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Did you know you have dozens of tiny eight-legged arachnids living inside the pores of your face, feeding on the sebum secreted by the skin and mating on your face as you sleep? Don’t freak out, though, we all have them, and there’s nothing we can do to get rid of them.
Demodex folliculorum, or “face mites” as they’re commonly known, are tiny, tick-like arachnids that can only survive on the skin of humans, particularly their face. They measure around 0.3 millimeters and spend most of their lives buried head-down inside the hair follicles around those very fine, peach fuzz-like hairs that grow on our faces. They feed on sebum, that greasy, oil-like substance that our skin constantly produces to protect itself from drying out, so the highest density of face mites can be found on the oiliest parts of your face – around the eyes, nose and mouth.
Although we all end up “contaminated” with face mites, we’re not actually born with them. Research has shown that newborns have mite-free faces, but they eventually become hosts as well, most likely due to maternal contact. Interestingly, the concentration of face mites increases as we get older. According to Wikipedia, children under 10 have very few face mites, while elderly people’s faces are virtually crawling with them. It’s not clear why that is; it may be that the colonies simply grow over long periods of time, or it may be because our skin secrets larger quantities of sebum – the face mites’ food – as we get older.
Face mites are generally considered harmless, but their mating habits can be considered a bit creepy. While these tick-like creatures spend most of their time buried in our hair follicles, when we sleep they crawl out and mate right on our faces. They then crawl back into the skin follicles to lay their eggs.
“They’re not dangerous in a broad sense because we all have them and most of us seem to be cohabiting quite well with them,” Michelle Trautwein, an entomologist at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, said. “Face mites are definitely the species of animal that we have the closest connection with as humans, even though most of us don’t know about them or ever see one in our lifetime.”
Trautwein adds that face mites are probably as old as our species, as old as homo sapiens, and because of this scientists like her can tell a lot about a person’s geographical ancestry – what part of the world your ancestors came from – just by looking at the mites on their faces.