Liquid Assets - The Water and Skin Balance

Water is the essence of life. This element makes up 75 per cent of our body's composition, a legacy perhaps of our watery origins.

Around 9 litres (16 pints) of water are present in the skin itself. When cells in the epidermis are rich in moisture they appear plumped up, like soft and bouncy cushions. The plum and prune analogy is as old as the hills, but it conjures up a realistic image of what happens when these cells lose moisture. Skin feels tight and fine lines appear, making it look old before its time.

Watertight

Skin has been designed to preserve its precious moisture and there are various efficient barrier systems that prevent it from drying out.

Stratum corneum - A protective outer seal of dry, flaky cells which lie in neatly packed layers. These cells are held together with an inter­cellular glue made from waxy substances like ceramides and cholesterol derivatives.

Over-exposure to strong detergents and alkaline soaps erodes this glue and disrupts the structure of the stratum corneum. Over-zealous buffing with exfoliating scrubs may also damage this protective layer, as can chafing winter winds.

Hydrolipidic mantle - A natural moisturizer made from our own oily and watery secretions which forms a fine watertight seal over the skin's surface. The more oil your skin produces, the better lubricated it will be. While clearing away stale oils at the beginning and end of each day, the skin must also be allowed to replenish this moisturizing mantle. The sebaceous glands produce less oil as we get older and by the age of fifty most skins will start to feel slightly dry unless we supplement their natural protection.

Cell membranes - Like every living cell in our body, the epidermal cells are surrounded by fluid membranes made mostly of essential fatty acid (EFA) molecules and cholesterol. There are two basic essential fatty acids - linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid - which we must get from food although they can also be absorbed into the skin. From these two EFAs others can be made. Long ago scientists noted that when these nutri­ents were missing from the diet, skin lost water at an alarming rate and soon became dry, flaky and itchy.

Essential fatty acids are easily damaged by exposure to the sun's ultraviolet light, toxic chemicals in cigarette smoke and environmental pollutants. They can be protected by antioxi­dants such as vitamins A, C and E.

Under Seige

Skin's resilience to environmental onslaughts is largely determined by the effectiveness of these barrier systems. A well-structured stratum corneum, an evenly distributed hydrolipidic layer and healthy cell membranes are your skin's best defense against the elements. But these pro­tective barriers are not infallible and, if any of them are slightly flawed, skin will lose moisture.

A temperate climate of warm breezes and frequent rain showers poses little threat to the skin's water reserves. Spring and autumn tend to be the seasons when skin feels most comfortable. Blasts of icy winter wind can deplete the skin's precious moisture reserves. For every 7-8°C (45-6°F) temperature drop below 20°C (68°F), the amount of water lost to the air doubles.

Inside central heating provides little in the way of relief as it re-creates an atmosphere as arid as the Sahara desert. Like cold, dry air, sun-parched atmospheres have a very dehydrating effect on the skin. This is where moisturizers come to the rescue.

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