Yuk! But it’s true: our face is a breeding ground for tiny parasites called face mites. They are small arthropods; that’s in the joint-legged animals group, like spiders and crabs. Eight legs, whereas insects have six. So they are nearer to crabs and ticks.
As parasites go, these are relatively easy to get along with. It’s not a new discovery; scientists have now about them for a long time, in fact since 1842 in France, when D. folliculorum was spotted in human earwax.
There are two distinct species that live on us: Demodex folliculorum and Demodex brevis. They live in different parts of the skin. D. folliculorum resides in pores and hair follicles, while D. brevis prefers to settle deeper, in your oily sebaceous glands.
It’s no use buying extra-strong face washes; you won’t get rid of them so easily. Thing is, they don’t really cause us much trouble. If you have to treat the problem, there’s a simple holistic solution at the end of this piece.
They don’t bite and draw blood, like bed mites. There’s only a couple pathological conditions that can be blamed on sensitivity to face mites: rosacea and blepharitis (redness and irritation of the eyelids at the rim). See below for details…
These mites are very tiny and we probably have hundreds of them. One estimate was about 2 mites per eyelash. A high population would be in the thousands, according to a 2014 study from North Carolina State University in Raleigh.1
We know that around 14-15% of the population has visible mites on the face. But what the NCSU found was Demodex DNA on every single face they tested. That suggests we all have these tiny passengers along for the ride.
What are they doing there? Some people think they eat the bacteria that are associated with the skin; some think they eat the dead skin cells; some think they’re eating the oil from the sebaceous gland.
They’ve never been known to eat one another.
Studying the organisms that live in the gut of mites could help determine their real diet.
We also don’t know much about how they reproduce. Other species of mite get up to all sorts of things, from incest and sexual cannibalism to matricide and fratricide (killing mothers or siblings). Compared to that lot, Demodex are rather gentle types!
One oddity: these mites don’t have anuses (backsides). They still need to poo, so it’s been said that they bust open with intestinal waste at the end of their lives.
They save it all up until death and, when a Demodex dies, its body dries out and all the built-up waste degrades on your face. So “shitface” may not just be a crude insult; there’s a bit of truth in it!
All this is pretty harmless stuff, on a tiny scale you would never notice without access to a microscope.
But as I said, people suffering from a skin condition called rosacea tend to have more Demodex mites. Rosacea mainly affects people’s faces, and begins with flushing before sometimes progressing to permanent redness, spots, and sensations of burning or stinting (see picture).
Skin condition rosacea
Nevertheless, it’s not proven that the mites cause rosacea, only that they are present in greater numbers (10 or 20 per square centimetre of skin, instead of just 1 or 2).
Our skin gradually changes over the years, for instance due to ageing or exposure to the weather. This alters the sebum, an oily substance produced by the sebaceous glands that helps keep our skin moist.
When the mites die, they release their internal contents. This dump contains a lot of bacteria and toxins that cause irritation and inflammation.
There does seem to be a link between rosacea symptoms and the big flush of bacteria released when a mite dies.
One other condition that may be blamed on these critters is itching of the eyelids and eyebrows (especially in the morning), madarosis (eye ashes dropping out), a burning sensation and a foreign body sensation that seems to originate beneath their lids. Demodex blepharitis—inflammation at the edge of the eyelids due to mites—is observed equally in males and females and is age related. A study by Junemann showed that Demodex is found in 25% of 20-year-olds, 30% of 50-year-olds and 100% in patients older than 90 years.2
Although there are therapies that kill Demodex mites, we can’t get rid of them forever. They’ll be back after a few weeks. We pick them up from people who we are in contact with and from what we call fomites: sheets, pillows, towels, etc.
It looks as if there is something special on our faces that they need. Even if you kill them off, you’re going to get them again, because they’re everywhere and they want to be on your face. They also hang out on the breasts and it may be that we pick up Demodex very early in life, travelling from mother to baby, perhaps through breast-feeding or even at birth.
If you are troubled by blepharitis or just want to shake these critters up, you can use tee tree oil but YOU MUST DILUTE IT. Otherwise it’s highly irritant. One can prepare a mixture of 50% tea tree oil by diluting the tea tree oil in either macadamia or walnut oil.
For milder cases, I suggest a commercially available tea tree oil, 20% Desert Essence (www.desertessence.com). This irritates the mites and stimulates them to come out of the follicle. Repeat this procedure in 10 minutes. Don’t forget to wash the dead mite feces off your eyes and lids, using warm water and a regular eye bath.
Interestingly, when the NCSU researchers looked at the mites’ DNA, they found that mites collected from Chinese populations were distinctly different from those collected from North and South American populations.
Because of the differences, studying the mites could tell us how our distant ancestors migrated around the planet, and reveal which modern populations are most closely related.
We might learn, in time, more about the origins of Mankind and our movements around the planet. So far this is inly speculation but it makes your little face menagerie maybe a little more interesting. Hey, what’s not to love about creepy crawlies all over your face? (just kidding!)
Demodex reminds us that we humans are home to a multitude of species.
Some, such as head lice and fleas, hop aboard occasionally, or only live on certain populations. Others, like Demodex and the microorganisms in our guts, are with all of us throughout our lives. Our bodies are seething with microorganisms: they make up 90% of our cells.
You are not just a YOU: you are a walking, talking community, an entire ecosystem with just one body.
P.S. To learn more about parasites that live in us and on us, get The Parasites Handbook today…
Ubiquity and Diversity of Human-Associated Demodex Mites. PLoS August 27, 2014.
Czepita D, Kuzna-Gryegiel W, Czepita M, Grobelny A. Demodex folliculorum and Demodex brevis as a cause of chronic marginal blepharitis. Annales Adadmiae Medicae Stetinesis. 2007;53:63-67