25 Aug 2022
Much More Than Skin-Deep: How the Skin Affects Every Part of Us
Estimated read time: 6 minutes
We may think of our skin simply as an outer surface, but in reality, it is much more than that: The skin is the largest organ of the human body. Along with its derivatives (hair, nails, and sweat and oil glands), it makes up a comprehensive system that protects the body from outside factors while also fulfilling essential functions. And just like with our heart, lungs, and other organs, we must protect and care for it.
Its sheer size and versatility are a double-edged sword: The skin is exposed to the sun and its powerful ultraviolet rays, environmental changes, and other elements that can contribute to premature aging, among other consequences. Although it is only about 0.07 inches thick, our skin weighs slightly over 6 lbs and, if stretched over a surface, would cover around 22 square feet. This vital organ also has a unique ability for renewal, regenerating itself approximately every 27 days.
The skin has three basic layers: the outermost layer (epidermis); middle layer (dermis); and subcutaneous tissue (hypodermis). The dermis contains connective tissue, responsible for the synthesis and secretion of collagen and elastin that provide structure and support, while elastin supplies strength and stretch.
The main functions of the skin include:
- Preventing loss of moisture and dehydration
- Acting as a sensory organ, detecting temperature or pain
- Blocking bacteria, viruses, and other causes of infection
- Regulating body temperature
- Producing vitamin D during exposure to sunlight
But these incredible capabilities can be affected and even compromised by various skin conditions. That’s why it’s so important to be knowledgeable about skin diseases and how to prevent them, or at least identify and treat them in their early stages.
This requires health education, public awareness campaigns, and an understanding of the importance of sunscreen — and not just in the summertime. That said, skin diseases are not exclusively sun-related and may appear at any time of the year, with their own distinct consequences, symptoms, and evolutions.
Just like the rest of our organs, the skin can become sick. Some of the most common skin conditions include:
- Acne: Occurs when skin follicles become blocked, leading to a buildup of oil, bacteria, and dead skin in the pores.
- Alopecia areata: Causes hair to fall in clumps or patches.
- Eczema: Occurs when the skin becomes dry and itchy, leading to swelling, cracking, or scaliness.
- Psoriasis: Causes scaly skin that may feel swollen or hot.
- Vitiligo: Develops when parts of the skin lose their natural pigmentation, leading to white patches.
- Rosacea: Characterized by redness, thickened skin, and pimples, especially on the face.
- Cancer: Refers to an uncontrolled growth of abnormal skin cells.
Eczema is the most prevalent skin condition worldwide. In the United States alone, 31.6 million people have some form of eczema. One of every 10 people will experience eczema at some point in their lives.
At a global level, around 125 million people live with psoriasis. And for 60% of them, this condition has an impact on their daily, social, and professional lives.
Reducing the Risks
It is common knowledge that certain lifestyle habits, like not adequately protecting oneself from the sun or eating too much fried food, can negatively impact skin health. But some autoimmune diseases, diabetes, bacteria, fungi, parasites, and even genetic factors, stress levels, and certain medications can also damage the quality of our skin.
Although some skin diseases can’t be prevented, such as those linked to genetics or immune system conditions, you can minimize the risks of other illnesses by following a few simple hygiene measures:
- Avoid sharing personal items or cosmetics
- Drink enough water and eat a healthy diet
- Avoid contact with chemicals or other irritants
- Get a good night’s sleep
- Wash your hands frequently
- Always wear sunscreen
Though each of the aforementioned skin diseases has its own symptoms and characteristics, they share one thing in common: the appearance of marks and scars of different shapes and sizes. These visible and often long-lasting traces may be the reason why skin conditions sometimes have a negative impact on mental health. People with eczema or psoriasis, for example, tend to have a higher risk of depression and suffer from low self-esteem, leading to social isolation and a decreased quality of life. In a vicious cycle, mental health disorders can also exacerbate and increase the risk of developing skin conditions.
It’s worth noting that psoriasis, eczema, and other skin disorders aren’t just superficial issues — a common misconception that associates skin problems exclusively with one’s beauty and appearance.
These conditions are intricately connected to mental health. The field known as psychodermatology is well-established in Europe, though less developed on this side of the Atlantic. This specialty proposes, among other approaches, the nonpharmacological management of skin conditions.
Dermatological diseases affect everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, or skin color. But inequities plague access to care, diagnosis, and treatments necessary to prevent these conditions from seriously impacting a person’s quality of life and daily tasks.
The skincare industry is highly focused on cosmetics, make-up, and lotions that promise to make us look younger, hydrate our skin, conceal marks and scars, and much more. However, a more holistic approach that helps people become acquainted with their skin, perform self-exams, and access professional care is much better suited to prevention and to the early — and successful — treatment of skin complications.
Remember, always consult with your physician or health care professional to determine the best options for your body and health and to answer any questions you may have regarding any medical matter.