Skin 101 – How the Body’s Largest Organ Works

 

Before we can talk about skincare and how to choose the best skincare for you, a basic understanding of what makes up skin and how it functions is necessary.   Can’t fix a broken car unless you know what the main parts are and how they function, and the same applies to your skin.  This will be a very short explanation because you could easily find more detailed information by doing an Internet search.   

As the title says, the skin is the biggest organ in your body.  As an organ, it serves to perform certain tasks in order to keep you alive and functioning.  The main task of the skin is to protect you from the environment.  Yep, it’s not there to look pretty or glowy, though we all wish that was the case.  Its main job is to protect you from the hazards of toxins, infections, bacteria, temperature extremes, and environmental exposure from the sun’s UV rays.  If you had no skin or very compromised skin, you would either be dead or get sick from infections, dehydration, hypothermia, etc.  So, we need to remember that the skin reacts biologically to preserve the skin’s integrity.  When it senses it’s been comprised, it springs into action to repair it.    

The 3 Layers of the Skin

Most of you probably know the 3 layers of the skin are the epidermis, dermis, and subcutaneous layers.   But you probably don’t understand what each does.   This section will delve a little into this and, by knowing how each layer works, you will know how to better target treatments for specific skin issues.  Specific skin problems have origins in a specific layer of the skin, as you will see in this section.  

Epidermis

The top layer of your skin is the epidermis.  This layer is your foremost protection against the elements and environment, so it’s vitally important this layer is kept intact and functioning optimally.  It is normally around 0.5 to 1 mm in depth and does not thin as you age.  It protects you from infection, UV damage, toxins from entering the body and affecting the internal organs.  It prevents your body from getting too dehydrated by not allowing moisture to escape.  The three main types of cells in the epidermis are the keratinocytes, melanocytes, and Langerhans cells.  Keratinocytes originate at the lower portion of the epidermis and are the predominant type of cells found in the epidermis.  At the bottom of epidermis, they appear as rapidly dividing cells and more oval shaped.  As the keratinocytes mature and move upward to the surface of the skin, they lose water, flatten out and eventually die as they reach the surface of your skin.  This is what is visible to the outside world, dead keratinocytes which make up the stratum corneum.  These dead skin cells naturally slough off every 3 to 6 weeks.  The older you are, the longer it takes for dead cells to slough off because your skin’s metabolism markedly slows after the age of 30.  Because skin cell turnover slows with age, dull skin is one of the signs of aging.  The melanocytes in the epidermis are the pigment cells which produce melanin and determine your skin color.  The darker your skin, the more melanin you are producing.  Melanin is produced to protect the body from UV damage from the sun.  This explains why darker skin types are predominantly found in countries with extremely sunny environments, south of the Equator especially.  The Langerhans cells function as immune system cells, fighting off infections and preventing foreign substances from penetrating the skin.  

A fundamental biological fact is the epidermis is the first responder as far as protecting your internal organs from the elements.  As such, the body will repair it at the first sign of damage, sacrificing nutrients from other parts of the skin in order to do this repair.  This may not seem important at first, but once you understand how this affects the dermis and that the epidermis acts as a shield from UV and environmental damage, it becomes clear that you need to keep your epidermis as intact and healthy as possible to prevent premature aging.    

Dermis

The dermis is the layer directly below the epidermis.  Though most people believe the epidermis is responsible for wrinkles and pigment spots, it’s really the dermis which is responsible for those 2 evils of aging.  Remember that the epidermis is the layer of the skin which is the first line of defense against disease and injury.  Knowing this, Mother Nature has ensured that the epidermis never thins as you age.   But since your metabolism naturally slows as you age, something’s gotta give, so the dermis takes the hit.  It’s the dermis which thins, starting around 30, about 1% a year.  The main cells in the dermis are fibroblasts which produce collagen and elastin proteins.  These two cell types provide the structure and elastic quality in skin.  As you age, less collagen and elastin is produced, which presents itself as wrinkles and slackened skin.  In addition to fibroblasts there are capillaries (blood vessels) which provide oxygen and nutrients to the skin, lymph nodes which drain toxins out of the body, sebaceous glands to lubricate the skin, sweat glands to control temperature, and hair follicles.  Sebaceous glands produce sebum, which lubricates and waterproofs the skin, preventing moisture from escaping.  When too little sebum is produced, you have dry skin.  With too much sebum, oily and acneic skin results.  When the skin is healthy and functioning optimally, it should be balanced, neither too dry nor too oily.  

Subcutaneous Layer

This is the lowest layer of the skin, directly above the musculature.  The subcutaneous layer is composed of mainly fat cells, the beginnings of the hair follicles and sweat glands also reside in this layer.  The main purpose of this layer is for shock absorption from external forces and as insulation against the cold.  As you age, this fat layer also gets thinner, which presents as a gaunt appearance on the face.  Muscle sagging becomes more pronounced because the layer of subcutaneous fat covering the muscles is thinner.  

The Skin Cell – the Building Blocks of Skin

Every organ in your body is composed of cells; specific types of cells that help the organ do its job.  Your heart, liver, lungs, kidneys, each have a specific type of cell.  So it goes with the skin.  The skin cell has unique little parts to it, and the little parts play a big role in how the skin functions or doesn’t function.  This is the kind of stuff that biochemists love to play around with and it is mind-boggling for a layperson to understand.   So this is a really simple kindergarten version of how a skin cell works, since I’m not a biochemist.   You can think of any cell as a tiny globular object containing these main parts:

Cell plasma membrane:  The covering surrounding the cell which protects it from the outside.   The membrane regulates the intake of nutrients, water, and disposal of waste or toxins.  

Nucleus:  This is the center of the cell and contains the cell DNA which tells it what to do and when to do it.   It also contains the genetic code which determines how the cells behave as you age.    

Organelles:  In addition to the nucleus, other little structures called organelles within the cell help perform daily functions such as ribosomes for protein synthesis (important in elastin and collagen production), mitochondria for producing energy.  Lysosomes are organelles which produce enzymes that digest nutrient molecules and other materials.   The organelles are essential for maintaining your skin’s metabolic and waste functions in proper working order.    

So, Okay, How Does Knowing This Stuff help Me?  

Okay, you now know what the skin is and how it basically works.   How does this relate to skincare?  Well, as I said in the preface, you have to understand how something works before you can fix it.  If you have problems with your skin, you have to know where it’s coming from and why.  In addition to problems, aging is a normal biological process where the skin is not performing as well as when it was younger.  Though aging is not a problem or disease per se, most of us would do anything to slow the aging process down.

The mechanics of why we age and what causes aging is a very interesting and complex subject, and will be the next topic of discussion in this blog.   For now, just keep in mind that you can control the progression of aging by several means.  Scientific findings in the field of nutrition, physiology, and aging mechanisms have identified promising potential “fountain of youth” interventions.  

The skin ages more rapidly starting around 30.   Your metabolic rate just starts declining because of an inherent biological clock set in our DNA.  This means the cells are not functioning optimally, which in turns affects the skin’s ability to perform optimally which, in turn, reflects as aging on your face.  The first place you need to start when addressing aging problems is the skin cell’s health because that is the foundation of everything else.  Without healthy skin cells, you cannot have healthy skin.   Unfortunately, we are taught by media, marketing, doctors, and skincare companies that simply applying their topicals will fix your problems.  But unless the topicals can reach the place where the skin problem is occurring, not much will happen except maybe irritation on the skin surface.  That may result in microinflammation which makes it look like your problem is fixed.  In reality, the problem is still there.  

Here is a sure-fire test to see how healthy your skin is. . .   Stop your skincare for 2 or 3 weeks.  Use nothing on your skin except water to cleanse with.  If it immediately looks worse upon stopping your skincare, your skin is not healthy. It has become dependent (addicted) to your skincare.  Healthy skin doesn’t require much to look good.  Just look at any young child’s skin.  They obviously don’t use skincare; it’s just that they still have healthy skin which performs optimally.  This is where we want to be too.  We want our skin to perform like it did when it was 30, not dependent on any topical to look its best on a day-to-day basis. 

So, the goal, if you want to maintain a beautiful skin, is to promote a healthy skin.   Find solutions that address the source and not just the surface problems.  Fix the root cause by finding a long-term solution which is sustainable and compatible with the skin’s natural biological processes.  Most skincare today does not address the root cause, but temporarily masks the “symptoms” of a problem with irritating ingredients.  Here’s an analogy:  Say you have a leak on your roof which causes water to seep and mold grows inside your house.  You could simply paint over the mold and make it look good temporarily.  However, unless you keep painting, the mold will eventually come back.  The paint is a temporary “cosmetic” fix.  If you really want to fix the problem for good, you need to patch the roof, right?  That is the root cause of your mold.  Find the root cause and fix it for a long-term, sustainable solution which will save you time and money.  That’s what we need to strive for when looking at skin issues and skin solutions.  Future blog articles will tell you how to do this in a holistic manner that will also benefit your general health too.

So keep tuned!

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