Our Skin is Amazing
Posted 01/08/2016 - By Harley Farmer
Human skin is has many functions, including to:
- hold us in as a form of packaging
- regulate our internal temperature
- distinguish ethnic origins
- protect against dangerous sun rays
- provide tactile senses
- be an outer defence against trauma
- excrete unwanted chemicals
- keep out bacteria and other microbes
- replace itself every month.
That’s an amazing list for one organ! It achieves all that by having a fascinating anatomy; a collection of parts which work in beautiful harmony. You can view skin as being incredibly complicated with latin names for various bits, or you can see the simplicity. What they call ‘dermal pegs’ peg the skin to us, the all important ‘skin barrier’ is a barrier within the skin, the ‘basal layer’ is the base from which new skin cells arise, the ‘granular layer’ has granules and the list goes on. The fun comes in understanding how the cells from the basal layer mature to make the granules which form the skin barrier. It’s happening every minute of your life.
When left to get on with its job, the skin is a wonder to behold. When a child grazes its knee, the damaged skin fixes itself. When someone becomes sun-burned the skin fixes itself. When chemicals get inside the skin it uses inflammation to push them out. Skin’s default is to be healthy intact skin with no inflammation. Anything else shows the skin is in a state of imbalance.
If skin is so fantastic, why are skin complaints the main reason people visit their family doctor? Partly because skin indicates what is going on with the whole person. Skin is one of the few organs you can examine from the outside and when things are out of balance inside you can often see clues on the outside. The skin has a limited number of ways it can react when protecting a person. As an example, when a child has a food intolerance, that often shows as a redness in the skin. The food never comes anywhere near the skin and what is being seen is the way the whole person is reacting to the problematic food. You just happen to be able to see the skin making it a useful source of valuable clues.
In reality most of the skin clues doctors are asked to examine are a reaction to effects from the outside. Human skin has been basically the same for thousands of years yet in the last few centuries the chemicals coming into contact with human skin have changed. They are not what nature intended and our skin is poorly equipped to deal with them. Unnatural pollutants surround many of us and the modern trend to apply purified manmade chemicals as skin “care” products is distinctly unnatural.
Our natural protection
The Skin Barrier is a specific layer just below the very outer dry cells we see. This barrier’s main function is to regulate the amount of water which evaporates from the skin. When the barrier is suboptimal more water can get out and the person feels the sensation of dry skin. Another function is to stop outside chemicals getting in and when the barrier is suboptimal, when the person feels dry skin, those chemicals gan gain entry. When they do the immune system reacts with inflammation to push the chemicals out. This inflammation is therefore a desired effect and the intensity of the inflammation will reflect the amount of chemical which is in the wrong place.
Making the skin barrier is one of the last tasks skin cells do as they move outwards. After that they dry out and fall off as individual cells which are too small for us to see. The skin barrier is made of two types of organic molecules; bipolar ceramide fats and hygroscopic amino acids from the filaggrin protein.
Two important points
Two points are relevant with the ceramide fats. When emulsifiers are used to clean the skin they can dissolve the fats out of the skin barrier. Most opaque moisturisers, lotions, creams and emollients contain emollients so the mineral oil in the products stays in suspension. The second point is that steroids reduce the ability of the skin cells to manufacture the ceramide. That happens regardless of whether the steroid is applied on the outside as a treatment or is produced internally in reaction to stress. Students who felt exam stress had less ceramide in their skin than more relaxed colleagues. Mothers who are breast feeding and become stressed pass their own steroid to their baby in the milk.
The filaggrin protein is the granules seen in skin cells just before they reach the skin barrier layer. One of the protein’s many functions is to break apart making the amino acids for the skin barrier. Inflammation in the skin of any origin reduces the skin cells’ ability to make this protein, so inflammation prevents the skin from making functional skin barrier.
Simultaneously reducing BOTH the ability to make ceramide fats AND the ability to make the protein-derived amino acids causes the skin barrier to become very porous letting out far more water than is optimal and allowing the entry of extraneous chemicals which induce inflammation. It becomes a cycle for which I have created the term Product Maintained Dermatitis.