Several interesting skin features and functions that I love.
I operate from a perspective of immense and insatiable curiosity, a desire to look deeper, to see the beauty that rests in the detail of every ‘thing’. The skin is no different.
I have been lucky enough this last two years to have been able to teach cosmetic chemistry to beauty school students in conjunction with New Directions. In preparing notes for my classes this year I became acutely aware of the fact that these people have a completely different perspective and background to me, the nerdy science lady. Of course we share a desire for products that give results but for me the magic is hidden deep within the depths of that white emulsion or silky serum whereas for them the magic is in the label claims, brand reputation and professional touch. Bridging that gap authentically and succinctly while stimulating both my own need for learning and my students need to meet pre-defined outcomes was just too tasty an opportunity to pass by and I took the challenge on with both hands.
Determined to bring the skin to life as the living canvas that us cosmetic chemists play with I started to look deeper and more carefully at my chosen medium and fast discovered that I too had been taking a lot of stuff for granted.
Here are some of the things that made me go ‘wow’. Maybe you have some more to share.
- The saying ‘the skin is the largest organ therefore we should look after it/ avoid putting rubbish on it/ polish it regularly’ or whatever has always irked me but I didn’t know why until this year. The skin is an organ and it is right to say that it is our largest one BUT when asked ‘but what does this organ do? The answers coming back all seemed really superficial. It finally clicked to me that amongst other things the skin is an organ of excretion. We get rid of toxins through the skin, makes sense really as it is so big and so good at pushing and keeping stuff out. We have pores that are like dead-ends on a housing estate, sweat glands that are like leaky hose pipes and a barrier that is hell-bent on keeping stuff out, well it tries to bless it, so why not use it to chuck toxins out? This seemingly tiny piece of reality hit me like a wrecking ball (Thanks Mylie Cyrus, I can’t get that image out of my head) and got me thinking differently about skin care. We need to let the skin do its job, we need to support excretion, we need not occlude. Well, most of the time anyway….
- The penny also dropped with me recently about Retinol. OK so I’ve known that retinol is great for the skin since I first started selling ingredients back in 1998, I even managed the import of Retinol for Australia for one of the largest manufacturers globally for a couple of years BUT I had never, ever considered how well adapted to its metabolism our humble, skin is. We often here these days that the skin needs ‘food’ like our bodies need food and for the most part that is a load of rubbish. Our skin does not digest stuff like our stomach does and some actives that we place on the skin do nothing for us really beyond a token bit of hydrating or antioxidant-ing! But retinol is different. Our skin can metabolise retinol readily and can even break down retinyl palmitate and other retinol-rich esters and use them to fuel the correct growth of new cells. Of course I’d read about this and logically knew that yes, the skin can use retinol but I’d not considered why? Why would the skin be able to metabolise things topically when we didn’t evolve or get created (whichever way you look at it) with a bottle of ‘youthfullness-in-a-jar’ cream in hand. Did our ancient selves realise that we not only like applying stuff to our skin that it could actually nourish it too? Maybe it seems obvious to you but I was completely baffled by how the skin can actually take something that just happens to be rubbed onto its surface and integrate it into a beneficial metabolic process, a process that takes stuff in when all around it the skin is trying to keep stuff out. How very odd but how lovely too! I walked away from that piece of knowledge feeling like my life as a cosmetic chemist wasn’t all superficial and that using cosmetic products to feed our skin was our destiny.
- I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned this one before but the more I read and research about vegetable oils the more I’m convinced that they can be both friend and foe to our skin. The majority of vegetable oils contain oleic acid – an Omega 9 saturated fatty acid. This is fine until the Oleic Acid breaks free from its triglyceride prison and becomes a free fatty acid. The free fatty acid is then primed to act as a skin penetration enhancer which might be just the ticket when you want to get some deep-down skin loving going on but completely the opposite of cool if you have eczema, psoriasis or terribly irritated skin. I’ve often wondered why I am others like me (eczema prone bods) find some vegetable oils deeply irritating. This may not be the answer but it is definitely not something to rule out. I’ve even started to remind my beauty school students that while it might not be trendy OR eco-friendly (that sort of rhymes) mineral oil does have its place. It is inert and boring but it does do a great job of being a barrier protecting agent in a cream base WITHOUT causing you drama. Of course not all veggie oils are equally likely to cause reactions or be penetrating which is why I made the ‘oil table of magnificence’ as a reference guide.
- OMG this next one really hit home with me. I have long suspected that my eczema is caused by genetic defects – factors inherited rather than created by my environment or mental health. Yes my skin gets worse when I’m stressed (but isn’t that pretty reasonable when you are the largest organ of excretion and you are probably eating crap, sleeping less and producing lots of stress hormone?) but not everyone reacts to stress this way so clearly my skin is the weakest link. It was when I was reading up on cellulite and microcirculation that I discovered an interesting relationship between histamine production and microcircularatory issues. Apparently histamine release affects the development and function of the microcirculation, too much histamine (stress response, swelling, allergens etc) at the wrong time can lead to your small blood vessels springing leaks and releasing their pay load into the surrounding tissue. Now going back again to the skin being the largest organ and what do you think these venus small vessels were delivering? Toxins to be excreted by the skin maybe? I think so. Histamine production is triggered by an allergic reaction to something and people like me who are allergic to a number of foods plus topical and air-borne particles and triggers mean that my body has been fighting a battle with its self since day one. My vessels are leaky! Leaking vessels carrying toxins for excretion play a part in everything from cellulite to acne to itchy skin and ageing. Stopping and cooling the inflammation should be our priority as cosmetic chemists, preventing further inflammation and histamine production the next. While I found all of this deeply interesting the bit that I’ll take away for all of those who say that ‘beauty is only skin deep’ is that the skin really does tell us an important story of inner health and coveting great skin makes sense as rough as that is for those people like me who have been dealt a raw hand in the beautiful skin department. Oh well…..
- The last fact that I uncovered in my work was this rather simple formulating reality that also relates back to the skin. That the best delivery system we have at our disposal is water. Weird that given the oily nature of our cellular membranes and intra-cellular cement but it is true. Cosmetics touch our dead skin, the corneocytes. These corneocytes are pretty flat and dry normally but they have retained their appetite for a good drink and use the power of osmosis to diffuse goodness from a formula and into the cells. From here nutrients can pass between cells and into the deeper dermal layers. The fact that our skin is this way is quite fascinating, the skin is intent on keeping stuff out and yet a simple thing such as water can bypass all of that and deliver all sorts of stuff through. Now I love to bathe and enjoy a daily shower (or two if I’m really tired) but maybe, just maybe this information is pointing to the fact that we were not really made to get soaking wet too often. That if we do get soaked we need to consider what is soaking us as it might be getting further into our ‘pores’ that we first imagined. I was left wondering where this must leave our swimming pool swimmers.
I’ve learned so much good stuff in the last few weeks of challenging my perceptions, digging deeper and investigating that it has inspired me to go on and do more. I hope that some of the thoughts above have also inspired you to take a closer look at what you thought you knew and read on. I’m not stopping any time soon.