Skin – an organ
So what is this stuff called skin that’s all around us? If we think of it at all, our skin is just a bag that holds everything else inside, something much less worthy of our care and concern than such vital organs as the heart or lungs.
But, in fact, our skin is also classified as an organ – the largest of the body – because it performs not one, but a whole list of vital functions. We have 1.5-2 square meters of it, and a square inch will contain 650 sweat glands, 20 blood vessels, 60,000 melanocytes (which determine skin colour), a thousand nerve endings and more than a million cells.
Our skin is our thermostat, insulating the body against cold and cooling us when we are hot through the evaporation of moisture that we secrete through 2.5 million sweat glands and pores. We even have “cold sweats” triggered by the nervous system when we experience emotions such as fear or embarrassment.
Another set of glands, the sebaceous or oil glands, secrete sebum, an oily substance that softens and lubricates the skin, prevents water loss, keeps hair from becoming brittle and, critically, acts as a first line of defense for the body, by killing many pathogenic bacteria on contact.
And speaking of hair, did you every wonder what makes goose bumps? They are the creation of tiny muscles that contract when you are chilled, pulling hair follicles into an upright position, likely a vestigial reaction from our evolutionary past when we were covered with dense body hair. Standing upright, it would provide better insulation that lying flat.
When sunlight hits our skin, several different chemical reactions take place in combination with ultra violet radiation, leading to the production of vitamin D and a number of essential enzymes. Some exposure of the skin is essential for good health. What your skin doesn’t need is too much exposure, unprotected by clothing or sun screens.
Skin is also the organ that gives us a sense of touch, and it does so in more than one way. All those nerve endings are there to register such strong sensations as hot, cold and pain. More subtle sensing comes from special nerves with nodules at their ends, called Meissner’s corpuscles, spread throughout the skin, but concentrated in the fingertips, palms, soles, lips, tongue and genitals. Extremely sensitive, they can feel even lightest touch and yet, paradoxically, they are incapable of registering pain.
All these nerves can become a curse, of course, in the presence of any of the many skin conditions or diseases that cause itching. Eczema, for example, can be maddening. It results from toxins excreted through the skin, often as a consequence of a food sensitivity. The most common allopathic treatment, steroid-based creams, brings relief but not a cure, and if used too long, can have harmful side effects, such as thinning of the skin.
Although our skin is remarkably tough and forgiving, it does require care. Every day, we shed millions of dead cells, growing a new skin on average, every five weeks. But if we don’t wash regularly, those old cells mix with the sweat, oils and toxins that our skin extrudes, forming a dirty layer that restricts the release of antibacterial compounds, and at the same time provides a breeding ground for disease organisms.
So, you see, your mother knew what she was talking about when she said: “Wash your dirty face and hands before dinner. And don’t forget your ears.”
©Dr. Ashely Gordon, 2006.