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So what if our skin is our largest organ.

April 21, 2014

There are several phrases that, when I see them I know have been learned parrot fashion and adopted into a sub-conscious that has accepted this phrase as fact without question and maybe, just maybe without fully comprehending its meaning.

The ‘our skin is our largest organ’ is one such phrase.


One thing that I truly relish about teaching is that when you find gems like this slipping out of your own mouth these eagerly anticipated pearls of wisdom might be met with a ‘but can you explain what an organ is?’  or ‘yes but what does that mean for us as chemists?” or  ‘yes and that’s why we should all live in a bubble’…..  As the teacher your job is to meet and either counter, extrapolate or answer each and every bit of feedback in a way that adds depth, clarity and meaning to your original point.

Skin is indeed an organ and the largest one at that but it is an excretory organ and NOT one designed for ingestion. The skin helps us to get toxins OUT which is one reason why we can analyse sweat for chemical poisoning and contamination.  This doesn’t mean that nothing can pass into our bodies through the skin but it certainly doesn’t mean that it is the idea way to get fed.  You wouldn’t stick your lunch up your butt and feel satisfied now would you?  Would you?????

So, what do YOU think that phrase means?

Have you ever heard yourself say this?  Have you written it on any marketing you have put together?  How would you explain the role of the skin and more importantly how and why you might consider that in your role as a cosmetic chemist, beauty therapist or product user?

It isn’t as easy as you first think.

and before you roll your eyes and go ‘OMG you sound just soooooo preachy, and anyway, what makes you any different’ I’ll let you into a little secret – the thing that keeps me going every day is the fact that I am not good at remembering facts, am not interested in blinding people with my recall and am insanely interested in learning more and more and more and more.  Oh and that I’m not afraid to say I don’t know.

So with that in mind I’m going to show you what goes through my head when that little catch phrase rolls out.

  • The skin is our largest organ.

Q) OK so an organ is what again?  

A) A collection of tissues designed to perform a certain biological function.

Q) What type of functions?

A) Keep us at the right temperature, stop things from getting in, stop stuff from getting out and so on…. homeostasis – keep us the same.  Oh and the skin also helps us to communicate.

Q) Communicate?  But how?

A) Well it blushes and flushes when we are embarrassed, hot, irritated or nervous.  We sweat when we are aroused emotionally and our hairs stand on end when we are scared.  Our skin is talking to us all the time.

Q) Oh yes, that sounds interesting for me as a cosmetic chemist. Can cosmetics interact with this communication process?

A) Yes – we can add ingredients to make us sweat more – heat us up.  We also have cooling ingredients, ingredients that boost blood flow for that flushes ‘I’m young, healthy and interested in you’ look!  We can add ingredients that calm our skin down and prevent us from over-reacting and much, much more.

Q) Cool so if we can affect it can we hurt it?

A) Yes we can and that is why we need to have a deep understanding of the skin before we play around with actives – the barrier function of the skin can be affected both positively and negatively by cosmetics.  Cosmetic products can help to stop ingredients and environmental toxins (or even UV rays) getting in but on the flip side some cosmetic products are designed to deliver ingredients deeper into our tissues.  Even something as simple as magnesium oil has been found to penetrate into the skin and affect the salt balance of our tissues, relaxing muscles and aiding sports recovery. Pretty awesome until you deliver something you don’t want!

Q) So what do I need to understand about the skin to keep my formulations safe and effective?

A) Biology, a bit of dermatology and a big dose of chemistry plus some pharmacokinetics is helpful – we need to have an appreciation of how the skin communicates with the rest of our organs to assess toxicology, dermatology – the study of the skin – is important to help us recognise and understand what physical changes in the skin might be telling us (although we don’t need to know how to treat them), chemistry in terms of ingredient is important as every ingredient we use has a unique personality and has the ability to affect the skin in different ways. Finally the pharmacokinetics is important to give us an appreciation of how and where our ingredients might  travel through the skin – will they make it past the skin? Will they accumulate in other organs?  Will they change on their journey?


This is just a snippet of the questions and answers that I have when I think about this ‘easy for you to say’ phrase.

I am very keen to stop this over-simplification of the science behind cosmetics as I am convinced that it helps breed mis-information, marketing hype and other such rubbish.

and it gives birth to false gurus worshiped for their ability to take away our need for thinking.

and we don’t want that.  Or do we?

Amanda x

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Saffy permalink
    April 22, 2014 3:35 pm

    I have seen so called natural skincare gurus suggest it takes 26 seconds for anything you put on your skin to get into your blood stream – is this true?

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      April 22, 2014 4:33 pm

      Hi Saffy,
      Ask yourself this: ‘how would anyone test that? What do they mean by ANYTHING – surely then if I put soap on my hands it will disappear into my blood or alcohol or shampoo? What does that say about the integrity of an organ whose main job is to protect us from foreign (external) matter?’. I’m not saying they are 100% wrong but when you think about it such sweeping statements sound rubbish.

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