Healthy skin – keeping it at its best

I was once asked if I used a certain famous beauty serum I’d worked on and I answered, “Yes, why wouldn’t I? Knowing what I know about it.

I followed up with a less reported comment – that by keeping all those collagens, fibrillins and elastins in good condition, my skin stands an improved chance of performing its basic functions better and longer. (Particularly important as I hope to live at least into my 90s.)

I always reckon that if you focus on keeping skin healthy then you stand a good chance of keeping it looking beautiful too. (IMHO)

The main things that can make skin worse are:

  • build up of debris on the skin
  • drying out
  • over-exposure to UV

Preventing these makes good sense.

Cleansing surface debris, preventing drying (moisturising), protection from excessive UV – all these will help skin in good condition.

Healthy skin can get on and do its job without any problems arising. The job in question is protection: keeping out the bad stuff – for instance toxins and invasive microbes – while keeping in the good stuff – hard won nutrients and (especially) water. This is your skin’s day job. When it all goes right, you can have perfect skin.

Just as an aside, there are several kinds of “friendly” bacteria that live on the skin surface; they actually help keep the skin protected and healthy – and we’ll return to this another time.

Your skin is also there to protect you from knocks and grazes. Collagen, elastin and other biological polymers create a cushioned flexible base – the dermis. (Think of this as like the springs and stuffing of a mattress.) On top of this is the epidermis; 5 to 10 cell layers that help to coordinate and stimulate recovery if the skin is wounded in any way.

When these cells are not recovering from “insults” – hopefully most of the time – the epidermis has another, even more important job: producing the outermost protective layer, the “mattress cover”.

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The really clever bit in the skin’s self protection process is that the tough outer layer it creates is also amazingly flexible – it has to be. The skin has to stretch over your joints, and to cover areas that are under constant pressure or twisting forces. Just think about the stresses you put your soles and palms under. Skin has evolved a structure and flexibility to cope with these movements, and this goes down to a microscopic level.

The surface cells are kept flexible by their special waxy coating. The skin around tiny hair follicles has to be flexible to allow the hair to grow out, but also to respond flexibly as these hairs are pushed from side to side. On the face in particular, follicles are lubricated by oils – sebum – to help this process.

Unfortunately sebum can build up and trap skin debris and bacteria which can create other problems. We’ve got into the habit of cleansing our facial skin to remove this sebum and debris. But when we cleanse we remove the other protective oils, and this dries the skin. Dry skin is less flexible and so its condition deteriorates. Cleansing also removes natural moisturising factors (NMF). These act as “humectants” binding moisture into the surface layers. Glycerin is another humectant, that’s why its a common ingredient in moisturisers.

From “I cleanse therefore I am”, we evolved into “I cleanse therefore I moisturise”.

A healthy skincare regime is about taking away unwanted debris without removing all the skin’s oils and waxes, and replacing lost oils by using moisturisers.

Most modern cleansers are designed with this in mind; most moisturisers have a blend of humectants and oils that help to rebalance the skin without overloading it.

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Just don’t wait for your skin condition to deteriorate before you start to take care of it!

About Steve Barton

I'm a skin biologist fascinated by the wonders of this organ that keeps us apart from the outside world. I'm semi-retired, continuing to keep a hand in cosmetic product development by working in consultancy and education. When not talking skin you'll find me listening to or playing music; or I'll be finding hills to walk, photos to take, or sketches and short stories to create; unless I'm distracted by my 2 granddaughters! I can be found on Twitter @Skin_Thinking