Healthy skin protects the body in numerous ways
By: Joanne Smith, M.D.
Your skin is the largest organ on your body and serves a number of important functions. Most people probably think about skin as something that helps them look good – or bad. It’s true; the condition of your skin does reflect your health. Healthy skin looks good – clear, clean and radiant.
But, your skin does a lot more than just sit around looking good. It is vital in protecting your body from infections and other environmental factors that could pose a threat. It provides a layer between your muscles, bones and organs and all the pathogens found in the outside world. Your skin contains nerves, which serve as protection from heat, cold, pain, pressure and touch.
Your skin is constantly changing and renewing itself as old cells are shed off and new ones replace them. In fact, your skin renews itself completely about once every month.
Your skin is comprised of three layers: the epidermis, dermis and hypodermis.
The epidermis is the outermost layer and contains no blood vessels. It is made up of five sub layers that work together to rebuild the surface of the skin. The top layer of the epidermis is made up of tightly packed cells. These cells provide a barrier from the outside world, as well as protection from water loss.
The deepest part of the epidermis is called the basal layer. Here, basal cells continually divide to create new cells. This layer contains cells that produce melanin, which gives skin its color and protects from the harmful effects of the sun. Moving upward within the epidermis, you will find Keratin, a protein that protects the skin, and fats called lipids.
The middle layer of skin – or dermis – contains blood vessels, nerves, hair roots and sweat glands. The main functions of the dermis are to regulate temperature and to supply the epidermis with nutrients.
Two proteins, collagen and elastin, help hold the dermis together. Collagen is the most abundant protein found in the skin. Together, collagen and elastin strengthen skin and provide structure and elasticity.
The hypodermis, or third layer of skin, is made up of subcutaneous fat and lies between the dermis and muscles or bones. It protects the body’s inner organs and helps to regulate your body temperature.
As the body ages, skin has a tendency to dry out, and become thinner. Wrinkles and sagging can occur. Understandably, people look for ways to fight against the forces of nature. While there are numerous creams, lotions and other treatments available over-the-counter and by prescription, there are some simple lifestyle habits and choices you can make to boost the health of your skin.
Protect yourself from the sun. Ultraviolet rays from the sun damage your skin and cause wrinkles, dryness, darkened patches and even cancer. Stay out of the sun during the midday (from 10 am to 4 pm) when the sun’s rays are the most potent. Wear sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15, and apply liberally at least 20 minutes before going out in the sun. Reapply every two hours, after heavy sweating or being in the water.
Throw away the cigarettes. Smoking accelerates aging of the skin. It causes narrowing of the tiny blood vessels in the dermis layer of the skin, decreasing blood flow and depleting the skin of needed oxygen and nutrients.
Wash your skin, but do it gently. Clean and moisturize each morning and evening. Use warm water (not hot) and keep your shower short. Hot water and extended exposure to water remove oils from your skin and cause it to dry out. Use a gentle cleanser without fragrance or dyes. After washing, pat your skin dry (don’t rub).
Moisturize regularly, especially after bathing. The moisturizer that works best for you and the frequency with which you need to apply it depends on a number of factors, including your skin type, age and whether you have specific skin conditions, such as acne or eczema.
Eat a healthy and balanced diet. One of the most important components of skin health is vitamin A, and some of the best sources for it are low-fat dairy products. Foods that have a high antioxidant content should also fill your plate – think blackberries, blueberries, strawberries and plums. Essential fatty acids – omega 3 and 6 – make healthy cell membranes. Foods that deliver omegas to your plate include salmon, walnuts, canola oil and flax seed. Small amounts of healthy oils (no more than two tablespoons a day) help keep skin lubricated and keeps it looking and feeling healthier. Look for oils labeled cold pressed, expeller process or extra virgin. Finally, remember to choose fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains and drink plenty of water.
Know your skin. Familiarize yourself with your body so that you will notice changes, such as differences in moles or dark patches. If you have a question or concern about changes to your skin, you should bring this to the attention of your physician.
Your skin is your first-line of defense against germs and other toxins in the environment. It regulates your body temperature. Nerves within the skin tell you when heat, cold, pressure and pain are at dangerous levels. It’s clear that this largest organ of the body does a lot to keep the body well. Adopting healthy lifestyle habits that benefit the skin makes good sense and is essential to maintaining the health and vitality of this protective organ.
Dr. Smith is a board certified family practice physician at Raiter Clinic