What Does Skin Do?

Thu, Mar 4, 2010

Acne Basics, Skin Basics, Stories

Simply stated,  skin is a miracle. We think you’ll agree by the end of this article.

Just consider some of your skin’s extraordinary qualities:

  • Treated properly, it stays with you – and in good working condition – for a lifetime. No man-made flexible protective covering lasts nearly that long. Plastic becomes stiff and cracks. Rubber degenerates. Of course, if you continue to abuse your skin month after month, year after year, you will eventually harm it so that it too will start to show its age. Even so, it will never stop working You may succumb to the breakdown of your circulatory system. You may even suffer from skin cancer that can metastasize elsewhere in your body and prove lethal. You may even succumb to heart failure. But you are unlikely to die of skin failure!
  • It repairs itself. When you scratch leather, it stays scratched; when you cut it, the cut remains forever.  But before it was leather, it was living animal skin. It repaired – and healed – its scratches quickly, efficiently, and generally without a trace. And it repaired even the deepest gash with only a surface scar remaining. Your skin works in the same remarkable way.
  • It is wonderfully elastic and pliable. At any moment, your skin can stretch and contract as well as an elastic band; we call this immediate elasticity. Also, a woman’s abdomen expands during pregnancy to several times its original size and then contracts to the way it was; we call that long-term elasticity. Moreover, at each stage of that long-term elasticity, your skin also maintains its immediate elasticity. Remarkable! If you ever watch a heavyweight boxing match, you cannot help but marvel at how the fighters’ skin can withstand such vicious blows. Yet, although the skin may bruise or be cut, it never breaks down. It is sensitive enough to feel the touch of a feather, or the lightest kiss, yet tough enough to withstand the most violent abuse.
  • It registers sensations with such specificity that it lets the brain differentiate among them. Thus, we can tell instantly whether our skin is being pricked by a needle or scratched by a rose, whether the water is cold or warm or hot, and whether a peach is smooth and velvety ripe, or wrinkled and too soft to eat. Even when we are asleep, our sense of touch keeps working: If a fly lands on your nose, you will swipe it away and stay asleep; if you develop an itch, you will scratch it without waking yourself.
  • It not only feels but also remembers sensations. If you have been lying too long on one patch of skin (so that a pressure sore becomes a risk) your skin’s ability to feel the pressure, remember its duration, and transmit that information to your brain will cause you to turn in your sleep.
  • It is incredibly resilient. Through its regenerative qualities, your skin withstands ultraviolet light strong enough to fade drapes in months, acid rain that can erode cathedral stones, and a constant round of burns, bangs, abrasions, and bruises that would leave most man-made materials threadbare and riddled with holes.
  • It routinely changes color to help withstand sun damage. If you are exposed to increasing sun gradually, (which would apply to prehistoric man as spring turned to summer), your skin adapts by giving you a tan and, so, avoids the pain of sunburn. Of course, if you suddenly expose your winter skin to intense sunlight (say, by flying to Florida on vacation), your skin cannot adapt fast enough because it did not evolve for that eventuality. We should add, however, that even though your tan protects your skin against immediate sunburn, no skin – not even the darkest African-American skin – is immune to long-term damage from ultraviolet light.
  • It has a built-in cooling mechanism. When your body overheats, your skin comes to the rescue. If your skin didn’t sweat – and the sweat evaporate to cool you down – your whole biological system would break down in hot weather.
  • It is largely self-cleaning and rarely suffers from lasting infections. The skin continually replenishes its healthy layer of sebum – a slightly acidic mixture of oil, water, enzymes, and various bacteria fighters. In doing so, it keeps itself clean and largely infection-free in two ways. One is that it physically dislodges most of the dirt and detritus that would otherwise encrust your skin. This cleaning function, which was far more important before we had widespread running water and other cleaning facilities, is remarkably efficient. If you examine the body of someone who has worked all day in a dusty atmosphere, you will see that, apart from their hands (or other areas) that were directly exposed to the dirt, the skin is remarkably dirt-free. As many of you know, when you get an itch in the middle of your back, your arms just cant reach to scratch it. This applies especially to men (and to many of us as we age) because our shoulders and arms tend to be less flexible. Of course, that means you can’t reach there to wash, either. Yet that patch of unreachable skin, treated with only clear water from the shower or bath, is no dirtier than the adjacent skin that has been washed with soap. The other advantage of the sebum is that, although the skin is prone to attack 24 hours a day by any number of germs, viruses, insects, and fungi, sebum is fungi- and bacterio-static, so the skin rarely succumbs to infections. And even when it does, in the most cases they go away pretty quickly. (That, of course, is why acne can be such a curse. Untreated, it is one of the worst thing that ever happens to most people’s skin.)
  • It can let in certain important elements even while protecting you from others. It does a superb job of keeping out water that would soak through most rain garments. That’s why you can swim without becoming waterlogged. But it can let in a certain amount of oxygen needed for the skin to “breathe,” and it can absorb enough water vapor to keep itself moist in most conditions. It can even let in certain chemicals, such as medicines. That is why nicotine patches work.
  • Most astonishing of all, our skin is capable of holding in the entire, huge amount of liquid that flows through our bodies . When your doctor tells you that your blood pressure is a healthy 120 over 80, he is talking about a lot of pressure! Just think about on how the blood pours out of even a small cut on your forehead or how a crack in the skin inside your nose causes the blood to stream out, and you can imagine on how much internal pressure the skin is able to withstand – and all without you even noticing!

As you consider this list of skin’s amazing properties, it becomes obvious that it must be a vastly complex organ. Indeed it is.

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