Your skin is the largest organ of your body, a layered, complex fabric made of many kinds of tissues and structures. It is the first defense against infection, a sensitive regulator of body temperature and a sturdy, flexible, water-resistant casing for all your other organs and parts, from bones and blood vessels to liver and lungs. Plus, the outer layer, the epidermis, is loaded with nerve endings, making the skin an essential conductor of sensation, from the pain of a dangerous wound to the pleasure of a lover’s caress.
Despite the many critical roles it plays, many people don’t take care of their skin, according to dermatologist Dr. Norman Sykes, who practices in Ellsworth.
“People don’t pay much attention to their skin,” he said, “and that’s unfortunate, because we really could fend off a lot of problems.”
During the first few decades of life, normal skin generally takes care of itself, quietly healing from cuts and scrapes, replacing tired, old surface cells with fresh, new cells and without fanfare carrying on the complex mechanisms of life.
But somewhere around midlife, Sykes said, skin begins to change. It becomes thinner, less elastic and more brittle. Wounds take longer to heal. Nerve endings retreat from the surface, so sensation is dulled. The firm lines of our youthful bodies begin to sag a bit.
“These natural changes are more pronounced in women than in men,” Sykes said, though men also experience changes. That’s largely because production of the hormone estrogen takes a nosedive, and with it go the essential proteins collagen and elastin, which provide much of the healthy resilience and bounce we associate with youthful skin.
“These changes predispose us to problems like extreme dryness, adult forms of eczema and impaired wound healing,” Sykes said, as well as the unsightly fine lines and wrinkles we’d all be glad to avoid. They are made worse by preventable factors such as exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun or artificial tanning, smoking, harsh soaps, poor dietary choices and lack of exercise. In addition, Sykes said, “just about every medication ever invented affects skin health in one way or another.”
For all these reasons, midlife is when many adults start noticing their skin for the first time and become motivated to take better care of it. And while early intervention is always the best way to avoid problems, there are many ways we can support and stimulate the general health of our skin, Sykes said, even if we’ve paid it little mind until now.
Sykes said dermabrasion, laser treatments and some topically applied “peels” are among medical treatments available at dermatology practices that have the potential to improve skin health as well as appearance. That’s because, unlike Botox injections and other purely cosmetic treatments, they actually encourage the regeneration of healthy new tissue.
“Generally, the more aggressive the treatment the more likely it is to be effective,” he said. “But aggressive treatments also come with higher risks, including the possibility of scarring.”
Prescription medications also may be effective at combatting the effects of aging, he said, and while there is not much hard data to support the premise, foods and supplements high in antioxidants may be protective as well.
And fortunately, he said, less aggressive treatments provided at nonmedical day spas and salons can also be beneficial, if only in the short term.
At About Face Skin Care Salon and Cosmetic Boutique in Damariscotta, owner Linda Forgues said the focus is on skin health as well as beauty. The majority of her clients are middle-age or older, and many come to her without ever having cared for their skin.
“I’ve had people who are 55 tell me, ‘I’ve never worn makeup or used a moisturizer a day in my life,’” she said. Others have been diligent about basic skin care but are looking to step up their routines in hope of staving off health problems and signs of aging.
Forgues, who offers many specialized products and skin care treatments at her salon, said the multistep treatment known simply as a “facial” remains one of her most popular services. Most facials include deep cleaning with steam, a gentle scrub to slough off dead skin cells, removal of any blackheads or other blemishes, and a mask treatment “to hydrate and plump up the skin,” she said.
“The effects won’t last a long time, but it gets the skin prepared for regular care at home,” Forgues said. “I tell people it’s like getting your teeth cleaned. You don’t stop brushing and flossing after your get your teeth cleaned, and you don’t stop taking care of your skin after you have a facial.”
For clients who can’t afford her high-end salon products, Forgues is happy to suggest less costly products, including moisturizers, cleansers and sunscreen, all of which she recommends clients use on a daily basis.
Forgues and Sykes provided some basic principles of skin care.
First, always use sunscreen if you’re going to be outside, even in cloudy weather. The incidental amount contained in some facial moisturizers and makeups is not enough. You should use a product with a Sun Protective Factor (SPF) of 30 or higher. Apply it liberally and conscientiously to your face, ears, neck and the backs of your hands, as well as to any other exposed skin. Sun exposure and tanning are leading causes of premature aging and wrinkling, as well the main cause of dangerous skin cancers, including deadly melanoma. Sunscreen should be applied to bare skin, under makeup.
Second, use a mild, pH-neutral cleanser and avoid anything labeled “soap.” Even soaps that claim to moisturize the skin are more likely to strip it of protective oils and worsen dryness and irritation.
Always apply a moisturizer after bathing, not just on your face but all over your body. As skin ages, it becomes more dependent on external moisture to retain softness, flexibility and strength.
Inspect your skin regularly for new moles or growths and report changes to your health care provider. While benign growths and discolorations may cause no harm, other seemingly innocuous spots may be precancerous or even cancerous.
Finally, a healthy lifestyle supports the health of all our bodily functions. Don’t smoke, drink plenty of water, eat a diet low in fat and high in leafy greens and exercise regularly, and your skin will thank you.