They nuzzle your nose. They cuddle cadavers. They suck down Sebum. The few, the proud, the face mites.
Yes, hiding in the hair follicles around your nose and forehead live microscopic mites—Demodex mites to be exact—and as it turns out, mine are quite shy.
Last February, I jumped at the opportunity to “meet” my mites by participating in a study conducted by Your Wild Life, an organization dedicated to exploring the biodiversity that lives “on us, in us, and around us.”
I signed the waiver excitedly, eager to donate some of my precious facial cargo to science. The lab tech sat me in her chair, lifted a metal scraper to my nose, and began the search. While my mites were nowhere to be found, Your Wild Life has successfully scraped mites from many of more than 200 participants.
“Both species are sausage-shaped, with eight stubby legs clustered in their front third. At a third of a millimeter long, D.folliculorum is the bigger of the two,” science-writer Ed Yong said in a 2012 article for Discover. “Richard Owen gave the mite its name, from the Greek words ‘demos,’ meaning lard, and ‘dex,’ meaning boring worm.”
Before the image of “lard worms” hiding in your pores sends you into a Jabba the Hutt-fearing frenzy or running for a loofa, keep in mind that nearly every adult hosts these squidgy little squatters, and they most likely do you no harm.
“For the most part, it seems that they eat, crawl and mate on your face without harmful effects. They could help us by eating bacteria or other microbes in the follicles….Their eggs, clawed legs, spiny mouth-parts, and salivary enzymes could all provoke an immune response, but this generally doesn’t seem to happen,” Yong said.
Demodex mites are ectoparistites, meaning they do not burrow under the skin. They are not exclusive to the face, but because they feed on Sebum (the oily secretion of the sebaceous glands that keeps your skin moist) and the cells inside of hair follicles, each face is a piece of prime real estate.
Every generation picks up mites throughout their lifetime, and they have been found in nearly all races, something that intrigues the team at Your Wild Life.
“We aim to study the evolution and diversification of human-associated Demodex mites over time and space. Specifically, we want to map the mites’ “family tree” and see how closely that tracks our own human family tree,” the team said.
There is certainly much to be learned about these microscopic mooches, and their relationship to us. I find it all rather fascinating but taking a close look at what is crawling on our skin is not for everyone.
If this post has you nearing the edge of an emotional breakdown, chances are you have Acarophobia, the fear of Mites and small insects. Phobia here, phobia there, phobias, phobias everywhere!
Image from Your Wild Life.