Can we take a moment to appreciate how clever our skin is?

What our skin does for our wellbeing and how it works

It's an often quoted fact that our skin is the body's largest organ, and really the only one that's exposed to the world and everything we throw at it. While we typically complain about spots, lines and wrinkles, we don't often talk about how incredibly clever our skin really is. We wanted to take a moment to explore what our skin does for our wellbeing and how it works, so we can better understand how to take care of it better.

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Skin facts

  • Our skin consists of three main layers: the outer layer (epidermis), the middle layer (dermis) and the deepest layer (subcutis).
  • Skin varies in thickness in different parts of the body depending on additional demands that are made on it.
  • Even at its thickest point, our skin is only a few millimetres thick.
  • It is still our heaviest and largest organ, making up about one seventh of our body weight.
  • It weighs between 3.5 and 10 kilograms.
  • It has a surface area of 1.5 to 2 square metres.
  • The epidermis constantly renews itself
(Ref: National library of Medicine)
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The core functions of the skin

Our skin has a lot of different functions that are essential for our wellbeing. Most notably, it protects the body from the outside world. In particular it protects against bacteria, moisture, temperature, germs and toxic substances. Looking at someone's skin can tell us a lot about them - their approximate age, and their state of health, for example.

We can largely break the core functions of the skin down into the following areas:

The skin protects us:

Arguably the most obvious function of our skin is protecting us. As mentioned, it protects against bacteria, chemicals, and temperature. For example, it contains secretions that can combat bacteria and the pigment melanin provides a chemical pigment defence against ultraviolet light.

The skin controls water loss:

Our skin helps to stop our bodies from dehydrating by controlling water loss. It does this by preventing water from escaping through evaporation, and it also helps to prevent nutrients from being washed off the skin.

Skin helps control body temperature:

Body temperature control or thermoregulation is also managed in large part by the skin. For example, it produces sweat and enables blood vessels to dilate when we're hot to help us cool down. Meanwhile, blood vessels constrict and we might get goosebumps when we're cold to help us retain heat.

The skin causes sensation:

An important function of the skin is sensation. For example, warmth, cold, pressure, itching and pain. Importantly, some of those sensations trigger a reflex such as pulling your hand away from a hot stove and preventing you from burning.

The skin is the body's storeroom:

At the deepest layer of the skin, it can store a number of essential elements for the body including water, fat and metabolic products. The Nursing Times notes: "Water stored in the skin cells can be accessed in emergency situations when blood volume falls (Hinchliff, 1996), for example when a patient haemorrhages. The skin also contains a potential energy source in the form of triglycerides (fatty acids and glycerol) stored in the adipose tissue (Martini, 2003)."

The skin is the body's production facility:

Skin is a powerful production facility and endocrine organ, producing hormones for the whole body and releasing them in the circulation. For example, sex steroids, insulin-like growth factor (IGF)-binding protein-3, and Vitamin D. (Ref. National Institutes of Health).

Skin can tell you when something's wrong

In addition to telling us about sensations that might require an action, our skin can also act as a window into our wellbeing, alerting us to a health problem. For example, a rash might signal allergies or infections.

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How to keep skin healthy

As if all of that wasn't enough to prove the intelligence of our skin, it also has the capacity to heal itself - attracting blood flow if it's injured as well as substances to prevent infection and promote healing. It then begins forming new skin cells. However, we can help it along its way, both looking after it generally, and when its functions are disrupted through illness or cancer treatments like chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

In general, we can help to keep skin healthy by:

  • Protecting skin from the sun
  • Using skincare products to moisturise, hydrate and protect.
  • Maintaining a healthy diet.
  • Drinking enough water.
  • Generally taking care of our wellbeing.
  • Avoid using astringent cleansing products.
  • Adopt a regular cleanse, tone and moisturise routine.
  • Spend time in the fresh air.
  • Prioritise sleep.

During cancer treatment, skin can experience a number of unpleasant side effects, especially when it comes to chemotherapy.

Read about the impact of chemotherapy on the skin

There are ways we can support the health and wellbeing of our skin during and after cancer treatment. For example:

  • Use gentle, natural skincare products.
  • Keep skin moisturised and hydrated.
  • Keep skincare simple.
  • Protect your skin from the sun.
  • Use fragrance free products.

Want to find out more? Read about how to nurture your skin during chemotherapy

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