Right now tiny mites are living, crawling, and having sex on your face
If you are eating, I wouldn’t read this article.
You are not alone. Your body is a collection of microbes, fungi, viruses… and even other animals. In fact, you aren’t even the only animal using your face. Right now, in the general vicinity of your nose, there are at least two species of microscopic mites living in your pores. You would expect scientists to know quite a lot about these animals (given that we share our faces with them), but we don’t.
Here is what we do know: Demodex mites are microscopic arachnids (relatives of spiders and ticks) that live in and on the skin of mammals – including humans. They have been found on every mammal species where we’ve looked for them, except the platypus and their odd egg-laying relatives.
They look like this under a powerful microscope:
These little eight-legged arachnids are closely related to spiders and live out their entire existence on our skin.
There’s probably a lot of them on you. In a study of patients with rosacea, a skin-reddening condition that has been linked to the mites, researchers found hundreds in just a tiny 5-millimeter-wide square of skin. These numbers decreased when the patients were treated, so this is likely on the high end of mite density.
“It’s hard to speculate or quantify but a low population would be maybe in the hundreds,” says study researcher Megan Thoemmes, of North Carolina State
“A high mite population would be thousands.”
Each one lives about 14 days, five of which as adults. The males crawl out of your pores in the middle of the night, find females holed up in other pores, mate with them, and then crawl back. Females lay their eggs in their home pores.
They grasp on to you with a clawed palpus on each of their eight legs, and they eat the bacteria on your skin, dead skin cells, the oils you secrete, or possibly all three. (Researchers aren’t entirely sure because, even though the mites are ubiquitous, they’re still quite mysterious).
They can’t poop, so they just fill up with feces until they die. The carcass then dries up and the dead mite — waste and all — breaks down on your face as other microorganisms living there feed on it.
The 2014 study also suggested that mites are transferred from mother to child while breastfeeding, since they are frequently found on nipple tissue as well.
That’s probably not the only way they are transferred, though.
If you wipe out your Demodex colonies, they’ll rebound in about six weeks, so it seems like they are picked up in many different ways — from contact with others and from things like towels and pillow cases.
This all sounds gross and horrible and you are probably itching right now, but these mites are typically harmless.
“I would think that they’re not harming us in a way that’s detectable,” Thoemmes told BBC Earth. “If we were having a strong negative response to their presence, we’d be seeing that in a greater number of people.”
Demodex brevis. Image by Alan R. Walker
Recent studies have suggested that people with rosacea have more of these mites, and that after successful treatment of rosacea people have fewer mites. So the mites and the bacteria that live in and on them could be the cause of the skin-reddening condition.
Yet some researchers think the condition is an inflammatory reaction their presence, while others think that rosacea is caused by unrelated skin changes. So the mites just proliferate more when the skin is inflamed, not cause the inflammation itself.
The mites have also been associated with acne and inflammation of the eyelids. But since everyone has them, they frequently show up when someone has a skin condition; their presence doesn’t necessarily mean they are the cause.
Fascinatingly, since Demodex mites live on almost everyone, the Apollo moon walkers probably carried some along during their mission. Which means more face mites than people have probably visited the moon.
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