The Skin – A Doorway to What’s Inside Us
Healthy skin does so much to help us survive and thrive in the world. It regulates body temperature, holds moisture and nutrients in, keeps bacteria out, and serves as a giant sensor, relaying information about everything around us.
Decades ago, scientists believed the skin acted primarily as a strong, impenetrable barrier. Today we know that though skin is tough, it’s also permeable, selectively allowing certain substances to enter and exit the body. Nicotine and hormone patches, for instance, have become an effective way to deliver medicine. Tanning lotions penetrate skin to create a desired color. And isn’t it interesting that doctors advise us to stop using certain skincare products during pregnancy? Potentially harmful chemicals in some of those products can penetrate skin and get inside the body, where they could harm a developing fetus.
Even perfectly healthy skin is vulnerable to assault from the outside world. In 2001, over 37 million visits were made to a dermatologist for skin conditions in the U.S., with over 12 million made for a skin rash1 and over 5 million made for contact dermatitis.2 In addition, up to 24 percent of people in the U.S. will experience hives or angioedema (allergic skin swelling) at some point in their lives. Clearly, skin conditions can affect all types of people with all types of skin.
What is Compromised Skin?
We can think of skin as having three layers:
- the outer, protective layer (epidermis),
- the middle layer (dermis), which contains small blood cells, hair follicles, nerve cells, sweat glands, collagen and elastin, and
- the lower layer (subcutaneous), which contains layers of lipids or fats and connective tissues, and attaches the skin to everything underneath.
In compromised skin, the outer layer (epidermis or “protective barrier”) has been damaged. This causes two problems:
- the skin can no longer hold onto moisture as well, causing dryness, flaking, itching, and redness; and
- the skin can’t protect itself as well, making it more vulnerable to environmental toxins, harmful UV rays, bacteria, allergens, and harsh chemical ingredients in personal care products.
What causes compromised skin?
The skin-particularly the protective barrier-is susceptible to injury caused both by malfunctions within the body and by damaging agents outside the body. Here are just a few examples of the conditions and agents that can interfere with optimal skin health:
- Chemotherapy and radiation can both break down the skin’s outer layer, causing dryness, itching, rashes, and wounds. These treatments also interfere with new cell growth, creating “thin” skin.
- Psoriasis may be the result of a malfunctioning immune system, which causes new cells to form too quickly and pile up as lesions on the skin. Other research points to malfunctioning genes that direct the formation of the skin’s outer layer.
- Rosacea may be hereditary, with some research showing that bacteria may be to blame. Topical steroids can also induce rosacea-like symptoms.
- Eczema includes several types of skin conditions, including atopic dermatitis and seborrheic eczema. The condition has been linked with allergies, irritating chemicals, harsh detergents, an overactive immune system, and more.
- Dryness causes compromised skin, opening up cracks in the outer layer that allow moisture out and irritants in.
- Medications like cholesterol-lowering drugs can contribute to barrier breakdown in skin. Diuretics may actually “steal” water from skin. Acne medications, some antidepressants, and even antihistamines can cause dry, compromised skin.
- Allergic reactions and skin rashes-including those from medications and medical treatments like chemotherapy-can create dry skin, rashes, hives, and fragile skin.
- Medical conditions like kidney disease, diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure, and even hypothyroidism can all lead to dry, inflamed, and compromised skin.
Protect Your Skin, Protect Your Health
No matter what type of compromised skin you may have, you’re more at risk from exposure to toxic chemicals, not only because they can further irritate and damage your skin, but because they can more easily penetrate skin’s malfunctioning outer layer and get inside your body. Unfortunately, most personal care products and cosmetics contain potentially harmful ingredients, some of which have shown in studies to disrupt hormones or encourage cancerous activity in cells. Considering skin’s vulnerability and the overwhelming presence of daily chemicals and irritants, it’s important to read labels; use only safe, nurturing formulas; and treat skin with a gentle touch. Certain daily habits can help to not only support and maintain skin’s healthy function and appearance, but encourage overall health and well-being.
Sources: (1) National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey: 2001 Summary; (2) American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology. Allergy Statistics. http://www.aaaai.org/media/statistics/allergy-statistics.asp