We are challenging the idea that being clean means that you have to be sterile.

Mother Dirt, a new line of personal care products, is challenging consumers to “rethink clean.”

Biotech company AOBiome started researching microbiome-focused solutions for inflammatory skin condition in 2013. They quickly found a consumer demand for their research and developed the AO+ Mist, a healthy skin cosmetic that contains AOB (ammonia-oxidizing bacteria)—essentially a “good bacteria” that naturally converts sweat into beneficial byproducts.

In summer 2015, AOBiome reintroduced its product as Mother Dirt. Alongside the AO+ Mist, Mother Dirt added a shampoo and cleanser to its product line-up. We spoke to Mother Dirt’s president, Jasmina Aganovic, about why consumers are applying bacteria to their skin, and what “clean” really means today.

Tell us about Mother Dirt?

The basic principle behind Mother Dirt is all about “rethinking clean.” We are challenging the idea that being clean means that you have to be sterile. What we have are three products, which all either restore or help maintain good bacteria on the skin.

What initiated the idea behind Mother Dirt?

The actual story begins 13 years ago with our founding scientist, David Whitlock, who made the observation that all mammals have some sort of ritual habit of rolling in the dirt. He hypothesized that the dirt or the environment had something that they needed, and that’s really what led to the discovery of this bacteria. It is a type of bacteria that you will find everywhere in nature, and it once naturally existed on our skin. But we have wiped it out in the last 50 to 75 years with modern hygiene, and with all of the chemicals we have introduced into our everyday routines.

Mother Dirt products

That was the initial discovery of the bacteria, which we turned into the company AOBiome, to study the effects of this peacekeeper bacteria on the health of the skin, specifically for inflammatory skin disorders. We got a lot of interest with one of our cosmetic clinical studies and that spurred the idea of launching a consumer business. I was hired to build a brand around the technology and around this idea, and that’s what ultimately became Mother Dirt.

Do you find that consumers are turning away from the super-sterile approach to cleanliness and opting for natural, chemical-free solutions?

The conversation is definitely happening, what we’re aiming to do is not so much focus the story on bacteria, but really to start a conversation around the idea of rethinking clean. Why is it that we feel so compelled to use so many products on a daily basis? Do we actually need them? Have we confused clean with sterile? Has this actually gotten us to a healthier place?

I think the reason the conversation is happening right now is because we are having more problems with our skin—parents are raising children with skin problems that they never grew up with, and it’s growing at alarming rates. So people are wondering why. It’s more of the conversation versus the specific idea of bacteria, although we definitely realize it’s a talking point.

Ultimately, this type of bacteria is a key ingredient used to produce your line of products. How do you educate your audience on microbiomes? It sounds complicated—how do you wrap that side of the story into a consumer-friendly topic?

Great question. We don’t lead with education, we’re not trying to sell our science to people. The science is obviously important, and we are the first to say that is important to us. We make it available to people that want to find out more about it. Instead, what we’re using is the conversation of rethinking clean. Why have we become hyper clean? Why aren’t we spending as much time outdoors? Why are we so afraid of this concept of bacteria? Look at the parallels with probiotics and the gut. Those are some of the conversation starters we are focusing on, and want to use as a key vehicle to grow our brand.

The three products you currently have (probiotic mist, shampoo and cleanser) would typically be categorized as skincare products. But you have chosen to categorize Mother Dirt’s products as “health” products. Could you explain why?

If you look at probiotics as an example, or why people eat certain fermented foods and yogurts—it comes from a perspective of health. It’s motivated by either solving an existing intestinal issue or maintaining general balance, and good health. What we view ourselves doing with our products is paving a way back to the healthy ecosystem. We are not patching a certain problem; we are not trying to fix a very specific part of the skin. What we’re doing is creating a balance and with that balance your skin looks healthier and you feel healthier.

We realize that with a lot of our users, their motivations were health oriented. Both for themselves and for the environment. And, secondly, when people think skincare, people think pampering. While we hope that people enjoy using our products, it’s not about pampering—our products are much more utilitarian, they serve a specific purpose. The idea of rethinking clean and the idea we have confused clean with sterile is a health-related conversation, not a skincare- or cosmetic-related conversation.

What is your current consumer demographic?

We have about half men, half women. In terms of age range, they’re on the younger side. We tend to cluster about 25–45. And that as an observation in itself is really interesting—they’re the generation that grew up looking at the world around them, they are very conscious of the environment, and they have access to much more information than the generation prior to them. They’re much more proactive and they’re taking health into their own hands.

What’s next for Mother Dirt?

There are a lot of ways to answer that question. The primary one is the conversation, so how can we create a broader conversation around the idea of rethinking clean? Then really using that to change how we develop our personal care products.

Cosmetic chemistry has come a very long way. The kind of products that we’re able to create—the textures, the absorption, the ethical aspect—all of those things are so phenomenal, and that’s why the industry is as big as it is. However, one of the things we have not been optimizing or formulating for is the effects that the products have on the microbiomes. This is something that is very new and science shows it clearly plays a critical role in the health and the function of the skin. So how can we not only create treatments that focus on the microbiomes, but also have the microbiomes be a piece of the formulation process for the products that sit on the shelf today? That would be our bigger picture and vision.