You and your skin: the price of beauty

This was originally published in RiAus.

Good skin can make you feel young, alive and supermodel-esque. But good skin is not just about good aesthetics, far more important is the role of skin in keeping us healthy. Unfortunately, our beauty-obsessed culture has helped to overlook this fact, and now we may be doing our skin more harm than good.

How serious are you about skin? Image by MyTudut

How serious are you about skin? Image by MyTudut

No substitute for good skin

Skin is the largest organ in the body and is a lot more complicated that one might initially think. Like all organs in the body, it has both a defined structure and prescribed physiological function, which keeps the body working effectively.

One of the most important functions of skin is to prevent infection by pathogens. Without healthy skin, our body’s first line of defence against the scary world would be severely compromised. Skin also regulates body temperature, enables us to feel things and is a storage and synthesis site for water and important organic compounds.

It shouldn’t be a revelation to anyone that there is no substitute for good skin. It’s an organ that should be cared for just like any other part of your body. Aged skin can prevent regular functionality, potentially leading to infections, autoimmune disorders and cancer.

Blister in the sun

Natural skin aging is inevitable and there are many intrinsic genetic variables that cause wrinkles, blemishes and loss of elasticity. But these changes can be exacerbated by extrinsic lifestyle factors and one of the unfortunate realities is that beauty is, at times, in conflict with health.

In western culture, one of the most desired physical attributes is bronzed skin, achieved usually through solariums or sun bathing. Over-exposure of harmful UVA and UVB radiation is extremely damaging to the skin. It’s estimated that up to 90% of all visible skin aging is due to damage from the sun, coming mainly from UV radiation.

Sunlight can generate oxidative compounds and free radicals that can mutate DNA. Along with reducing the amount of collagen and elastin, this prevents skin from repairing itself effectively, potentially leading to cancer growth.

When doctors tell you to be sun smart, they really mean it. Almost all western Caucasians will show signs of sun aging by the time they are 15, with damage becoming visible in their early 30s. While it’s important to get a bit of vitamin D, sunscreen shouldn’t be overlooked as part of a regular skin care regime.

The truth about skin care

Given the amount of visible damage the skin is likely to receive, as well as our obsession with beauty, it’s no wonder people are keen to keep themselves looking young. Skin care is big business and Australia spends (or wastes) at least $370million a year on lotions, creams and serums (figures from the year 2004). All of these products claim to fight or even reverse the signs of aging, but is that even possible?

Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this question due to the sheer number of products available with the seemingly infinite number of ingredients added. There are botanical extracts ‘clinically-proven’ formulas and a plethora of vitamins and minerals.

Too many products. Not enough info. Image from wikimedia

Too many products. Not enough info. Image from wikimedia

As a general guideline, it’s not a good idea to trust products purely because they are ‘clinically-proven’. Studies on skin care ingredients often use small sample sizes and neglect to report negative results. The evidence they purport is often only suggestive, and few ingredients stand up to scientific rigour. Products claiming to reverse aging should especially be avoided as scientists are currently unsure if that’s even possible.

Another thing to avoid is products claiming to be good just because they use natural ingredients like botanical extracts or vitamins and minerals. Just because nature creates something, doesn’t mean it’s good for us. And of the ingredients that do have a proven effect such as Vitamin C, improper storage can render them essentially useless.

The irony of beauty

The skin care market is a minefield of misinformation and it’s pretty difficult to know what works and what doesn’t. It’s important to realise that skin aging is a natural process that cannot be halted, no matter how many lotions you apply. The best thing to do to take care of your skin is to not smoke and be sun-smart.

We tend to overvalue physical perfection, neglecting the importance of our health. It’s ironic to think that people willingly burn themselves for the perfect tan, only to spend thousands to try and reverse damage they caused. Are we that vain?

About Noby Leong

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