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Ocean Bacteria Colonize Your Skin After Just 10 Minutes of Swimming



Photo: AP

If the sharks and sunburns do not scare you at the beach, perhaps this will: According to preliminary research out this week, it takes only a 10-minute swim in the ocean to get your skin covered in a fresh coat of bacteria. While it's not necessarily bad, some of these bacteria could be disease-causing or increase your risk of infection by disturbing your skin's delicate microbial environment, known as microbiome

For their quirky study, researchers at the University of California, Irvine went to the beach and recruited a select set of beachgoers. They were people who only swam in the ocean infrequently and who were not using sunscreen at the moment. They have also not bathed in the past 12 hours, or have used antibiotics in the past six months. Before swimming, the nine volunteers who were ultimately recruited had a skin swap taken from the back of their calf, then went on a 10-minute swim. After they returned and completely dried off, the skin was swabbed again, as well as six hours and a day later.

Before the swim, they found, the microbiome of each volunteer was easily distinguishable.

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"Our data demonstrate for the first time that ocean water exposure can alter the diversity and composition of the human skin microbiome," said lead author Marisa Chattman Nielsen, and PhD student at the University of California, Irvine, in a release from the university. "While bathing normal bacteria were washed off while ocean bacteria were deposited on the skin."

The changes to the microbiome were temporary, with the most well on their way to baseline by 24 hours time. But there were some worrying findings. On each person, they detected common sea-dwelling bacteria called Vibrio . Most species of Vibrio is essentially harmless, but some are responsible for diseases such as cholera, or can rarely cause flesh-eating skin infections, especially in people with weakened immune systems. The team's methods could only identify the presence of Vibrio bacteria, not their specific species. "While many Vibrio bacteria was found on the volunteers' skin rather than in the surrounding ocean water

Vibrio is not pathogenic, the fact that we have recovered them on the skin after swimming shows that the pathogenic Vibrio species could potentially persist on the skin after swimming, "said Nielsen

The results, it should be noted, are work in progress; they are being presented at the American Society for Microbiology's annual conference this week. But presuming it holds up, the study could help explain a well-supported pattern-beachgoers who swim in the ocean are more likely to get sick with stomach aches or ear infections soon after than those who stay on the sand. And although the bulk of the blame can be tossed on the germs (often from poop) that get into our bodies, the team suspects that the ocean bacteria as a whole can make the disease more likely through their effects on the skin microbiome

" Recent studies have shown that human skin microbiome plays an important role in immune system function, localized and systemic diseases, and infection, "said Nielsen. "A healthy microbiome protects the host from colonization and infection by opportunistic and pathogenic microbes."

So, be sure to shower after swimming in the ocean, and try not to get any seawater in your mouth


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