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Ear Piercing and the Skin Microbiome

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

We all have a skin microbiome - the community of millions of microbes (bacteria, fungi, viruses) that normally live on the skin. New research shows that when we get the ears pierced and start to wear earrings, it causes a disruption to the skin microbiome of the earlobes, and there is an actual shift to different microbes. A new normal develops.

The researchers found that before piercing, the earlobe skin to be pierced is disinfected (which disrupts and kills off microbes), and then after the piercing and insertion of an earring that area of the skin is permanently more moist - thus there is a shift in the community of microbes (their composition). It becomes more complex, with a greater variety of microbes, and some moisture loving species move in.

Therefore. the researchers say that ear piercing represents "ecosystem engineering on the human body". Yes. And wow.

From Science Alert: After an Ear Piercing, Your Skin Microbiome Changes in a Fundamental Way

You may not have ever realized it, but there are many trillions of microorganisms living on our skin – and puncturing the skin and inserting a metal object, also known as getting a piercing, creates a significant shift in that microbiome.

A team from McGill University in Canada, in partnership with a local tattoo parlor, collected skin swabs from 28 volunteers who were getting ear piercings. The swabbing began before the piercing, and samples were collected for the next two weeks.

The researchers wanted to take a closer look at how this sudden change in the microbiome environment – potentially shifting everything from the shape of the skin to its temperature – would affect the lives of the microorganisms living nearby.

From the perspective of the bacteria, eukaryotes, and other microscopic critters that call the skin home, a piercing is a cataclysmic, apocalyptic event – like a giant earthquake or a meteor strike – and that was borne out in the microbiome analysis.

"We found that, over time, the new piercing environment was significantly associated with greater biodiversity and ecological complexity, with fundamental differences in the nature of biotic interactions compared to exposed earlobe skin," write the researchers in their published paper.

As the team notes, the piercing process starts with the sterilization of the skin, effectively clearing the 'ground' of microbes and providing a new space for a new microbial community to move into.

After that, a greater biodiversity and ecological complexity was observed. In terms of microbiota, these areas began to match other moist patches of skin more closely, like those you would find in the armpit or the nose.

The Staphylococcus epidermidis and Cutibacterium acnes bacterias were found to be particularly prevalent around piercings. They're both potentially dangerous, but when they exist together in the same spot, they tend to keep each other in balance.

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