heard about probiotic cosmetic spray, it’s probably from a New York Times Magazine story published last year. In that article, journalist Julia Scott profiled the startup AOBiome and recounted her experience using the company’s signature product, a spray “contain[ing] billions of cultivated Nitrosomonas eutropha, an ammonia-oxidizing bacteria (AOB) that is most commonly found in dirt and untreated water.” The inventors of AOBiome’s spray hypothesized that before humans washed away most of the bacteria on our skin with soapy showers, the bacteria played a role in keeping our skin clean and healthy. Scott reported that her skin became clearer and softer after she gave up soap and embraced the bacterial spray. AOBiome sold out of its stock within hours of the article’s publication.
Now, after more than a year of ramping up production of its spray, AOBiome has released additional microbiome-friendly products under a new name: Mother Dirt. Now, in addition to AO+ Mist, you can buy a face and body cleanser and a shampoo that are formulated to clean your skin without killing all those ammonia-oxidizing bacteria. The products aren’t cheap—3.4 fluid ounces of the spray will set you back $49, while the same quantity of cleanser or shampoo costs $15—but you can save $10 by buying a bundle of all three.
So do these products really improve the health and appearance of your skin? I was one of many people who jumped on the AOBiome bandwagon after Scott’s article came out, and I tried the mist for a few weeks last summer. I didn’t notice much of a difference in the way my skin looked and felt, and I couldn’t really afford to spend that much on beauty products, so I didn’t stick with it. But I confess that I’m tempted to give the new line of bacterial growth promoters a try—it just kind of makes sense that bacteria could play a beneficial role on our skin, just as they do in our guts (and, for those of us who have them, vaginas).
However, I might just be succumbing to Mother Dirt’s marketing, which purports to restore skin to a harmonious state that probably never actually existed in nature. As science journalist Tabitha M. Powledge put it after the original Times story about AOBiome came out, “Skipping showers and shampoos and deodorant is perhaps ‘natural.’ Twice-daily sprays of N. eutropha are not.” Plus, as exciting as some microbiome research is, it is prone to exaggeration, and the research supporting AOBiome’s claims has been limited. Sure, it’s possible that we’ll all be carefully tending to our skin bacteria in 50 years. But between this and that recent New York Times Magazine longread on how bacteria might affect your mood, future historians might look back on summer 2015 as peak microbiomania.