The skin is a complex and dynamic ecosystem that is inhabited by bacteria, archaea, fungi and viruses. These microbes-collectively referred to as the skin microbiota-are fundamental to skin physiology and immunity. Interactions between skin microbes and the host can fall anywhere along the continuum between mutualism and pathogenicity. In this Review, we highlight how host-microbe interactions depend heavily on context, including the state of immune activation, host genetic predisposition, barrier status, microbe localization, and microbe-microbe interactions. We focus on how context shapes the complex dialogue between skin microbes and the host, and the consequences of this dialogue for health and disease.