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It is perhaps much more wise and informed to see that kind of skin care as the cherry on top of taking care of an organ system scientifically known as the integumentary system. This organ system protects the body from getting dehydrated, infected, pierced, knocked about or invaded. It does so by way of the skin, the hair and the nails.

Our integumentary system is astounding. Here are a few things about it that many people do not know.  An adult’s skin is the body’s largest organ. It weighs four kilogram, has more than 18 km of blood vessels in it and has differing thickness in different parts of the body, depending on what the body needs. Around our eyelids, it is only 0.02 millimetres thick, whilst it is 1.4mm thick on our feet. It is also a very active organ: every minute it sheds over 30,000 dead cells, and the outer layer, the epidermis, replaces itself entirely every 35 days. Our skin has three main layers, the waterproof epidermis, and the dermis in which our body hair resides as well as our sweat glands, and the subcutaneous layer—the hypodermis—in which the fatty tissue and blood vessels are found. Hair grows everywhere on our skin, except on the glabrous parts: our lips, eyelids, the palms of our hands and the soles of our feet. It also does not grow on the mucosal surfaces of the skin—the moist parts found inside our mouths, etcetera. A single hair has a life span of about five years, but we lose between twenty to a 100 hairs a day from our scalp. Hair is dead tissue, (mostly something called keratin) except whilst it is still completely within our epidermis. It grows very quickly and is the champion grower in the whole of the body, but for the tissue in our bone marrow. Our nails are what distinguish us and other primates from other animals: the others don’t have any. They are also composed of mainly keratin.

As with most organ systems, we cannot survive without our integumentary system. (Outside of First World health care systems, very few people survive a burn where more than 60% of their skin is affected).  Without our skin, we will drown once we are surrounded by a body of fluid such as inside a swimming pool. Without it, our deeper tissues would be battered by most anything we encounter in our lives. The integumentary system excretes wastes, like the kidneys do (but not quite the same substances), and regulates our temperature. It also is essential in making Vitamin D through its interaction with sunlight. In addition, the hypodermis acts as an energy reserve.

The integumentary system can broadcast to the trained observer many of the illnesses and disorders other organ systems suffer from. A few examples: people with hyperthyroid problems have brittle hair that may fall out much more readily than those with healthy thyroids; nails that are bluish suggest problems with the respiratory system; whilst vitiligo—a condition where parts of the skin loses it colour in blotches—may suggest something like Addison’s disease.

There is a whole host of diseases that can attack the skin. These include, but are not limited to: rashes, infections, psoriasis and cancer.  Taking good care of our integumentary system largely is all about prevention. Here are a few essential things to remember:

  • Never be in the sun without good sun block.
  • Have a loved one inspect those parts of the skin one cannot see ourselves, every three to six months. Take standardized pictures of skin lesions as well and compare them over time. Any mole that changes colour, loses hair, bleeds or changes shape or size needs to be reported and inspected also by your health care provider.
  • Don’t over wash your skin—we have long lasting, benign communities of bacteria living on our skins that are just as eager as we are to defend their living space against intruders. If we clean too thoroughly, we also kill them.

We started with most everybody’s traditional idea of skin care. Let’s finish today’s talk there, too! An increasing body of research shows that even the top skin products cannot quite compete with what we can achieve by making sure of good hydration (three litres of water for men and two and half for women) and what products we eat. Within moderation, have some chocolate (high cacao content), Greek yogurt, pomegranates, oatmeal, kidney beans, sunflower seed and walnuts on a regular basis. Top it off daily with red bush tea or green tea (these help with hydration too) and we have a great shot at a beautiful, luminous and healthy skin!