By Wendy Barber, Middle School Nurse
The popular expression, “it only matters what’s on the inside,” isn’t totally accurate when it come to the immune system. Our skin—the largest body organ (accounting for 12–15% of our entire body weight)—plays a huge role in our ability protect us from infection. With cells that fully regenerate every 27 days, our skin is not only a dense and durable physical barrier, but it also educates and activates our overall immune system. There is a diverse network of cells that make the skin a competent organ. Below are three interesting functions of the skin.
- Gatekeeper. There are multiple layers of the skin structure that hold our insides in and keep the outside out. The cells that make up the structures want to maintain a healthy overall balance, but it is a challenge because our inner and outer environments are constantly changing. Every day, there are thousands of bacteria and fungi that live on our skin and don’t pose a threat. Specialized cells recognize and remember “the usuals” that hang around, and can quickly identify any new germs. If foreigners show up on the skin, these Gatekeepers can send a chemical distress signal to the rest of the body. The immune system can then deploy a coordinated response: sending soldier cells to mobilize antibodies and recruit other cells to fight the invaders if needed.
- Active Duty. There are specialized cells within the skin layers that can directly kill bacteria by releasing certain oils. Additionally, if the skin is cut or damaged, certain cells can trigger an inflammatory response which helps to shift infection-fighting and healing elements to the wound site. Skin cells also inform the brain and nervous system of changes our bodies need to physically respond to. For example, when the outside temperature changes, skin sends signals for our body to seek warmth or sweat to cool off; if we touch a hot stove, skin sends the brain a message to pull the hand away from the heat; and skin cells help to inform the brain whether a foot stepped on a soft toy or a sharp piece of glass. Other skin activities include filtering harmful radiation from the sun to protect us, and converting sunlight into vitamin D for our bodies to use as a nutrient.
- Reporter. In addition to skin bringing the outside news to the inner body that need to respond, it can also report what might be happening inside that contributes to our overall health. Your skin may show a rash or hives if you’re experiencing an allergic reaction, internal infection, or an autoimmune response. Change in skin color, texture, or spots can be signs of cancer, or dangerous conditions in other organs like the liver or kidneys. Dry skin can tell of dehydration, or a paler complexion could report poor oxygenation of blood cells.
It is so important for us to pay attention to the health of our skin in terms of disease prevention and proper full body function. We should do what we can each day to take care of our skin so that our skin can take care of us!
Tips For Healthy Skin
- Drink adequate water: Skin cells needs to maintain a moisture balance in order to function properly as a protective barrier. Dehydration can yield dry skin that cracks or tears easily letting germs inside. Chapped skin can also cause irritation.
- Eat a balanced diet: The expression is true, “you are what you eat.” Nutrient rich foods fuel the skin cells so that they can act and react the best to an ever-changing environment (both inside and out). Because skin cells regenerate every 27 days, they need energy to rebuild, heal, and protect.
- Moisturize: Frequent hand and body washing dries out the skin and opens it to irritation and physical compromise. Applying adequate oil free lotion (without unnecessary chemicals and perfumes) keep skin supple and strong.
- Bathe Regularly: Mild soap and gentle cleansing can help to remove the buildup of oils, dead skin, and bacteria that can block pores and lead to skin breakdown or breakout. Harsh products with too many chemicals can irritate the skin. Balancing the frequency and products is key.
- Monitor water temperature: Warm water is fine, but hot water can irritate the skin, remove necessary skin oil and protectors, and increase the inflammatory response.
- Practice gentle treatment: When using a towel, pat the skin dry – do not rub. This allows for some of the moisture to stay on the skin to be absorbed by the cells. Rough treatment of the skin (scratching, wiping, toweling, scraping, etc.) can irritate and compromise the integrity of the skin structure.
- Shave carefully: Use a mild shave lotion or gel to help the razor glide along the skin. Shave in the direction of the hair growth with an adequate razor (not dull, rusty, or shared with others).
- Limit sun exposure: Avoid direct sunlight for long lengths of time and use sunscreen. The UV radiation from the sun can cause skin cells to deteriorate faster, dry out, cause hyper-pigmentation, and cell mutation (Ex: skin cancer).
- Sleep adequately: When we sleep, our bodies recover from the wear and stress of the day. That includes your skin. When you’re rested and ready, your skin cells can act and react their best.
- Manage stress: Uncontrolled stress and the subsequent chemical chains of reaction can make skin more sensitive, more vulnerable to inflammatory conditions, and contribute to acne and ulcers.
- Avoid smoking: Smoking causes skin blood vessels to narrow and reduces the amount of oxygen the cells need to function properly. This decreases the skin’s ability to receive and process nutrients it needs to repair and protect your body. It can also damage skin elasticity and resilience.