The Tiny Organisms That Live On Your Face And Skin : Short Wave Today's episode is about how you're never alone.

That's because there are tiny mites that live on your skin — including your face. They come out at night and mate. And we're not totally sure what they eat. See? Don't you feel better already?

Researcher Megan Thoemmes tells us about the lives of these eight-legged creatures — and what they can tell us about ourselves.

Also, if you can believe it, Short Wave launched a year ago today. Happy anniversary to us! And thanks for listening!
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Micro Wave: You Mite Want To Shower After This

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Micro Wave: You Mite Want To Shower After This

Micro Wave: You Mite Want To Shower After This

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/923690796/923693809" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

MADDIE SOFIA, HOST:

Hey-o. Maddie Sofia here with SHORT WAVE reporter Emily Kwong. Hey, Kwong.

EMILY KWONG, BYLINE: Hey, you.

SOFIA: So first thing's first - big day. We are celebrating SHORT WAVE's one-year anniversary.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Yay.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SOFIA: Woo.

KWONG: Happy anniversary, Maddie.

SOFIA: Happy anniversary, Kwong.

KWONG: I'm so excited about this. Like, it's been a whole year since we launched SHORT WAVE.

SOFIA: I know.

KWONG: Nothing really happened in science this past year, but we made it work.

SOFIA: Right (laughter).

KWONG: You know?

SOFIA: It's been a wild ride. Let's say that. Let's say that. And you promised me for our anniversary episode that I could talk about whatever I wanted.

KWONG: Well, all great relationships involve compromise. So here we are.

SOFIA: Here we are, indeed, ma'am. I thought we could celebrate with a Micro Wave episode about how you're never truly alone.

KWONG: Oh, OK. That sounds nice.

SOFIA: You're definitely still going to feel that way when I tell you why.

KWONG: OK. I knew there was a catch.

SOFIA: (Laughter).

KWONG: Don't make me regret this. What is it?

SOFIA: Well, it's simply that you, me, most likely every adult out there have microscopic mites living in our skin.

KWONG: Oh.

(LAUGHTER)

KWONG: Oh, you made me regret it.

SOFIA: They've been found on lots of places on your body. And, yes, one of those places is your face.

KWONG: Mites - like bugs on your face?

SOFIA: Well, OK, so technically, don't worry. No, they are not insects. They are arachnids, which is different. So think more closely related to ticks or spiders.

KWONG: This isn't better.

SOFIA: (Laughter).

KWONG: That's not better.

SOFIA: Let's just all have an open mind here. I will point out that you and the rest of our listeners were living your life totally fine before I told you this.

KWONG: OK, we're going to talk later 'cause this is not an anniversary present...

SOFIA: So today on the show...

KWONG: ...At all.

SOFIA: ...We celebrate our one-year anniversary by talking about the mites...

KWONG: OK.

SOFIA: ...Who have done nothing wrong, that live on your skin - what they can teach us about where we've come from and what they do on your face while you sleep at night.

KWONG: What is that supposed to mean?

SOFIA: I'm Maddie Sofia, and this is SHORT WAVE from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SOFIA: OK, so this episode, we've got another one of our Micro Waves, so a few science tidbits and some listener mail. And today we are talking about the microscopic mites that live on our bodies. The adult mites look like little worms with eight legs on their kind of top half, I guess I would call it. And the mites live for a few weeks or so.

KWONG: This is incredibly gross. But ultimately, I support you. I also cannot stop you.

SOFIA: Today's expert, Megan Thoemmes, is quite used to the reaction that you're having right now, Emily. So I told her I would defend how cool they are, which she appreciated.

MEGAN THOEMMES: I'm very excited to hear that because a lot of people really freak out. And I get a lot of crazy emails, so...

SOFIA: These days, Megan's a postdoc at the University of California, San Diego. But before that, when she was at North Carolina State University, she studied these mites. And she wanted to know just how prevalent they were in humans, so she and her team looked for DNA evidence, like a crime scene...

(LAUGHTER)

SOFIA: ...On people's faces.

THOEMMES: The first study that we did on them, we found them on 100% of adults that we tested. And now we have looked at thousands of people and have yet to find someone without them.

KWONG: I - OK, wait. I'm going to stop you right there because I've never heard scientists say 100% on anything.

SOFIA: Yeah, of adults - let's be clear. I mean, there's also this historical paper that shows that they were found on 100% of adult cadavers. So there's also that.

KWONG: Oh, great. Yeah, I was worried you weren't going to find a way to bring dead bodies into this.

SOFIA: Happy anniversary.

KWONG: Aren't you supposed to give people, like, paper or something for their first-year anniversary?

SOFIA: Yeah, there are multiple scientific papers in this episode. You're welcome.

(LAUGHTER)

SOFIA: I got you. I got you. Go on. Finish it up.

And what's really interesting to me is that for an animal that lives on potentially all of us, we don't really know that much about them.

THOEMMES: We actually don't know what they eat. So there's been some people that have said they eat dead skin cells or bacteria or maybe potentially the oils that are secreted from the sebaceous gland.

SOFIA: So Megan says it's really hard to study what they've eaten because they're so small. Like, it's really difficult to differentiate between what's on them versus what's inside them, if that makes sense. She said she thinks they're probably eating microbes, like fungi, but that's yet to be proven.

KWONG: But what do they, like, do all day?

SOFIA: Well, you know, Emily, they live their lives just like the rest of us, and they shouldn't be judged for that.

THOEMMES: They typically hang out in your pore, especially during the day because they're photosensitive. And so they don't really like the light. And so they hang out in your pores and do their mite things. And then at night, when you go to sleep, they come out on your face and they have sex and then they go back into their pores.

SOFIA: (Laughter).

KWONG: I just - I mean, I knew I had deep pores.

SOFIA: But, Emily, I'll just stop you right there. It does get worse before it gets better.

THOEMMES: So they lay these really large eggs. They're about a third of the size of their body. So you have little mites that are hatching all over your face at any given time.

SOFIA: Megan, I thought we were going to try to make these mites seem palatable for people. You know what I mean? Let's put a good spin on it.

THOEMMES: That's not endearing?

(LAUGHTER)

KWONG: One, you should've been a PR campaign manager for invertebrates. Two...

SOFIA: (Laughter).

KWONG: ...I'm glad someone's having fun out there, you know?

SOFIA: See? You're getting it, Kwong. You're starting to get it.

KWONG: Finding mite love.

SOFIA: Here's the thing. In the overwhelming majority of people, these mites don't seem to be doing anything harmful, which brings me to my favorite thing about these mites, and arguably...

KWONG: Oh, none of this has been your favorite. Yeah, yeah.

SOFIA: Listen; it's arguably the least gross part, too. Because they are so closely associated with us, we can actually learn things about ourselves from them.

THOEMMES: So the mites that you get when you are born - from your parents, most likely - those are the mites that you typically have throughout your life. Your population stays really stable. So we can actually look at the genetics of the mites and tell where your family is from historically, whether your family is from Asia or Europe or Africa.

KWONG: So you can tell where your family is from based on the genetics of the mites themselves?

SOFIA: Yeah. I mean, that seems to be true in a lot of cases.

KWONG: I mean, who needs ancestry.com, right? Just, like, talk to the mites on your face.

SOFIA: And, you know, like what's wild to me is that these are the only critter of their type, the only arthropods. They're not like microbes, like bacteria, but an animal that lives really close with so many of us for generations. And, like, you know, although it might feel a little gross initially, it's pretty remarkable. Plus, you know, it's certainly possible that they could even be helpful.

THOEMMES: So they could be removing certain types of bacteria or fungi from the skin or protecting your body from infection. And, you know, you can think of it as having just thousands of friends living on you. So you're never alone that way.

SOFIA: Isn't that nice? See? I told you this episode was about how you're never alone, Emily.

KWONG: Thank you for being you. I really - this is nice. This is nice. I like this.

SOFIA: Yes, yes.

KWONG: And, I mean, how could we ever really be alone when we have hundreds of thousands of SHORT WAVE listeners showing us all the love on a regular basis?

SOFIA: It's true. It's true. They're out there.

KWONG: So I want to turn to our listener mailbag. We got a note from Nick (ph) in Wisconsin, who wrote us about the SHORT WAVE Mad Lib from back in May that we did together. Do you remember that?

SOFIA: Yes, I do.

KWONG: Listeners, if you missed that one, do yourself a favor and go back to it.

SOFIA: It is classic, 10 out of 10 Kwong content in my opinion.

KWONG: I mostly wrote it to amuse Maddie. Anyway, Nick is a Ph.D. student researching the microbiology of anaerobic digesters...

SOFIA: Microbiology.

KWONG: ...And wrote, today I heard your little Mad Lib from back on May 25, and it absolutely turned my day around. The lab was really beating me down.

SOFIA: Nick.

KWONG: Thoughts of walking off and never returning to research again were pulling at me hard.

SOFIA: Nick, I feel you, buddy.

KWONG: Enter your silly SHORT WAVE Mad Lib, and I had a whole new perspective on my day. I'm so grateful for your lighthearted humor and accessible science communications. All the best, Nicholas (ph).

SOFIA: Oh, thank you, Nick. And I'm going to tell you what, Nick. You're going to get through it. And if you don't want to get through it, just leave. They can't keep you there, Nick. They can't keep you there. I do this show now. I'm just saying.

KWONG: We keep it real. OK.

SOFIA: We keep it real. OK, and here's a note from Sean (ph), who wrote about last week's Micro Wave on talking to plants and whether it helps them grow. Kwong, you got this one for us. Short answer - science says probably not, but it doesn't hurt. Is that fair?

KWONG: Yeah.

SOFIA: OK. So Sean said, I run a before- and after-school program for an elementary school, and we have a houseplant that the kids have named Badoon (ph).

(LAUGHTER)

SOFIA: Zero clue where they got that name. That's in parentheses. The kids like to tell her she's pretty and will complain to her about anything and everything, and she's thriving in our little window. Might not be scientifically backed, but I am a firm believer it helps.

KWONG: Shout out to Badoon and the children who talk to her. I'm glad you do.

SOFIA: You can write us at shortwave@npr.org.

KWONG: That is it from us today. We want to take a moment, though, to say thank you. Honestly, thank you for listening to us for the last year. Making this show for you has seriously been the honor and the opportunity of a lifetime. And we love doing it.

SOFIA: We love it. We love it. And we promise to stay curious and weird with you...

KWONG: Clearly.

SOFIA: ...And to bring you science coverage that you can trust. Here's to another year.

KWONG: Ching, ching (ph). If I had Champagne, I'd...

SOFIA: Wait; do you not have Champagne?

KWONG: OK.

SOFIA: I have Champagne.

KWONG: It's still 5 o'clock.

SOFIA: This episode was produced by Brent Baughman, edited by Viet Le and fact-checked by Ariela Zebede. I'm Maddie Sofia.

KWONG: And I'm Emily Kwong.

SOFIA: Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

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