How much do you know about body’s largest organ?
Did you know that pale white skin was once in fashion? Many women and men would bleach their skin with vinegar, although the practice was very dangerous.
Did you know that skin performs important functions, such as protecting our bones, muscles and internal organs?
Did you know that skin uses blood to regulate your body heat?
Did you know that an average adult’s skin spans 21 square feet and weighs nine pounds, making around 16 percent of your total body weight?
Did you know that an average adult’s skin contains more than 11 miles of blood vessels?
Did you know that skin is constantly changing (30,000 to 40,000 cells a minute)?
Today, we know a lot about skin, thanks to science, but the most important thing we need to know is how to protect and nurture our skin. Before we dig deeper into the natural ways of skin protection, we should explore a little more the role skin plays in our organism.
As most of us know, the skin is made up of three layers: the epidermis (the outermost layer) , the dermis (the layer below the epidermis that contains nerve endings, blood vessels, and oil and sweat glands, collagen and proteins that keep our skin strong) and the subcutaneous layer that is made up of fat.
But how our skin protects us?
The first layer, the one we can touch, the epidermis, acts like a protective shell which means the cells of the epidermis are constantly renewing themselves (dead skin cells are falling off each minute). The basic epidermis functions are waterproofing (the epidermis contains a layer of cells (stratum corneum) to protect our body against the absorption of harmful substances and from losing too much water.) and protection against ultraviolet rays, preventing the skin to absorb them, due to melanin.
- Melanin determines skin color, thus people with greater concentration of melanin have darker skin. Melanin is also one of the reason people with dark skin tend to sunburn less.
Skin, that is, the epidermis is our protection against viruses, infection, and bacteria. The natural layer of oils at the surface is the first barrier; on the other hand, Langerhans cells in the epidermis identify harmful substances and compounds activating white blood cells that neutralize those unwanted substances.
The second layer, the dermis, contains oil glands, serving as a protective barrier as well. The dermis is made mostly of collagen, elastin and fibrillin, which make our skin elastic, flexible, strong and firm. As the dermis contains blood vessels, hair follicles, nerve endings, oil glands and sweat glands, its basic, the most important function is related to heat regulation, controlling body temperature through the production of sweat and evaporation.
- Collagen is the main component of connective tissue, the most abundant protein in the body (makes up approximately 30-35 percent of the proteins in the body) made up of amino acids. It can be found in the bones, muscles, skin and tendons.
The second layer is responsible for the sense of touch; the dermis gives us the sense of touch by identifying five sensations: heat, cold, pressure, pain and contact, all because it contains millions of nerve endings (skin is thinner at some places and usually has a greater concentration of nerve endings, which means it’s more sensitive).
The subcutaneous layer, made up of fat cells and fibrous tissue, also helps regulate the temperature in the body.
Why do we need to protect our skin?
To answer this question properly it’s best to consider what is causing skin damage.
First, as many dermatologists emphasize, the sun can do much damage because prolonged exposure to sunlight causes red and brown spots, dry skin, wrinkles and the worst of all, skin cancer. How? The answer lies in the production of melanin. If our skin doesn’t produce the protective pigment, or if you’re exposed to the sun before enough pigment can be produced, skin cells are in danger, and the ultraviolet rays kill the cells. Sometimes, even a mild sunburn will destroy the top layer of your skin.
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, each year in the US, nearly 5 million people are treated for skin cancer.
Luckily, we can protect our skin from damaging rays in many ways.
Second, we can easily injure our skin, and increase the risk of infections and viruses. Although cuts, bumps and scars are a normal part of our life, we should also be more careful when using sharp tools or when we are outdoor playing a sport, or working in the yard. On the other hand, burns can be very painful and permanently damage our skin, leaving bad, unattractive scars.
Insect bites can also be very dangerous, especially if you keep on scratching the injured skin, and you can easily be infected. Insects, such as ticks, can carry germs and make us sick. Other insects can also infect us with various viruses.
Skin diseases are common today, unfortunately. Some diseases can cause our skin to lose its natural color; some can make the hair fall out, or cause painful blisters and itchy, red patches. Acne, for instance, although not a serious disease, can still cause severe scars that can last for years.
So, how can you protect your skin?
One of the most important ways to keep your skin healthy is to protect it from the sun.
Cover up and use sunscreen – The sun’s rays are most intense between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. so you should stay indoors during this period. If you have some business outdoors, you need to cover up and wear sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15, as recommended by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Furthermore, you should apply sunscreen 20 to 30 minutes before exposure because your skin needs to absorb it. You should also reapply it every two hours, more often if you’re swimming. It’s advisable for people with fair skin to begin preparing themselves for sun exposure the night before, so if you have fair skin, apply sunscreen the day before, usually before going to bed.
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, we should wear hats and clothing made of dark woven materials. These materials, as well as dry fabrics, offer more protection because they absorb ultraviolet light better than cotton fabrics.
We usually forget to protect our lips, the tops of the ears, the hairline, the nose, the hands and the “V” of the chest. These very sensitive spots need to be protected as well, moreover, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, 80 percent of skin cancers occur on the head, neck and hands. To protect your lips, you can use a lip balm with an SPF of at least 15. Umbrellas provide protection from ultraviolet light, but it doesn’t protect you from rays reflected off sand, or snow, and especially concrete. Being in the water also doesn’t protect you, although water does not reflect ultraviolet rays, rays can easily penetrate water.
Sunbathing can be especially dangerous for fair-skinned people, although it can be very bad for everyone and cause serious burns. If you still wish to enjoy the sun, you need to be very cautious and protect your skin in the correct way.
Cool, cloudy days can also damage your skin, because ultraviolet rays can penetrate the clouds so you need to take precautions as if the sun is shining brightly.
Snow is a threat as well, so you need to protect your skin with appropriate clothing and sunscreen.
Quit smoking – Since the 1970’s, many studies have shown how smoking affects the skin resulting in premature facial wrinkling and accelerating the skin aging process. While skin aging is a natural process, “smoker’s lines” around the mouth are neither attractive nor reflect the healthy state of the organism. When skin is aging fast, it becomes wrinkled and dry, resulting in uneven skin coloring and causing broken blood vessels. Furthermore, smokers can develop grey or orange complexion.
Smoking causes early skin aging, and there are a few confirmed scientific theories:
Smoking changes the elastic fiber of the skin
Smoking narrows down the blood vessels in the outermost layers, reducing blood supply and depleting the skin of oxygen and nutrients that the skin needs
Smoking can cause loss of collagen, the fiber that gives the skin strength and elasticity
Smoking reduces vitamin A and skin moisture
Most importantly, cigarettes contain about 600 ingredients (7.000 chemicals) and most of them are poisonous while 69 of those chemicals can cause cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, cigars have a higher level of carcinogens and toxins. Certainly, many health risks are associated with tobacco, and we all need to be aware in which ways smoking affect our organism and those of around us.
Be serious about healthy diet – Healthy nutrition is crucial for a healthy body. Essential nutrients we get from food promote healthy skin and contribute to overall health. Fruits and vegetables rich in vitamins and minerals help certain organs function properly and optimally. A healthy diet and healthy lifestyle help delay the natural aging process preventing various skin diseases and problems. Moreover, certain food have protective properties that empower skin’s natural defense system and some contain very powerful UV protective ingredients.
But, what should you eat?
Red and orange fruits and vegetables (tomatoes), that are rich in lycopene (a natural pigment) and carotenoid (antioxidant) have been shown to help protect against some UV-induced skin problems. Lycopene helps the body ward off harmful free radicals and toxins, while beta-carotene is linked to reduced reactions to sunburns. Food rich in antioxidants fight free radicals that are main culprits responsible for premature aging. Oranges and pink citrus fruits (pomegranates) improve skin’s ability to protect itself against UV rays.
Food rich in omega-3 fatty acids (fatty fish and shellfish) is known to have remarkable anti-inflammatory powers. Some studies showed that diet rich in omega-3s helps prevent some types of skin cancer.
Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, kale, cauliflower) are rich in antioxidants that, as we said, help fight free radicals and toxins. A study showed that these vegetables are also linked to cancer prevention. Broccoli sprouts contain sulforaphane, a compound linked to increasing the skin’s ability to protect itself from cancer.
Green vegetables and herbs (parsley, basil, sage, and rosemary) are other groups of food rich in antioxidants. Spinach and Swiss chard are packed with polyphenols (antioxidants) and carotenoids, which also help protect the skin from sun’s damaging rays.
Dark chocolate is rich in flavonoids, compounds that may improve the skin’s ability to protect against certain types of cancer and UV-induced skin problems. Flavonoids also keep the skin hydrated, increase blood flow and oxygen.
When it comes to herbs, researchers have been trying to identify which compounds inside various herbs can help protect the skin to some degree. A research, published in the Journal of Alternative and Contemporary Therapies, found that golden serpent fern and Asian Ginseng might help protect against UV rays. Several studies showed that extracts from these herbs (when applied directly on the skin or taken orally) are associated with a reduction of damage.
Want more skin protection tips?
Reduce and manage stress – This is one of those “easier-said-than-done” problems we face every day, unfortunately. Stress is responsible for many health problems. What we experience when we are stressed is increased emotional discomfort, tension and numbness, which activate and trigger certain hormones that in turn trigger reactions in the body. Have you noticed how when you are stressed you can easily get a headache or feel the pain in your stomach?
Uncontrolled stress we experience makes our skin more sensitive and vulnerable (acne are the most common result). You need to think seriously about efficient ways to reduce or eliminate stress, and I can think of few: exercising, meditation, yoga, walking, dancing..
Learn to treat you skin gently – Some daily routines you believe are good for your skin could in fact do more damage than good.
Hot water and long showers (baths) remove natural oils from the skin. Limit you shower time and use warm water.
Some bath gels and soaps can strip natural oils as well, so choose natural mild cleansers.
Shaving can damage the skin unless you shave in the direction the hair grows, not against it.
After showering or bathing, gently pat your skin so that some moisture remains on the skin.
If you have a dry skin, use a natural moisturizer.
What should you do when your skin is injured?
If you injure your skin, that is, get a cut or scratch, you need to clean it right away with warm water and put on a bandage to protect the wound while it heals. The bandage will keep the germs and dirt from getting into the wound and cause an infection. If you develop a rash, you need to consult a doctor or a pharmacist about the medicines and treatments. For severe rashes and injuries, you need to see the doctor.
The best way to protect your skin is to use the right protective equipment: gloves, knee and elbow pads, helmets and long sleeves.
Therefore, this summer before you head to the beach or in the garden, do not forget to bring sunscreen, if you do, you are risking a sunburn, an infection or a skin disease. Remember: don’t stop using sunscreen. Manage your daily stress, and develop a healthy diet plan.
Berton, H. (2012). The Essential Guide to Natural Skin Care: Choosing Botanicals, Oils & Extracts for Simple & Healthy Beauty. Llewellyn Publications.
Gordon, M. (2012). Natural Homemade Skin Care Recipes: Rejuvenating Renewing Masks & Treatments For Beautiful Skin. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
Less, M. (2010). The Skin Care Answer Book. Milady.
Images credit: 123RF Photo Stock