Christmas, the best and worst of times. After we calm down from the sugar-high hangovers of Halloween and awaken from the turkey coma of Thanksgiving come the most anticipated and dreaded holidays of all, Christmas and New Years Eve. The two holidays combined to form the most oxymoronic week of our lives. We are incredibly excited for the impending breaks and parties while being overly stressed out all at the same time. Not only do screaming children and babbling relatives make us side with the Grinch
(and decide that perhaps Christmas is better off stolen), the psychological stress that comes hand in hand with the holidays can take a serious toll on our physical health.
The good news is, this period of intense stress (and joy, of course) lasts (blissfully) for such a short period of time, it can’t be considered as chronic and therefore, generally goes unnoticed by you. In other words, going through hell week isn’t going to kill you or have any long term, terminal effects on most of the organs of your body. That you know of. The bad news is while you’re not spending every waking moment monitoring your internal organs for the simple fact that you’re not Superman (and hence, no x-ray vision) or live in a nursing home (can’t exactly worry about something when you don’t see it on a daily basis), there is one organ that can be easily observed and where stress can easily affect: your skin.
While there are plenty of products and therapies out there that treat (or claim to treat) various symptoms and ailments that can arise, if you’re like me (a type A, overly cynical woman or if your alter ego is named Miranda Priestly/Hobbs), you’d like to know a bit more about the mechanics. After all, you can’t exactly fix a mirror when you don’t understand what it’s made of
(or can you? Don’t know, never tried), right? Here’s a quick list of facts that you should definitely know about your skin to help you get to the root of the problem (or your mini acne outbreak).
1. Your skin is bigger than you know.
While the brain remains to be arguably the sexiest organ on a person’s body (though some may beg a differ), the skin is undoubtedly the biggest organ on the human body. Accounting for roughly 16% of an adult’s total body weight, in other words, if you weigh 140 lbs, 22.4 of that will be from your skin (ladies, at the next weigh-in we can claim that it’s our ‘skin weight’), the skin covers about 1.6 m2 of surface area depending on a person’s height and weight.
2. Your skin is multi-layered and more complex than Cloud Atlas*.
Your skin consists of three general layers: the epidermis, the dermis and the subcutaneous tissues (beneath which lies your muscles). Collectively, the three layers are approximately less than 1 cm thick (less than half an inch) and vary in density depending on the location (for instance, the skin on your eyelids is thinner than on your elbows or hands). Within these 3 general layers, lie multiple sub-layers that collectively function as one well oiled machine.
3. Your epidermis is your keeper.
The outermost layer of the skin, the epidermis, consists of mostly the same type of skin cells, the epidermal keratinocytes. It is divided into 4 layers based on the cells’ maturity (the basal cell layer, the suprabasal cell layer, the granular cell layer and the horny cell layer). These four layers can be categorized into two separate groups, the living cells and the dead cells. The three sub-layers of basal, suprabasal and granular cell layers fall into the living cell group whereas the horny cell layer (stratum corneum) falls under the dead cell group.
The cellular reproduction site: the Basal Layer.
The living cells in the epidermis are arranged from inside (closest to the dermis) out (closest to the horny cell layer) by the cell’s maturity. The youngest cell layer, the basal cell layer, is the production site of these living epidermal cells. In other words, the basal layer is where all of the epidermal cells (which will grow to become stratum corneum) are generated. As the cells move outwards (or upwards depending on your preferred vantage point), they gradually mature until they reach the horny cell layer (stratum corneum) where they die and shed off. This turnover time from new cell generation to meeting its natural demise takes 28 days (in regular, healthy skin).
The body’s bodyguard: the Stratum Corneum
The outermost layer of the epidermis, the first and most important line of defense if you will, is a layer of dead epidermal cells called the horny cell layer (officially known as the stratum corneum). This thin layer of dead cells (thinner than saran wrap), called keratinocytes, then serves the important function of shielding our body from harmful substances while containing our own bodily fluids. To put it in simpler terms, nothing goes in or out without its supervision.
4. Your dermis is your personal farm.
The second layer of your skin is the dermis. The dermis lies right underneath your epidermis and is where your body temperature gets regulated, your skin receives nutrients and the water in your body is store. It is about 15 to 40 times thicker than your epidermis. It is divided into two general sub-layers: the papillary layer and the reticular layer.
Your body’s internal butler: the Papillary Layer
The upper layer in the dermis is the papillary layer, which consists of a thin layer of collagen fibers, blood vessels and sensory nerve endings. It lies directly beneath the epidermis and connects with it by using finger like projections (papillae). It controls your body temperature by constricting or expanding the amount of blood flowing through the body’s surface, which dictates how much heat is released or contained (in the cold). This layer is also responsible for keeping the rest of the skin properly nourished through the capillaries (fine, hair-like blood vessels that makes up microcirculation).
Your body’s Mr. Fantastic: the Reticular Layer
Ever put your favorite sweater in the dryer only to have it come out shrunken
so much that only an anorexic two year old would be able to fit in it or so large that even you in your full pregnant glory wouldn’t be able to stop it from sagging? Well, picture your skin like your favorite sweater. Every time your body goes through any type of change (pregnancy, post break-up weight gain, pre-date weight loss… to name a few) your skin tries to keep up by expanding or shrinking down to your actual shape and size. We owe this super power, our skin’s ability to bounce back (or stretch out) to any shape or size, to our skin’s very own Mr. Fantastic, the reticular layer. Consisting of a thick and densely woven network of collagen fibers, elastic fibers, reticular fibers and matrix, this layer is responsible for strengthening the skin, providing elasticity and structure. The dense, interwoven network of fibers lies between the papillary layer and the subcutaneous tissue and makes up the majority of the dermis. The collagen fibers in this network are extremely tough and tension resistant in nature providing the much needed strength in our skin. It is the reason why we can hold our shape without rolling around in a rubbery puddle. While the collagen fibers provide the skin with structure and strength, the elastin fibers (and its flexible properties) provides the elasticity necessary for our skin to be expanded and snapped back when needed. These fibers can stretch up to 1.5 times its original length and snap back into its original size when relaxed. They are more concentrated in the skin that covers our face, and scalp.
5. Your skin’s conservatory: the subcutaneous fat tissue
The innermost layer of the skin is the subcutaneous layer, also known as the hypodermis. Made up of mainly fat and collagen, this specific layer is responsible for conserving and producing your body heat, storage for your body’s alternative energy source and shock absorber for your internal organs. Its shock absorbing capabilities cushions (and by extension protects) the internal organs from the shock experienced by the body during mundane tasks (walking, the occasional fall.. for instance) and prevents internal bleeding every time we decide to simply move. Furthermore, the fatty tissues distributed in this layer is also responsible for the expression of the female form.
In other words, the next time you get a compliment shapely form, you can thank your hypodermis.
6. You’re shedding like your golden retriever
As the epidermal cells continues to produce new cells in the basal layer and rise to the surface every breathing moment, our body naturally sheds off layers of the dead keratinocytes on the horny cell layer. For every minute you’re alive, you’re unwittingly shedding off 30-40 thousand dead keratinocytes, amounting to approximately 4 kg (9 lbs) every year! As shedding is the body’s natural reaction to prevent unwanted cellular pile up, what happens when the cell production rate is much faster than the cell shedding rate? Why does it matter if we have excess dead keratinocytes lying around? Doesn’t it mean extra cushioning? Sadly, no. As we all know excess cell build up could prevent you from having the natural glow that no amount of shimmers can replicate and causes potential skin discoloration will make you look tired, and mature (not in a good way). This is when a little outside help is appreciated. When you exfoliate (in moderation), you’re helping your skin shed off the excess dead keratinocytes and uncovering the healthy, glowing skin underneath.
7. Your skin multi-tasks like Victoria Beckham.
While Victoria Beckham is best known as part of the most famous female pop group EVER (you know you’ve jammed to Wannabe more than a few times in secret), wife to a world famous athlete (and the star of many fantasies), mother to 4 kids (none of whom has ever been a part of a public scandal!), on top of being a designer and owner of a million-dollar business (and just my girl crush in general), her ability to multi-task is undeniable. Luckily, you’re more like her than you know. Your skin is just as multi functional as Posh Spice. Being in direct contact with the outside world, your skin performs four significant bodily functions for you.
One, it retains moisture while prevents molecular loss in the dermis. Or to put it in other terms, your skin makes sure you don’t mummify or decompose (yikes!) on a daily basis.
Two, it regulates your body’s temperature via the dermis’ papillary layer. It is your personal thermostat making sure you don’t die of hypothermia or heat exhaustion every time you step outside.
Three, it protects you from microbes and other harmful external substances. Your very own knight in shiny armor to fight in your honor against this bad, polluted world. It makes sure that nothing gets close to your internal organs without proper protection. Furthermore, it provides cushioning for your organs by absorbing the shock from day-to-day activities and the occasional clumsiness.
Four, it is one of the most important senses your body possesses. That tinkling sensation you get when someone gently running his finger down your spine? Yes, you can thank the nerve endings in your skin for that.
Your skin, just like you, is an avid multi-tasker. It wears many hats and does more things in a millisecond without you even noticing. It functions like Iron Man’s Jarvis, intuitive, smart, and reliable. It has worked for you tirelessly 24 hours a day and 365 days a year without leave. So this holiday season, don’t forget to give it a little bit of #TLC in the midst of all the presents, food, and champagne toasts. Because remember, relationships may come and go, but your skin will be with you til the end of time. Happy holidays!
* Seriously have you tried sitting through Cloud Atlas (movie and book alike)? It’s a super trippy/complex journey of a series of storylines woven together.