Skin Structure & The Minimalist Approach
Our skin is an amazing and subtle organ. It essentially encapsulates the liquid of the primordial fluid of life within the confines of our bodies so that we may live a terrestrial (earth bound life) outside of the sea. I once read a line in a short story called Blood, Sea by Italo Calvino, and it so poignantly expresses the evolution of our human life energy, our blood pulsing inside of us that it suddenly came back to me as I was trying to articulate the essence of our skin: “This is a distinction I might bring up to give a clearer idea of before and now: before, we swam, and now we are swum.”
As a formulator and creator of healing skincare and makeup products, I try to always keep in mind and honor the organ my products most closely interact with. From a utilitarian point of view, skin’s primary function is to keep all of the life supporting moisture in and pathogens out. To achieve this, the outermost layer of skin is made up of layers upon layers of dead skin cells glued together by a natural moisturizing substance which consists of both oil loving and water loving components.
The oily parts waterproof your skin. Meanwhile, the water loving parts attract moisture both from the deeper recesses of living skin and from your environment. The hydration strengthens the elasticity and integrity of the skin barrier, and establishes the correct conditions for the microbiome to populate the skin surface. The microbiome teams up with your body’s immune system to perform the skin’s second essential function of neutralizing pathogens and preventing disease and infection.
The skin is an elegantly organized and efficiently operated mechanism. Like most things in nature, it has many built in feedback and renewal loops, redundant channels of communication, and a sophisticated yet simple structure.
Essentially, the skin is made up of a few layers with different functions. The outer layer, called the epidermis is the one we interface with the most and is usually what you picture when you reference “skin.” The epidermis itself is made up of layer upon layer of skin cells (mainly keratinocytes). Fresh new cells of the epidermis are plump and moist. They emerge in a base layer, the innermost section of the epidermis layer of our skin. Once mature, these cells get pushed up to make space for a new row of fresh skin cells, and begin their journey upwards. It’s almost like how our permanent teeth push out our baby teeth, except instead of being immediately discarded, the cells move through several stages in preparation for becoming part of the skin surface, and a fresh layer is constantly emerging to push up the previous layer.
With every bump on the journey upwards, the structure of the skin cells changes and evolves. As our skin cells move further up, they become harder and flatter. The moisture leaves the cells and they undergo keratinization, so that by the end of their journey they are tiny, hard discs made up almost entirely of the protein called keratin.
If you explore the structure of the topmost layer of your skin on a microscopic level, it might remind you a little bit of shingles on a roof. The discs are carefully arranged and sealed to protect the delicate life that pulsates below. Except, unlike a roof, this is a living structure designed to endlessly shed the topmost layers as new cells are continuously sent up to the surface to replace them.
When this process happens on its own, we call it “desquamation.” When we help it along using various tools and products, we call it “exfoliation.” Occasionally exfoliating your skin to refresh texture and help move desquamation along is a fine strategy, as long as it is approached with care and moderation. However, people who exfoliate every day, or who layer different products containing exfoliating ingredients in their daily beauty routine are not doing their skin any favors. Quite the opposite – if you over-exfoliate, you begin to severely compromise the integrity of your skin barrier and the health of your skin microbiome.
Evaluating your skin care priorities with this basic understanding of skin structure can be really helpful. Basically, you want the products you use on your skin to nourish and support the skin’s prime directives:
- Hydration – Since skin is meant to keep an optimal level of moisture that consists of both oil and water components, we can provide external support from hydrating mists (like a classic rose water) and nourishing oils serums (like the classic oil serum or barrier repair serum). And of course, don’t forget keeping your body hydrated from drinking ample amounts of water throughout the day.
- Protection – Your skin is your guardian from the outside world. It performs this function well if you enable it to do so. In this case, less is more. Less exfoliating, less cleansing with soaps and cleansers that strip the microbiome (Oil Cleanse instead), and more gentle touch and soothing massage to loosen clogged pores and encourage circulation & energy flow.
Ultimately, what I’m trying to say is that a minimal approach combined with an acceptance and appreciation for the amazing way your body is created to take care of you will get you much further along than elaborate routines full of expensive products that are probably doing more harm than good. I’m not saying not to have fun with your skin care! I absolutely love my skincare routine and celebrate putting makeup on daily as an act of self-care and self-love. Just check in with your skin and make sure you are supporting its functions, not interfering with them.