Part 2 of 3
Your Skin’s Anatomy
Knowing what makes up your skin and how it functions is a conscious way to ensure you’re giving your body what it needs to protect itself from the elements. There are 3 layers of skin between your muscles and your environment. They are the Epidermis, Dermis, and Hypodermis (also known as the “Subcutis”).
The Epidermis is the topmost (external facing) layer of skin that provides a barrier to infections and regulates water loss to the atmosphere. It contains melanocytes (melanin producing cells), that gives skin its surface colour. A layer of dead skin cells, called the “Stratum Corneum”, sits on the surface and is critical for moisture retention. Replenishing this layer can take up to 24 hours, so if exfoliating s part of your daily routine, you’ll want to make sure you do something to lock in hydration.
New skin is created by dividing “basal cells” in the deepest layer of the epidermis. These new cells are flattened and stretched into “squamous cells” as they are slowly pushed outward towards the surface, and acts as an effective filter for nutrients and secretions diffusing between the surface and underlying capillaries. And, of course, where there are hairs, there are pores for follicles to ideally break through the surface.
The Dermis sits beneath the epidermis and cushions the body from stress and strain, as well as providing the body with a layer of thermo-insulation. This layer primarily consists of fibrous and irregular connective tissue known as “Extra-Cellular Matrix” (or “ECM”), as well as other extracellular components like blood vessels, hair follicles, “arrector pili” muscles, oil glands, sweat pores and nerve endings.
Fibroblast cells in the dermis synthesizes ECM into the structural framework (“stroma”) for the formation of new skin tissue, and so ensuring that they are working efficiently is key to developing better quality skin. The key ingredients of ECM that we need to consider for skincare are Collagen, Elastin and Hyaluronic Acid.
Collagen and Elastin are peptides (smaller chains of amino acids or partial proteins) and are the structural building materials for new skin cells. Collagen is fibrous and gives skin its firmness, while elastin heightens elasticity and keeps skin taut. Both are naturally produced in the dermis, though capacity to replenish these complex molecules diminishes over time, resulting in the signs and effects of aging.
Hyaluronic Acid is similar in that it produced by the body and diminishes with aging. Its properties include water retention, keeping your skin hydrated. As a result of this property (and as an added benefit), maintaining levels of hyaluronic acid in your system has been found to stimulate collagen production, leading to newer skin.
Collagen and Elastin are both susceptible to damage over time through oxidation processes triggered by free-radicals from pollution and damaging ultraviolet (“UV”) rays that we are exposed to daily, resulting in undesirable aging effects. It is this for this reason that we want to ensure that our bodies enriched with foods high in antioxidants, to protect the buildings blocks of our skin.
Paramount for healthy living tissue is to have well connected access to nutrients and oxygen absorbed by the body, as well as a means to expel waste. This capability (in the dermis) is served through blood vessels and capillaries branching out to and from veins and arteries in the layers below. Improving blood flow to your skin means improving the quality and durability of the skin cells your body creates, keeping you feeling younger for longer.
Have you ever felt goosebumps? When arrector pili muscles in your skin contract together, they stand the hair follicles they are attached to on end. This can occur when we are exposed to cold environments and your body tries to create insulating pockets of air around it (a more effective strategy in hairier mammals), or when we experience a surge of adrenaline and norepinephrine (released by the nervous system) as a means of heightening your senses; a readying response towards “fight or flight”.
You may have also experienced goosebumps during an emotional encounter, or when listening to a powerful, deep-reaching score of music – our skin also reacts to mental stimulus. The “integumentary” system (skin and its functional features) works in tight association with the “sympathetic nervous system”, continuously monitoring changes in pressure and body temperature and initiating the appropriate motor responses. But, stress and fatigue are also not uncommon to our lifestyles and this can have a significant negative impact on the elasticity and appearance of our skin over time.
Massage therapies have been found to increase lymphatic flow, improving the removal of toxins from the body and encouraging oxygen and blood circulation through the skin. Many people have found facial massages to aiding the reduction of stress, puffiness, and uneven skin tones, while helping to improve elasticity and immune function.
The last features in the dermis to discuss in this article are the oily “sebum” producing sebaceous glands and sweat pores found in skin. Your skin ensures that you don’t overheat or dehydrate by emitting these secretions. Feeling oily and sweaty isn’t the most comfortable condition to be in, but real problems like acne can flair up when these pores become blocked by intruding dirt and an overproduction of sebum.
High testosterone levels are known to stimulate sebaceous glands into overproduction, so young teens experiencing acne during puberty is quite common, especially without the right skincare regimen and diet.
The Subcutis (or “Hypodermis”) layer, technically, is not considered part of skin, though a membrane between the two may be hard to distinguish. Primarily composed of “adipose tissue” (clusters of lipid-filled cells, called adipocytes), the subcutis is well-vascularized and acts as fat storage for skin while providing thermal insulation for the body.
Risks for Your Skin
There are a number of autoimmune skin disorders that we won’t be covering in this article like Eczema (irritation of the skin cause due to underlying inflammation), Psoriasis (a condition that results in the accelerated growth cycles of skin cells) and Vitiligo (a condition where diminishing levels of melanocytes in skin cells results in patchy discolouration and loss of skin colour). Rather, in this section we will be considering external factors that may be addressed through simple lifestyle consideration and changes.
Acid or Base?
When skin is too acidic, it can appear red, oily and pimply, and will often feel greasy and react sensitively. Your skin’s natural pH value should lie somewhere between 4.75 and 5.75, making it weakly acidic. This is important since mild acidity helps skin keep moisture in and wards off pathogenic bacteria.
Alkaline skin (with pH levels somewhere between 7 and 14) is more susceptible to irritation and inflammation, since our blood is slightly alkaline, thereby hosting a more suitable environment for any invading bacterial growths that were not inhibited. Maintaining a balance for your skin’s pH is crucial for your skin’s health, but it can be tricky. All soaps are alkaline, so finding a low level pH soap for your face can help. In general, knowing what products you apply to your face and how they interact together with your skin
UV rays from the Sun are short lightwaves identified in the invisible electromagnetic spectrum and can be dangerous for the skin when absorbed in excess. UV light can be further categorized into A and B types. UVA has a slightly longer wavelength, making it less intense but with deeper skin penetration, and is associated with skin aging. Shorter UVB light waves increase the risk of skin burning, but both are considered harmful.
Unprotected exposure to UVA and UVB damages DNA in skin cells, producing genetic defects or mutations that can lead to skin cancer. Skin damage accumulates over time, so using the right skin protection consistently is key. Basically, you can avoid long periods of exposure to sources of both UVA and UVB rays where possible (e.g. tanning beds or under the direct midday Sun), cover up with umbrellas, hats, clothing and sunglasses to save your skin from scorching (or simply relax in the shade), or use skincare products with adequate Sun Protection Formula (SPF) like broad-spectrum sunscreen (dermatologists recommend using at least SPF30 for lighter skin).
We all have our unhealthy habits; immediate gratification that allows us to leave our problems for another day. The problem with habits is that the gratification can often become addictive, leading us to procrastinate essential lifestyle improvements towards happier living. For skin, these habits can also induce impacts that run counter to your skin care goals.
Alcohol consumption, for example, leads towards dehydration, inflammation and pore dilation; all effects of tired and aggravated skin. Smoking reduces blood circulation and oxygen, limiting your skin’s ability to regenerate robust skin cells. Further, tobacco smoke contains thousands of chemicals, and many of them trigger damage to the existing collagen and elastin in our skin when inhaled.
Stress, over time, can impact the health of your skin. When you feel stressed or fatigued, your sympathetic nervous system releases stress hormones like cortisol, which can in turn increase oil production in your skin glands and the associated risk of clogged pores and acne breakouts. Stress can also affect skin indirectly through neglected routines and poor changes to diet creating nutritional imbalances.
Of course, everything in life is about balance, and since we are each unique, understanding our bodies and how we respond to our environment is the best way to take active steps towards leading a healthier, longer and happy life.
In the final part in this series, we will be looking at simple Skin Maintenance Techniques and how they help us care for our skin. Also, we’ll look at how consciously choosing the foods that we eat can encourage better skin health. For example, did yo know that dairy and foods with a high glycemic index (sugars and other small carbohydrates) have the strongest link to acne breakouts? Find out more in part 3!