How Our Germaphobic Culture Learned to Embrace Bacteria

Good bacteria is popping up everywhere, from your fridge to your medicine cabinet.

Mother Dirt

Mother Dirt’s products. Photo courtesy of Mother Dirt

I didn’t take a shower this morning. Instead, I sprayed my body with bacteria.

Specifically, I spritzed myself with Mother Dirt‘s AO+ Mist, a body spray made with Ammonia-Oxidizing Bacteria. The Cambridge company claims it literally eats sweat, cleaning the skin better than conventional personal care products—and clearing existing conditions, cutting out the need for deodorant, and making skin softer and smoother while it’s at it.

The idea of marinating yourself in active bacteria is likely to raise some eyebrows today, but it may not in the near future. Across industries, bacteria is going from something reviled—something to be cleansed and wiped and sterilized into oblivion—to something desirable.

Mother Dirt saw that shift first-hand. President Jasmina Aganovic remembers the near-immediate enthusiasm when the New York Times first wrote about Mother Dirt. “We genuinely didn’t think people were interested or ready for this, but the response from that article was so overwhelming,” she says. “We sold out immediately, and had nine months of back orders.”

Skincare junkies aren’t the only ones clamoring for good, old-fashioned bacteria. Fermentation is a bonafide foodie trend. Nutritionists advise clients on how to maintain healthy gut bacteria. OpenBiome, a Massachusetts stool bank, is partnering with hospitals nationwide thanks to its poop pills, which are meant to transfer a healthy person’s gut bacteria to a sick patient. Bacteria, in short, is having a moment.

It wasn’t always this way, of course. In the late 1800s, German scientist Robert Koch first connected bacteria to disease. After that, it became health enemy number one, leading to a culture of microbe-hating, compulsive-cleaning germaphobes.

“This belief that bacteria is bad is so deeply entrenched that most products do have an inherent antibacterial [focus],” Aganovic says. “One of the pillars of the cosmetic industry and the personal care industry is that bacteria is bad.”

Except that it isn’t, entirely. Yes, some bacteria can make you sick. But there are also plenty of strains that are harmless, or even beneficial—a concept that experts across industries are championing to the masses.

Take Kate Scarlata, a Medway-based registered dietitian who specializes in digestive health and counts herself a huge gut health proponent. “Our gut microbial communities make up a large and ever-changing endocrine organ that may influence multiple metabolic and physiological processes in our body,” she says, adding that an imbalance may lead to heart disease, obesity, bowel diseases, and more. “A more diverse microbiome is a healthier microbiome.”

“We know we need to have a healthy ecosystem and diverse trees and plants in nature,” adds local fermentation expert Jeremy Ogusky. “It’s the same thing in our bodies: We need a rich diversity of microorganisms to help us digest, to help us stay healthy overall.”

Increasingly, people are turning to Ogusky’s beloved fermentation—a practice he calls “controlled rot,” in which sugars are turned to acids, creating probiotic foods like sauerkraut, kombucha, and kimchi—to get that microbial diversity.

“It just keeps on getting more and more popular, and I’m not sure why,” Ogusky says. “Fermentation is trendy, but it’s not a trend.” Indeed, fermentation may be enjoying its moment in the food craze sun, but it’s nothing new. Bread leavening, for example, happens through fermentation. It doesn’t get much older than that.

The distinction between trends and trendiness applies to the movement as a whole: Acceptance is on the rise now, but, obviously, bacteria has been around since the dawn of time. Mother Dirt, for example, replenishes a bacteria that naturally lived on the skin up until about 75 years ago.

But if good bacteria has existed for millenia, why, in 2016, are people flocking to Ogusky’s fermentation dinners, to Scarlata’s nutrition consultations, to Mother Dirt’s products, to OpenBiome’s medical trials? Why now?

“In a sea of information, we are just starting to understand the deep impact on health that these microbes—invisible to the naked eye—have on our health and wellness,” explains OpenBiome’s Chief Medical Officer Zain Kassam. “Sometimes a new, bold path pops up serendipitously, and a few brave optimists take the elevator and move the mountain of medicine.”

From Mother Dirt’s Aganovic’s view, at least in the skincare world, those early adopters aren’t so much optimistic as they are frustrated—frustrated with conventional products, and with conditions that resist mainstream treatment.

“People feel like they are making the right decisions, but their health is not going in the right directions,” she says. “There is this realization of looking at the world around us and trying to think what we got wrong, thinking that we can’t outdo Mother Nature like we thought we could, reevaluating chemistry and trying to reconnect with our roots.”