Have you ever heard of eye mites? Are you aware of bugs on your Eyelashes? One might just be crawling under your face right now! There are thousands of species of mites, and as far as we know, two kinds actually live on human faces. These Demodex mites, aka “eyelash mites,” feed on the natural oils produced by the body and especially love the face where they crawl, eat and reproduce.
Research has found that every single adult has face-mites on their face, something which was long suspected but never confirmed.
German dermatologist Gustav Simon took a deeper look at the mites as he was looking at acne spots under a microscope. He had noticed a “worm-like object” with a head and legs. Possibly an animal? He extracted it, pressed it between two slides, and saw that it moved — definitely an animal.
People would apply cellophane tape to the skin to pull the mites off, or scrape an oily patch of the face with a small spatula, or pluck eyelashes and eyebrows. But these creatures live in our pores and aren’t easy to extract. They’re also unevenly distributed. You might have a population living in your cheek or on your forehead. Unless you’re scraping and taping and plucking all over someone’s face, you might miss their mites. These mites never poo, but instead, when they die, they release a lifetime worth waste. It contains their DNA that gives away the presence of the mites even when the creatures themselves are inaccessibly hidden.
Thoemmes had developed a test for Demodex DNA and recruited willing volunteers at “Meet Your Mites” face-sampling events. She recruited 253 volunteers and saw the actual mites on 14 percent of them, in line with previous estimates. She also checked for mite DNA in 19 adults and found it on all of them.
Obviously, this is a small and unrepresentative sample, but this clearly shows that visual counts grossly underestimate the proportion of people with mites. That, combined with over a century of other studies, strongly suggests that the mites are to faces as the smoke is to fire.
Most humans acquire mites shortly after birth, and they form part of the normal commensal skin faunae for the rest of their life. At first, there are only a few mites, but during adolescence, when the prolific sebaceous glands produce more food for the mites, the mite population can increase. The number of mites on everyone’s skin increases with age. About a third of children and young adults, half of the adults, and two-thirds of elderly people carry mites.
Considering how common these creatures are, there is still so much we don’t know about them. We don’t know where our two face-mite species came from, or what their closest relatives are. We also don’t know how many other face-mites exist.
Each Demodex species seems to stick to one mammal host, and humans, dogs, and cats all have more than one. There are over 5,000 species of mammals, which means that there could potentially be 10,000 species of Demodex left to discover. It causes blood vessels in the face to dilate, causing redness and uncontrollable flushing but can also lead to red, painful, pus-filled spots which look like severe acne. People who suffer from an infestation of mites may complain of the eyelid and eyebrow itching, particularly when they first wake up.
But for most of us, not being able to see the tiny critters will be enough to let us blink away their existence.