Before you panic and wash your face: it’s perfectly normal for those hair follicle mites to crawl over our skin. It probably sounds like a horror story to many, but we’ve known for over 100 years that those mites can be found on our skin. Washing also makes no sense, because the insects are hidden too deep in our skin for that.

    The hair follicle mites are related to the house dust mite and host about half of the world’s population. Children less, older people more. “We are also full of bacteria, there is nothing wrong with that,” says Chris Callewaert, bioengineer specialized in our skin microbiome (UGent). “It’s actually good that they’re there. They keep our pores clear.”

    We already knew that they sit on our skin and live in our sweat pores. But the small crawling creatures were only now fully genetically studied for the first time. And that study reveals some extraordinary facts. For example, it was thought that the insects ate our sweat, but that they could not excrete it.

    “Now it turns out that they have a mouth opening and an anus. This is scientifically interesting, because they are sometimes linked to some skin diseases and pimples,” says Callewaert. “We learn from this that they are very simple creatures. They have a mouth, a gut and legs. The first signs of how an organism is built, but in fact they are mainly improved bacteria.”

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    Sex on our skin

    The study also shows that the bugs do not contain melatonin. As a result, they cannot tolerate the sun well and are therefore only active at night. Then they dare to leave their pore and go for a walk with a top speed of 1 centimeter per hour. And they don’t just do that. They are looking for a partner, the study clarifies. “We knew they could reproduce, but we thought it was more asexual, that they could duplicate themselves. But now it appears that they can also reproduce sexually effectively,” explains the bioengineer.

    The study did find that the critters deteriorate genetically. The hair follicle mites mutated over the years and have therefore become more dependent on us. As a result, it is feared that they may be in danger of extinction. Although Callewaert doesn’t think it will go that fast. “Without humans, they die. That’s right,” he says. “And they may indeed die out in millions of years. But does man still exist?”

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