When you think of organs, your heart, lungs, and kidneys may be first to come to mind. But you might be overlooking your body’s largest and most visible organ: the skin.
Far from simply looking pretty, the skin plays a crucial role in protecting your body from harmful organisms and regulating body temperature. It’s much more than something you see in the mirror every day. Good skin health can lead to better overall health. Read on to peel back the layers of what your skin can really do and how you can best care for this superhero organ.
What does the skin actually do?
The skin accounts for about 15 percent of your body weight, says Barry Goldman, MD, a New York-based private dermatologist affiliated with Cornell Medical Center.
It also serves multiple purposes.
“It’s part of a team of organs that work together,” Goldman says.
“You can’t view the skin as simply something that wraps or covers up the body,” says Kemunto Mokaya (“Dr. Kemmy”), MD, a board certified dermatologist and author of “Live and Look Younger.” “It’s an important and essential organ system that’s complex and has many roles.”
The skin is a superhero organ for its ability to:
- provide immunity
- cover and protect internal body parts and functions
- release sweat
- synthesize vitamin D
- make melanin
- allow us to differentiate between textures, temperatures, and more via touch
Protects us from invaders
The top layer of the skin, or the epidermis, is the front line — literally — when it comes to defending our bodies against harmful external forces, like viruses.
“Intact skin can prevent pathogens from gaining a foothold,” says Goldman. “A disrupted skin barrier allows bacteria and viruses to penetrate deeper into the skin and cause infection.” But even if pathogens penetrate the skin, this superhero organ will keep on fighting.
According to a 2020 review, skin cells team up and organize immune signals to help the body protect against and attack pathogens. “White blood cells from the body constantly circulate through the skin, conducting immune surveillance,” Goldman says.
The skin also contains epidermal keratinocytes, cells that create proteins and peptides with antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral properties. The sebaceous glands also secrete oil that adds another layer of protection against foreign substances. As a bonus, it keeps the skin soft.
Sheaths the muscles, bones, internal organs and nervous system
The skin’s protective properties don’t end with immunity. Goldman says that the third layer of skin, the hypodermis or subcutis, is composed of fat that serves as a natural shock absorber.
If the body experiences trauma, such as a fall or car crash, this fat is essentially a thick cushion that stifles the blow and keeps our internal body safe.
Sweat isn’t simply a sign of a workout well done. “Sweat helps to cool the skin and prevent the body from overheating,” Mokaya says. Sweating occurs through two types of glands. Eccrine glands cover most of the body and open onto the skin’s surface. Apocrine glands open into the hair follicle and can be found on the scalp, armpits, and groin.
Whether the body can “sweat out toxins” is a topic of debate. A 2016 study suggested heavy metal levels were lower in individuals who regularly exercised. A 2011 study indicated sweat was a potential way to remove Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical frequently found in plastics.
Still, a 2019 review called for more well-controlled studies to clarify whether sweat plays a meaningful role in eliminating toxins in the body.
Synthesizes vitamin D
When the skin is exposed to the sun, it produces vitamin D, says Mokaya. Vitamin D serves multiple purposes in the body.
A 2015 review indicated it might help with:
- bone health
- protection against skin cancers
- immune function
- psoriasis management
- reduced risk and decreased severity of atopic dermatitis
Goldman notes that the epidermis contains melanin, a pigment that determines an individual’s skin color. The more melanin you have, the darker your skin tone will be.
Melanin does a lot more than determine your skin’s color. Goldman says it also protects against UV rays from the sun. These rays are responsible for:
What would life be if you couldn’t pet your dog, cuddle a loved one, or feel the warmth of a fuzzy blanket? Thanks to the skin, we can feel the pain and pleasure of touch.
“The skin allows you to feel and recognize pain [and] pressure,” Mokaya says. “It deciphers textures and also detects temperatures such as heat and cold.”
The skin does this through tiny but powerful touch receptors, including:
- thermoreceptors that help determine temperature.
- nociceptors that let you know when something is painful, like a wound.
- mechanoreceptors to identify pressure, such as a firm handshake.
How to care for your superhero skin
Skincare products are a dime a dozen. Looking at a list of the latest so-called “must-have” products can be overwhelming. But experts say there are simple ways to care for your skin. It may come as a surprise that you might want to look outside the beauty aisle.
Care from the inside out
Some dermatologists say there’s truth to the adage, “You are what you eat,” at least when it comes to skincare.
Mokaya recommends foods rich in:
- antioxidants, including dark, leafy greens, spinach, kale, and berries to counteract free radicals and environmental damage
- monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, like salmon, walnuts, and chia seeds to strengthen the skin’s lipid barrier
- probiotics, like yogurt, and prebiotics, found in high-fiber items like fruit and vegetables to enhance the skin’s barrier
Mokaya suggested limiting highly processed and sugary foods when possible.
What your skin really needs to be healthy
There are more than enough skin care products to choose from. Mokaya suggests paring down your routine to only a few basic products.
She says everyone should invest in:
- a good cleanser that suits your skin type and needs
- a moisturizer that suits your skin type and needs
- a broad-spectrum sunscreen
Unexpected self-care activities that support the skin
Self-care is an essential part of skincare — and that doesn’t mean simply a day at the spa.
Experts share a few at-home activities that can give your superhero organ a boost, including:
- Exercise: Mokaya and the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) say exercise increases blood flow to all organs, including the skin. The AAD recommends using a cleanser containing salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide post-sweat session to clear pores and prevent breakouts.
- Sleep: Mokaya says the skin regenerates during sleep. Adults 18 to 60 years old should aim for at least 7 hours of sleep a night, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)Trusted Source.
- Go outside: Goldman notes the air inside is often drier, particularly when the heat is on during the cooler months. Going outside can reduce this issue and relieve stress, which can trigger acne according to a 2017 study.
Even more tips for supporting your skin
Your skin works overtime to support your body and maintain your overall health. Try these tips to keep your skin in tip-top shape.
Declutter your vanity cabinet
If you haven’t sorted through your skin products in a while, now might be a good time.
Goldman suggests checking expiration dates since expired products have likely lost their effectiveness and may irritate the skin.
Mokaya recommends taking a “less is more” approach. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it, no matter what new trend you see on social media.
“When it comes to skin care, less can be more,” she says. “Having a consistent regimen of a few products that work well together and are layered correctly often yields better results than trying new products all the time and mixing many new things.”
Get warmer in the shower
A long, steaming-hot shower may feel luxurious, but Goldman says your skin isn’t a fan. “Hot water may feel good in the moment, but it removes natural moisturizing factors from your skin,” Goldman says.
Goldman suggests opting for lukewarm water instead. He recommends keeping water about the same temperature as your body — between 95 and 99°F (35 and 37.2°C) and not more than 105°F (40.5°C). “If your skin is very red coming out of the shower, the water temperature is probably too high,” he says.
Find the right sunscreen
There are tons of sunscreens available. Goldman says it’s essential to find a broad-spectrum option that protects against UVA and UVB rays.
Here are the AAD‘s suggestions:
- Use a waterproof sunscreen and SPF 30 or above. An SPF 30 sunscreen will block 97 percent of the sun’s rays.
- Apply about 1 oz. (one-shot glassful) of sunscreen to the body for adults.
- Wait 15 minutes after the application to go outside.
- Reapply every 2 hours or after swimming or sweating.
Dress for safe sun success
You’ll never be able to block 100 percent of the sun’s rays, even with sunscreen. Goldman says you can add extra layers of protection with your outfit.
- a hat
- UPF 50+ clothing
Learn your skin type
Mokaya recommends catering your product selection to your skin type.
The commonly recognized skin types include:
- oily (greasy)
- dry (flaky)
- sensitive (irritates easily)
- combination (flaky and greasy)
Different ingredients best suit specific skin types.
- Benzoyl peroxide can be beneficial for oily or acne-prone skin.
- Fragrance-free products are ideal for sensitive skin to avoid irritation.
- Oil or cream-based products can be helpful for dry skin.
A dermatologist can help you identify your skin type and select products.
Consider a vitamin D supplement
Your body naturally gets vitamin D from sunlight.
Still, Daniel Glass, a UK-based dermatologist with The Dermatology Clinic London, says taking a supplement can help if you’re deficient.
You can have your levels checked during a simple blood test.
A 2015 review indicated that vitamin D supplementation should be a first-line treatment for achieving proper levels in the body if there’s a deficiency but called for more research into its effects on the skin.
Smoking cigarettes can impact skin health, too.
It may also be associated with skin conditions such as:
- hidradenitis suppurativa
- chronic dermatoses
- lupus erythematosus
- polymorphous light eruption
The CDC has resources to help people quit smoking, including quitlines and apps.
Mokaya says stress can trigger inflammation in the body, which can affect the skin in various ways, including:
- premature aging
- eczema flare-ups
Her favorite de-stressing activities include:
- mediation and focused breathing
- scenic walks with a partner or friend
- listening to music
If you have difficulty controlling stress, consider reaching out to a therapist.
The skin is a superhero organ, protecting you from disease and fighting pathogens. It also provides a barrier and cushioning for bones, muscles, joints and internal organs.
You can give back to your skin with a diet rich in healthy fats and antioxidants, exercise, and lots of stress relief. They all play a role in keeping this wonder organ happy and healthy.
By Beth Ann Mayer