Skin-Deep Anatomy Lessons

Keep your layers of skin safe!

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No organ in the human body contributes more to the human experience than the skin. Clear, smooth and glowing skin dominates our aesthetic attention. We spend more time and money on caring for our skin then any other body part. Keeping our 22-square feet of skin healthy is worth the effort and not just for the benefit of onlookers. Proper care can keep the body from harm in many ways.

The skin is the first line of defense against infectious diseases and toxins; it also helps to maintain internal body temperature. The skin partners with the sun to synthesize vitamin D, a vitamin that plays an important role in many human diseases.

The skin is also the quintessential pain and pleasure messenger with sensors that alert the body to seek shelter from the cold or avoid something that can cause physical harm. It is fundamental to sexual arousal.

The skin is also a reflection of the body's health. Dry, flaky patches of skin can announce the autoimmune disease psoriasis and yellow pallor, liver disease.

To help understand the goal of proper skin care, here is a quick anatomy lesson of the body's largest organ.

Surface Areas

The skin is composed of 3 main layers. The deepest is the fatty subcutaneous layer that acts as a cushion against bumps and lumps and provides insulation. Directly above it is the dermis, made of strong elastic fibers and collagen. This is where miles of blood vessels flow that expand and contract when environmental temperatures rise or fall. You also find hair follicles, a network of nerves and substance secreting glands. Sweat glands work over time to cool us down when we overheat and can produce up to a liter of sweat a day.

Sebaceous glands produce an oily waxy substance called sebum that provides lubrication and waterproofing for the epidermis. It is what clogs pores in people with acne. It protects the epidermis, the uppermost layer exposed to the outside world.

The epidermis contains the tough horny layer of cells called the stratum corneum. Every 5 weeks or so these flattened dead cells slough off and are replaced by new ones. Skin cells are constantly falling off when we squirm around in our beds and rub against our clothes. Humans can shed up to 9 pounds of skin every year. This natural turnover allows the fatty substance produced in the dermis to migrate freely to protect the surface layer. The epidermis is thicker on the soles of the feet and palms, and thinner on forearms and around eyes.

The epidermis contains melanocytes responsible for producing melanin, the pigment that gives skin its color and absorbs energy from the sun. This is the layer that gets the most exposure to the elements and suffers the most abuse.

How to Have Good Skinship

If the skin becomes dry and flaky it can't effectively safeguard against the elements. Moisture and lipid retention is key. Since moisture moves upward to hydrate cells on the surface it is important to clear the way.

Soap works fine to remove dirt. It does so by making fats soluble in water, which makes it easier to be washed away when you bath. But harsh soaps damage the protective lipids on the surface layer. To preserve the waterproof layer you want to avoid moisture meddlers that strip the natural protective layer and replace it with strategies that restore it.

Here is Dr. Oz's prescription for your healthiest skin:

  • Add 1/4 cup olive oil to bath water
  • Use a gentle exfoliating scrub or cloth to remove dead skin
  • Use a mild body wash that contains replenishing oils that penetrate the skin
  • Don't use overly hot water and pat dry after bathing
  • After bathing apply a coat of moisturizer while still damp
  • Avoid ingredients that cause sensitivity or have heavy fragrances or dyes
  • Eat foods high in zinc and vitamin C to promote cell renewal