Mother Dirt – US Skincare Innovation, Now in UK Stores: A Paleo In The UK Review
When we heard the news about Mother Dirt coming to stores in the UK, we were excited. Why? Well if you know anything about Paleo Skincare, or have looked at our Resources page trying to find good, reliable personal care products, you’ll understand that they are rather thin on the ground here.
In the US, however, there are growing numbers of quite brilliant sounding skincare and also makeup companies. Some of their products make it over here, at a cost – for shipping, delivery, sometimes you get hit with import duties… all in all, not a very simple or easy process. Moreover, you can’t try before you buy – and that’s vital when it comes to the more “natural” products.
A few language explanations:
- When we’re talking about skincare we are, clearly, not talking about Paleo Skincare in the strictest sense of the word, i.e. the ancestral purists. Instead, we’re referring to the low-inflammation, low-toxin way of living and finding personal care products that don’t contribute to the toxin or stress burden on the body.
- Natural doesn’t automatically equal good-for-you… many ‘natural’ skincare products still contain gluten, corn, soy, “fragrance” and stuff that can contribute to inflammation and immune reactivity.
- Organic also doesn’t automatically equal good for you – it just means that it’s slightly better for the planet. So too with words like ‘eco-friendly’.
- MOST IMPORTANTLY – natural products can be as aggravating, if not more so, to the skin. Sensitivities can be triggered as much by baking soda and essential oils (supposedly natural, pure products) as they can by chemicals and foaming agents. Skincare is very individual and only you will be able to really identify what works for you.
For our full article on Personal Care products – making your own, what ingredients to avoid, how to look for the right kind of thing and what you really ‘need’ versus what’s unnecessary, head to our Chemicals, Toxins, Pollution, Moulds Page where we go into the toxins in the modern environment and include a section on both household and personal care products.
But if you’ve been to our Resources Page you will know that Mother Dirt comes highly recommended by us… but why?
Let’s return to the question of why Paleo Skincare is a bit of a misnomer… it’s because ancestral man did not use skincare products. We don’t really know what they did or did not do – but suffice to say they weren’t hankering after soap every morning and evening to scrub their bodies. They also weren’t lathering themselves with so-called “personal grooming” products, be that moisturisers, makeup, hair gels and dyes or nail polish. Everything must have been very ‘au naturelle’ (in the purest sense of the word, not the marketing sense of the word as it is used on packaging today!)
So we don’t know much about the hygiene practices of ancient man, except to say that there probably weren’t any. All of this leads into an interesting hypothesis around the infection burden in modern humans, called the “Hygiene Hypothesis”. This basically suggests that we’re a little too clean and this may play a part in the rise of conditions which revolve around immune dysregulation, simply because in a super-clean environment the immune system doesn’t have bacterial and viral stressors against which to respond and become stronger.
And yet hygiene is also responsible for some of the greatest advances in modern medical history. Cleanliness saves lives, reduces infection and improves health outcomes in every illness. So we have to strike a bargain somewhere. We clearly need to disinfect and keep our skin clean. But there does seem to be a risk of keeping our skin too clean – and it also seems that, much like in our guts, we must recognise that some bugs are beneficial.
The products that we use for modern hygiene practices are typically anti-bacterial and/or have a sort-of stripping effect. They are designed to kill bugs. All bugs. That’s their job and it’s how they work… However, as we now all know about the gut bugs, we have a skin biome – and we really need those guys to be there. Now, we don’t always know which strains and in what quantities we need, and we must also realise that all people’s bug populations are – and must be – completely unique to them. But we do know that washing all our bugs away every day isn’t the greatest approach to healthy skin.
Into this space steps Mother Dirt: the company pioneering the research and the product development to work WITH the bacterial populations of the skin, rather than producing cleansers which wash everything away.
Now the science is relatively new, but it’s interesting. You can read the research, rationale and product development information on the Mother Dirt website.
But we know what it’s like… the ‘good research’ about products is all well and good, but do they actually WORK, what are they like to use and are they worth it? (Because we all know you’re worth it… sorry, bad skincare joke…)
The cornerstone of the Mother Dirt range is the AO+ Mist. Sounds odd but this isn’t a cleanser at all, it’s a bacterial spray – as in, it’s like probiotics for your skin (though the company are cautious not to over-use this ‘probiotic’ explanation). Specifically, the bacteria in AO+ Mist are Ammonia-Oxidising Bacteria (hence the “AO” of the title). As the name would suggest these bacteria ‘eat’ ammonia and urea from sweat, converting it into nitrite and nitrous oxide which are actually beneficial for us.
Essentially, the AO+ Mist is not about cleaning your body, it’s about selectively dirtying your body so that it cleans itself.
Research (done by Mother Dirt) suggests that users find this product cuts shower time and reduces the amount of products they use, which isn’t too interesting as far as we’re concerned. We’re more interested in something working, not in something making us use a little bit less shower water.
Yet what is fascinating are the skin improvements people see when they incorporate the AO+ Mist into their routine. Now, speaking honestly, there is often a challenge to identify whether skin improvements occur because people STOP using abrasive, stripping chemicals, or because they start using this mist and the accompanying Mother Dirt products. However, the results can be pretty phenomenal, and either way this is clearly an investment in the overall health of the skin. People report skin feeling softer and smoother, less flare-ups and note a minimising of patches of inflammatory skin conditions such as eczema.
The Paleo In The UK Verdict on AO+ Mist
AO+ Mist is not a cleanser and it is not designed to replace your cleansers, it’s an addition into a routine which puts a load of bugs onto your skin and attempts to encourage a shift in your skin’s microbial colony. This addition will be USELESS if you continue to use all of your original cleansers, you will simply wash the bacteria away again. This means that judging AO+ Mist is difficult, because to do so would require using it effectively – and that means a wholesale change in your skincare regimen. You simply cannot judge it in isolation.
The mist/cleansers/shampoo/moisturiser combo offering from the Mother Dirt company is designed to allow you to make this shift, so yes in order to buy into the skin bacteria concept you have to buy into the whole range. You could see that as clever marketing…
Deciding not to be that sceptical, we tried everything at once. And yet, changing the whole kit and caboodle all at once we quickly realised that we’d jumped in a little fast. The wholesale change in skincare meant that we were greasy and/or not quite odour-free, complexions changed in bizarre ways and our skin really struggled to adapt to the different products we were using. To be fair, this is entirely normal – even when you change normal skincare products there’s an adjustment phase. But going from chemical to natural is a large leap – and one that is not without consequences. We had made a commitment, however, and so tried our best to battle through. You really do have to push through the ‘icky middle phases’ when it comes to personal care, so we persevered.
After two weeks, approximately, our skin started to adapt and there was a slight change yet again in the texture and the greasiness. We all hit this point at slightly different times, which seemed to tally with the condition of our skin beforehand. Those who were fairly natural already got there more quickly. One of us has a history of eczema (controlled by Paleo lifestyle/diet). They struggled at first with their skin and felt blotchy and tight in places. And yet they too started to adapt after about a week and felt their skin become really quite supple. It’s weird, though – having a bacterial mist is not something that you really notice helping by its presence. You feel nothing, there’s no smell, there’s no ‘squeaky clean’ sensation. All the things that we’re programmed to recognise as signifying effectiveness didn’t really happen. And yet, on the whole, our skin was either absolutely fine or had slightly improved in texture and vitality.
The main thing to notice was that when we came to the end of the two week period of this complete change in skin products… we really, really didn’t want to ‘go back’. We felt our skin looked the same, if not better, than with chemical alternatives – and returning to re-toxifying our skin seemed sacrilegious.
Part of the reason for our reluctance to return to the chemical dark-side was actually the performance and user-experience of other products in the Mother Dirt range. Where the mist is something that you kind of have to trust is helping, the Shampoo and Cleanser are very novel products, in that they clearly feel and behave differently to ‘normal’ skincare. You notice the difference in the way you use them immediately, but they both feel really wholesome and non-toxic.
With the cleanser, we all reacted differently – but most of us loved it immediately. There is a specific sensation that you feel when you’ve washed your body in something that doesn’t leave a ‘smooth’ feeling, that doesn’t smell like flowers or perfume and that isn’t a ‘soft’ product. There are no better ways to describe the way the foaming cleanser felt to use than… clean. One of us found that we didn’t feel clean enough, but most of us actually loved the foamy texture (it’s a pump bottle and a white cappuccino-like froth spits out). We felt that when we used it our skin seemed to scrub up nicely – without scrubbing too hard at all.
It’s an odd sensation though, and we’re sure we ‘over-used’ the product. It’s really designed to be used only on the super-sweaty areas or the places where you are truly dirty. Old habits die hard, however, and we found ourselves rattling through our little bottles rather quickly… we suspect our need for clean is a little ingrained and we need to work harder on being more restrained with how much we use and how all-encompassing our scrubbing is!
In ‘miraculous news’, however, we have to note that the Cleanser also impeccably removed makeup – including waterproof mascara. Something about the foamy texture and the ingredients within just helped makeup melt away. This is a revelation, and really made us feel as if we were caring for (rather than scrubbing and stripping) our faces as well as our bodies. We don’t know that we’d have tried this if the cleanser contains bacteria in and of itself – but it doesn’t, so we felt completely safe using this for our faces.
The Shampoo is a different story to the foamy mixture above. It’s an oily texture and really does feel like you’re putting oil on your hair. This worked much better on those of us with shorter hairstyles. For the longer-haired it didn’t seem to foam or lather, and it was a bit of an odd sensation where you feel like you’re rubbing your hair and nothing is happening. However, for the shorter lengths there was a naturally foaming sensation – it didn’t really ‘foam’ as such, but it did sort-of ‘fluff up’ and it really did seem to get hair clean (squeaky clean in most instances). Using it is, again, disconcerting. You can’t smell anything and you aren’t sure whether it’s doing anything – but the results when rinsed are generally great, even on the longer hairstyles (who ended up using this a few times a week and their hair was fine on non-washing days). We do think that the initial adjustment phase may cause a slightly more greasy end result, especially if used every day. But we suspect that once the biome and the oil production of each individual’s skin has settled, the end result will be a clean, yet not too clean, balanced head of hair.
We all agreed that we absolutely LOVE these products. It’s one of those things where you love it for the psychological understanding of what you’re using as much as for the end result, that’s true… but we wouldn’t overlook a shoddy end result just because of the promise that the products are ‘clean’ and ‘good for your skin biome’. Instead, with the Mother Dirt range you have it all: effective, a pleasure to use AND good for you…
Here is where we come slightly unstuck with the Mother Dirt range. Whilst one of us loved the Moisturiser, the rest of us found it greasy and tough to use. It made makeup move about like an oil slick and meant that a lot of powder had to be applied to keep things in place. Mascara went everywhere and by the end of a day we had a little bit of panda eyes, as if we’d been crying or sweating a lot. (We hadn’t been.) We tried to use less (no real difference), we tried only using it at night (hello, oily pillow case) and we tried mist/no mist, dabbing, patting, sweeping motions… all to no avail. This is like oil for the face, so it’s not surprising it felt oily. Luckily it did NOT create a greasy complexion – there was no acne or clogging of pores – it just meant that we looked shiny and we couldn’t apply makeup effectively. Whilst the purists might think that’s not a bad thing… we weren’t so sure. For us the moisturiser was full of promise and probably works on dryer skin, but for those with normal complexions (and for Victoria with her weird connective tissue!) this was just not right at all. Which is a real shame.
Overall, despite the miss on the moisturiser, we LOVE Mother Dirt. Not just because the science sounds good – we’re aware that there’s so much more that we don’t know about the biome than we do (whether skin, gut or brain). We’re not sure whether the AO+ Mist is as ineffective as some gut probiotics can be – only making a difference when used and disappearing the minute you stop. We also don’t know whether the effect is universal across all skin types as we’re a VERY small sample size.
And yet, the key to Mother Dirt is that for the most part the products are simple and pleasurable to use. The dispensers are cute, especially the cleanser one, there’s a deep satisfaction in using foam, especially if you’re used to limp, non-foaming ‘natural’ skincare. The process is easy – using the Mother Dirt range makes light work of a cleansing routine by giving you just 4 products which do pretty much everything.
But the most important thing is that they work – effectively. And now that they are available in Whole Foods UK, in Content Beauty in London AND ONLINE (and they’re still on Functional Self) it is even easier to buy skincare that you can trust and that might just help your bacterial populations to remain balanced… At the time of writing, you’ve no excuse not to buy because you get a FREE CLEANSER with your purchase of the AO+ Mist.
We’re sure that there are innovations to come in the arena of the skin biome, and very soon other companies will rise to compete in this market but for now, Mother Dirt lead the way and when following a Paleo approach, where so much modern skincare just piles toxicity onto (and into) your body, it is a delight to find something that you can use with faith and still feel clean!