Covering the surface of the body and weighing over 4kg (9lbs), skin is the largest body organ. Made from keratin, a hard protein, it provides a barrier against the environment, bacteria and other foreign organisms and keeps many organs from falling through the skeleton. Just as well then. Self-repairing and self-regenerating when damaged, unbroken skin is waterproof and protects the body from exposure to the sun’s harmful rays by producing melanin, a dark pigment, which forms a layer to absorb ultraviolet light; this is why we tan in the sun.
Skin also plays a key role in controlling body temperature and water balance. For example, body hairs become erect in the cold trapping warm hair close to the skin, and sweat glands secrete sweat to cool the body when it’s too hot. Full of nerve endings, skin also helps us understand our surroundings as it constantly transmits information about touch, pressure, pain and temperature for the brain to interpret. So, in short: don’t leave home without it.
Skin is attached to deeper body tissues with elastic fibres called collagen which allows the body to grow and stretch. As we get older, those parts of the body which have been exposed to the ageing effects of sunlight (the face, neck and hands, for example) lose elasticity as the collagen fibres break down. This is what causes bagginess and wrinkles and turns some of us into prunes.
Since the purpose of skin is to protect us from the environment, it’s not surprising that – from time to time – it breaks down. While many skin problems are rarely life-threatening and are relatively easy to treat, their effects can be devastating, particularly if you suffer from recurrent episodes. That ‘hot date’ suddenly becomes a nightmare as you explode with spots or an unexplained body rash. Common skin problems include:
- Acne (spots) – skin follicles blocked with excess sebum (which lubricates the skin) and infected with bacteria. Also known as white/black heads which usually affect men during puberty but can affect us later on in life as well
- Eczema or dermatitis – inflamed, irritable, flaky, dry skin sometimes caused by allergies, although in many cases the cause is unknown. However, skin tests can sometimes determine the cause
- Athlete’s foot – a fungal or bacterial infection causing itchy and sore skin between the toes usually associated with wearing shoes and sweaty feet
- Dandruff – see Hair
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Unless you know the cause of your skin condition (and any appropriate treatment) seek professional help – probably your GP in the first instance.
- If you are an acne sufferer – avoid greasy skin and hair preparations that clog up the pores making it more difficult for your skin to breathe properly. A chemist should be able to suggest acne preparations which can be helpful in mild cases.
- If you suffer from eczema or dermatitis an inexpensive moisturiser can help ensure your skin doesn’t dry out.
- Changes in your diet can reduce the problem; for example, some eczema sufferers find that reducing dairy products can help.
- Stress can trigger or exacerbate skin complaints – consider learning a relaxation technique. Many skin conditions can be helped by some exposure to sunlight – but we’re not talking sun tanning or burning!
- If you suffer from athlete’s foot, a range of over-the-counter creams, sprays and powders are available. Simply ask your chemist.
Skin care tips
- Make sure your diet contains plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables
- Drink at least eight glasses of non-carbonated water every day; drinks containing caffeine, eg: tea, coffee, and soft drinks don’t count
- Give up smoking which can cause premature wrinkling
- Wash regularly with a mild soap and water to remove dirt and dead skin, rinsing off all soap thoroughly
- Don’t spend too long in the bath or shower and make sure the water is not too hot
- Use a moisturiser compatible with your skin type
- Dry carefully but thoroughly between your toes and fingers
- When you’re out in the sun, put on a sunscreen (with an appropriate factor) on exposed skin, wear sunglasses to protect your eyes and a cap to protect your head and the back of your neck
- Wrap up well in cold and windy weather
- Avoid direct contact with hazardous irritant substances such as household bleach and paint stripper