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From baby to bag lady

Virtually everyone, whatever their age, genes, environment or bank account, can have clearer, brighter, more healthy-looking skin. Here’s how.

Spots, blackheads (comedones), whiteheads (milia) and skin bumps erupt; pores open; moles and freckles and blotches of all kinds gather; dark rings appear under puffy eyes. Then, from the age of about 25, it can seem like a downward descent into the sags, bags and wrinkles of middle age. Think of a baby’s skin. After the odd bumps and blotches of birth have died down, it’s picture-perfect – pink, translucently clear, even and smooth all over. Then something happens, particularly to the most visible part – our faces.

Composition of skin

First, to make sense of it all and understand, for instance, why water is so vital, you need to know how your skin works. Your skin is a living, breathing organ. The billions of cells in your skin float in watery liquid which has the same amount of salt as seawater. Seventy per cent of your body is water and, of that, 35 per cent is found in your skin.

A cross section of skin looks a bit like a jam sandwich, with the upper layer, the epidermis, and the lower layer, the dermis, sandwiched around the thin basal layer. It sounds as simple as nursery tea, but in fact what’s happening in your skin is a complex, never-ending saga of activity.

Skin renews itself every two to three weeks in young women (up to twice as long in older women), giving repeated opportunities for improvement. The visible outermost layer of skin, which protects the inner layers from the world, is made up of hardened rigid skin cells. As these die, they loosen and are shed, then instantly replaced by their fellows queueing up behind. Every day we shed about four per cent of our total number of skin cells; during our lives we lose about 13.6kg (30lb) of skin. (Dead skin cells, incidentally, are a huge component of household dust.)

The headquarters of skin renewal lies deep in the thick squidgy cushion of the dermis. Although we can’t see what’s going on, this governs the outer layers and thus the appearance of our skin. Here, beavering away, are the blood vessels, sweat glands and hair follicles, the connective tissue (containing the all-important collagen and elastin which keep our skin plump and youthful), as well as our sebaceous glands.

Sebaceous glands are one of the key factors controlling facial skin because they are targeted by androgens, the male hormones which women also have in lower levels; these trigger acne, whiteheads, blackheads, skin bumps and the waxy yellow lumps of seborrheic hyperplasia.

Ageing

Why does skin age? In a nutshell, it occurs as collagen and elastin, the two major components in the underlying support structure of the skin, degenerate. The major factors in this degeneration are ultra violet (UV) light from sun and sunbeds, and damage by nasty little single molecules called free radicals, which cause cellular havoc as they race round looking for a mate. Both UV light and free radicals cause the collagen fibres, which should lie straight and orderly, to twist and mat so that the skin begins to line, sag and wrinkle. Sun exposure at least can be avoided where possible: since much of the harm is done before you are 18, start using a sun preparation early and make sure your children do too.

From the age of 50, the number of elastin fibres declines tremendously, accelerating the drooping, bagging and sagging. At the same time, the skin becomes drier because oil production diminishes, as does the skin’s ability to hold water. As if that weren’t enough, the rate of cell renewal also reduces.

So, as the years go by, skin becomes increasing fragile and vulnerable to the skin villains listed opposite. But not all damage done to your skin is irreversible – give it some extra tender loving care and your skin will respond quickly and positively.

Skin facts

  • The average adult has some 300 million skin cells, covering up to 2sq m (21sq ft) of skin, weighing 3.2kg (7lb).
  • Facial skin is about 0.12mm (0.005in) thick; body skin about 0.6mm (0.02in); and the thickest areas on palms and soles about 1.2mm (0.05in) or more, up to 4.7mm (0.19in).
  • The thinnest skin is on the lips and eyes.
  • Each square half inch of skin contains, on average, at least ten hairs, 100 sweat glands, 1m (3.2ft) long of tiny blood vessels and 15 sebaceous glands.

Skin heroes and villains

Heroes…

  • Fresh air
  • Sun preparations
  • Fresh food, particularly fruit and vegetables
  • Water
  • Good digestion
  • Relaxation and sleep

Villains…

  • Tobacco smoke (yours and others)
  • Air conditioned offices and modern office technology, e.g. VDUs
  • Air travel
  • Ultra violet light (sun and sunbeds)
  • Climate changes
  • Processed or refined foods, e.g. white sugar/flour
  • Coffee, alcohol
  • Poor elimination (constipation, etc.)
  • Stress

 

Your skin’s daily tasks include…

  • Keeping your insides in!
  • Repelling foreign invaders, e.g. chemical and bacterial agents
  • Regulating body temperature
  • Getting rid of waste matter through the pores
  • Manufacturing essential vitamin D from sunlight
  • Housing our senses of touch and pain

 

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