Your skin is your body’s largest organ. Among its many important roles, skin is the initial barrier protecting your internal systems from the external world. It helps ward off viruses, bacteria, and pollution, while being permeable enough to absorb nutrients and regulate water loss. It acts as a shock absorber, temperature regulator, and protector from ultraviolet (UV) light.
These external forces play a big role in the health of your skin. Internal factors and variables that you can control also influence your skin health. For example, your daily diet, exercise routine, alcohol intake, sleep habits, medications, and more, are factors that influence the health of your skin. And things you can’t control play a role too, like your genetics and age.
Skin 101 — Our skin has three primary layers
One – the epidermis.
The outermost layer of the skin is known as the epidermis. It’s made of either four or five layers of epithelial cells depending on where the skin is on the body. Thick skin, like that on the palms of your hands and the soles of your feet, has five layers. Thin skin has four layers and is found almost everywhere else. Keratinocytes, cells found in both thick and thin skin, manufacture and store keratin, a protein that gives hair, nails, and skin their hardness and water-resistant properties.
The epidermis gives us our skin tone and protects us from the outside environment. The deeper epidermis layers contain collagen fibers and dermal papilla, which are responsible for the strength of the skin. These deeper layers also contain the pigment melanin, which gives hair and skin its color and also helps protect the living cells of the epidermis from UV radiation damage.
Dark-skinned individuals produce more melanin than people with pale skin. Exposure to UV rays from the sun causes melanin to be manufactured and built up in keratinocytes, and the accumulation of melanin in keratinocytes results in darkening of the skin, or a tan. Increased melanin protects DNA in epidermal cells from UV damage and the breakdown of the B vitamin, folate. However, too much melanin or darker skin coloring can cause inefficient synthesis of vitamin D,1 which is manufactured when our skin is exposed to the sun. Thus, melanin has a positive effect on folate in the skin and a negative effect on vitamin D.
The outermost layer of the epidermis that we see can be comprised of 15-30 layers of dead, dry cells. It physically protects us from microbes and holds in water, as well as mechanically protecting us from abrasion or friction to the more delicate underlying layers. The entire layer is naturally replaced about every four weeks. Microderm-abrasion, a common cosmetic procedure, removes some of the dry or dead cells on the outermost layer with the intent of exposing healthier, newer skin cells below.
Two – the dermis.
The next layer down is the dermis, which is comprised of two layers of connective tissues that contain elastin and collagenous fibers. The elastin provides elasticity and movement to your skin, while the collagen provides structure and tensile strength. The dermis layer is home to hair follicles, sweat glands, nerves, lymph vessels, and blood vessels. Through the vessels and connections to the inner networks, the dermis delivers nutrients to the epidermis. It also contains the cells responsible for protecting against bacteria.
Three – the hypodermis.
The hypodermis is the deepest layer, the subcutaneous layer, connecting the skin to the underlying tissues, bones, and muscles. This layer has blood vessels with loose areolar connective tissue and adipose (fat) tissue, which functions as a location for fat storage, provides insulation to help regulate body temperature, and protects and cushions the structures below it.
Changes in our skin
The aging process will take a toll on our skin if we don’t proactively take care of it over the years, although there are several things that occur naturally. For example, as our skin ages the epidermis layer becomes thinner, even though the number of layers doesn’t change. It can appear thinner, paler, and clear-looking in some areas, which increases the total skin surface area from which more moisture can escape. The number of pigment spots, known as melanocytes, decreases, and larger pigments spots, called sunspots, can appear in areas that saw lots of sun over the years – face, arms, shoulders, and hands are most common.
As skin become thinner, blood vessels become more fragile and can break, causing broken blood vessels and red marks visible on the skin surface. Older individuals produce less natural oils, which often results in dry, itchy skin. When both of these combine, skin is more easily ripped or torn, and unfortunately, the healing process is significantly slower.
The fat layer in the hypodermis also thins, providing less insulation and padding. At the same time, sweat glands tend to produce less sweat, so it’s harder to cool. This puts older individuals at risk for becoming overheated – resulting in hyperthermia and other heat-related illnesses.
Although you might not have time for daily pampering, consider the following six tips to support the health of your skin on a regular basis
Get your beauty sleep
Sleep is when your body repairs. Without adequate sleep, your body is unable to produce new collagen, the protein that keeps skin tight and firm. Get the recommended 7-9 hours every night.
Uncontrolled stress can lead to changes in hormone levels, which can produce more oily secretions that block pores. Stress is highly associated with acne breakouts and other skin issues.2 Try calming techniques, like yoga, meditation, or a diet complete with vitamins and minerals to combat your daily stressors.
Avoid alcohol and quit smoking
Research has shown that alcohol intake is positively associated with a greater risk for different skin cancers. For every 10-gram increase in daily alcohol intake, the risk can increase 11 percent.3 For reference, a standard alcoholic beverage in the United States contains 14 grams of alcohol, so even one beer a day can be considered risky for some. Smoking directly damages the skin. It can damage elastin and collagen, which reduces elasticity, thins blood vessels thus decreasing blood flow and providing fewer nutrients to skin layers, and increases cancer risk.
Stay hydrated and eat a diet high in antioxidants
A diet that supports skin health can help you look your best. Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated. Be sure to consume recommended daily amounts of all vitamins and minerals, especially B vitamins. Protect from the inevitable free radical damage that comes from UV exposure by eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, fatty fish, and olive oil. These foods are loaded with antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, and carotenoids like lutein and zeaxanthin, all of which support skin health.
Avoid long-term sun exposure
Up to 15 minutes a day of sunlight supports vitamin D synthesis, but otherwise you will want to protect exposed skin and eyes. Sunglasses, hats, sun protective clothing, and sunscreens provide protection.
Gently care for skin
Take warm baths or showers instead of hot ones, and keep time in the water to a reasonable length – 5-10 minutes. Long, hot showers or baths can strip the skin of natural oils. Avoid perfumed or strong soaps; instead, use a mild cleanser to preserve natural oils and pH. Pat wet skin dry and moisturize your skin while it is still moist and warm. Avoid scratching dry skin, and use a humidifier in dry climates or indoors during winter months.
- Libon F, Cavalier E, Nikkels A. Skin color is relevant to vitamin D synthesis. Dermatology 2013;227(3):250-254.
- Yosipovitch G, Tang M, Dawn A, et al. Study of psychological stress, sebum production and acne vulgaris in adolescents. Acta Derm Venereol 2007;87(2):135-139.
- Yen H, Dhana A, Okhovat J, et al. Alcohol intake and risk of nonmelanoma skin cancer: a systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis. Br J Dermatol 2017;177(3):696-707.