Skin is our bodies largest organ, but is often one of the most neglected. The principal roles skin plays (other than keeping everything neat and tidy and not falling out!) is as a protective barrier against the elements and temperature regulator for our bodies. And as we age, the behaviour of our skin changes, so if we are conscious of the changes, we can work to protect and manage our skin better.
Skin as a protective barrier
The outer layer of our skin is called the Stratum corneum and is often referred to as the 'skin barrier'. This is made up of skin cells that which we often call 'the bricks' and lipids which we call 'the mortar'. So if you imagine that your skin is like a brick wall, you are looking to have all the layers - bricks - of your skin fully aligned, with lots of lipid - mortar - keeping the gaps filled between the bricks filled.
Skin - from the bottom up
Looking at the diagram opposite, we can see the different layers of the skin that work on temperature and protection.
The subcutaneous layer is the inner-most, fatty layer, found at the bottom of the skins structure. This helps to insulate the body and also works to provide protective cushioning for our muscles and bones.
On top of this layer of fat is the dermis, which is a thick layer of fibrous, elastic tissue that gives our skin flexibility and strength. Within this are our nerve endings, sweat and sebaceous glands, hair follicles and blood vessels, all of which work to regulate our body.
On top of the dermis is the epidermis which is a relatively thin but tough layer. This is made up of cells called keratinocytes, which are gradually shed from the skin surface.
The final, outer layer of our skin is called the Stratum corneum and is often referred to as the 'skin barrier'. This is made up of skin cells that which we often call 'the bricks' and lipids which we call the mortar. So if you imagine that your skin is like a brick wall, you are looking to have all the layers - bricks - of your skin fully aligned, with lots of lipid - mortar - keeping the gaps filled between the bricks filled.
For all skin at all ages:
It is important to ensure skin is protected from UV rays, as exposure to UVA is linked to premature ageing. Between the months of March and October always apply a sun screen to exposed skin to prevent sun damage.
Skin is considered fully matured by the time you hit your teenage years and sebum levels have started to increase, and continue to rise, until the late teens. Unbalanced hormones common in teenage years can result in excess sebum resulting in oily skin and related conditions such as spots and acne. Sebaceous glands are responsible for the production of sebum. Spots begin when sebaceous glands become blocked with dead skin cells and dirt and grime. Sebum then builds up in the follicles resulting in inflamed skin. It is vital to use a mild cleanser on skin at this stage to keep cells as clean as possible. Cleansing after activities and sport is a time which can make a profound difference too.
This is when our skin is at its optimum both in terms of function and appearance. Hormonal imbalances seen in teenage years settle resulting in more balanced sebum levels. However as we enter our late twenties, the skin cell turnover in the epidermis starts to slow down.
It is important to ensure skin is protected from UV rays, as exposure to UVA is linked to premature ageing. As skin at this time looks particularly good you can be lead into a false sense of security! Do not be fooled...
The skin cell turnover in the epidermis continues to slow down, and the skin surface shedding process ‘desquamation’ starts to slow which can result in the skin having a dull appearance. In the dermis layer, the rate of production of collagen starts to slow which is the skins elasticity.
The female hormone oestrogen is produced in three formats, oestradiol being the format made in the ovaries. When our eggs get near to depletion, the level of oestradiol reduces. Our periods become erratic and often very heavy, and we can experience symptoms as diverse as hot flushes, night sweats and brain fog. This is known as becoming peri-menopausal. The last of our eggs are released and then when there are no more, our periods stop and we have reached menopause.
A consequence of becoming peri-menopausal is accelerated ageing of our skin. The reduction of oestrogen reduces collagen production affecting the skin's elasticity, meaning it can look thinner and lines more visible.
At the same time, at around this age our skin's lipid production slows down meaning there is less skin barrier protection, meaning the top layer of our skin dries out more quickly.
In order to maintain levels of hydration in our skin, it is important to use moisturising products that can allow skin to ‘plump up’ because our skin is ultimately there as a protective barrier to prevent irritation and infection.
Skin tends to become drier as we move into our 40s. Lipid production starts to slow so there is less skin barrier protection resulting in more trans epidermal water loss - so the top layer of the skin dries out more quickly. It is during your 40s that structural changes to the skin become more apparent. In women, the reduction of oestrogen produced in our ovaries reduces collagen production affecting the skin's elasticity, meaning it can look thinner and lines more visible. Skin cell turnover and desquamation (shedding) rate continues to slow further resulting in rough, uneven skin texture. Hydration and moisturisation of the skin on a regular basis become more important. Having a tube of moisturiser on your desk or in your car will remind you to keep on moisturising, especially with central heating in the winter and air-conditioning in the summer. Our top tip is to leave something in the loo and every time you go have a little top up!
Significant degradation of collagen and elastin in the dermis results in further structural changes to skin. Lines and wrinkles deepen and skin starts to sag. In women, the menopause causes sebaceous secretion to decrease sebum production, resulting in further skin dryness. It is during our 50s that pigmentation issues such as age spots can appear. This is due to changes in function of melanocytes, the cells responsible for the production of melanin. Constant hydration and moisturisation are a foil to this; just moisturise, moisturise, moisturise!
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