You may have heard of the term 'supportive skin care' thrown around here and there, however it may not mean what you initially think it means.
Supportive skincare isn't about purchasing skincare products, or manipulating the skins appearance. It's instead a philosophy based on working alongside (not against) the skins natural functioning to optimise its health. The skin is already equipped with all the mechanisms of action we seek from our mainstream skincare products and procedures.
As Naturopaths, we are always looking at the underlying reasons as to why the skin is responding in a certain way. It's always important to understand that the body sends signs in the form of symptoms, to inform us that something isn't right. We need to look at skin imbalance holistically, to begin to understand what the body is trying to communicate, and what form of support is needed.
The skin has a big job! It forms a layer over our entire internal system to protect us from harm! In order to do this, it has been given some wonderful tools and abilities to carry out its many roles.
For starters, its main protective layer is called the skin barrier which consists of sebum, natural moisturising agents, microbes, bacteria, fatty acids and much more to help keep the skin healthy, protective, strong and hydrated.
Our skin quite literally acts as a shield to protect us from the outside world via our skin barrier, however many things can impair our skin barrier function and result in varying skin conditions. We are exposed to environmental pollutants, toxicity, chemical makeups, topical treatments, products and environmental elements like UV rays, cold and wind, all of which can lead to an unhealthy barrier. Aside from the topical stuff, skin issues are often present because there is something not quite right going on with the communication throughout our internal system. We are complex beings, and often there are many factors that result in us experiencing a range of skin issues.
What is the skin barrier?
The skin barrier (stratum corneum) is found in the outermost layer of the skin (epidermis) and is made up of the skin microbiome, acid mantle and lipid barrier.
Just like our gut microbiome, our skin microbiome is a part of our immune system, where it is estimated that one trillion microorganisms consisting of mostly bacteria but also fungi, viruses, mites and yeast take up residence. The role of the immune system is to protect and defend us from potential invaders, which is why we have our very own warriors in the form of microorganisims, all over our bodies. The skin microbiome is directly connected with our gut and brain, which is important to understand as we decipher what supportive skincare truly means (more on this later).
We are only just beginning to understand exactly what the skin microbiome does, but we do know that it is essential, and in charge of the functioning of our skin barrier. Some of the microorganisms signal the skin to produce more lipids to seal in hydration and support the strength of the barrier, others help to gobble up excess sebum to support oil balance. They can even support self exfoliation by consuming the dead skin cells that our skin naturally turns over every 28 days.
Self Hydrating & Cleansing
The skin wants to retain moisture! It does this via the acid mantle, which is a very fine film located on the outermost layer of the skin. The acid mantle has a slightly acidic PH and its main job it to keep moisture in and keep the bad stuff (like toxicity and bacteria) out. It is made up of sebum which is a natural substance produced by our sebaceous glands and sweat. Sebum is essential for the health and function of our skin! It is our natural hydrator, it supports the transport of our fat soluble antioxidant nutrients to the surface of the skin to protect us from toxicity and it helps fend off pathogens.
Our dead skin cells also help us to retain moisture! Yep, let that sink in before you do your next exfoliation treatment. A skin cell is formed and created at the basal level of the skin, and because our skin cells proliferate at a rate of 40,000 a day, the older ones get pushed up to our top layer (skin barrier) where they die and shed in a 28 day cycle. These dead skin cells, known as corneocytes then go on to shape shift and store a substance called Natural Moisturising Factor (NMF), where its action is true to its name. NMF is made up of humectants which are molecules that naturally draw moisture out of the atmosphere and into the skin cells where they also help to lock it in. For every new skin cell produced, another skin cell is shed, which means that desquamation or in other words, self exfoliation is happening all the time! The new skin cells that are often exfoliated away by our harsh skin products, aren't ready to be exposed to our environment and they aren't ready to retain moisture.
So lets recap...
1. The skin barrier holds an entire ecosystem to protect us and support skin health.
2. The acid mantle which is a part of our skin barrier, protects us from pathogens, maintains our skin PH and retains moisture through the production of sebum.
3. Sebum is our natural hydrator and protects us from toxicity.
4. Dead skin cells have a really important role in keeping us hydrated.
5. Our skin self cleanses.
So our skin naturally self cleanses, protects, heals, exfoliates and moisturises!
Why do we have skin issues?
Environmental exposure, products & procedures
We live in an environment that has become increasingly more toxic and riddled with pollution, so we are constantly exposed to external toxicity which can place extra pressure on our skin barrier. Everything that we put on our skin will alter the microbiome and the skin barrier function, including water. A lot of the products and procedures on the market actually end up stripping our natural hydrators and lipid barriers and imbalance the PH of our skin, leaving us more susceptible to infections, microbiome imbalance, inflammation, dryness and imbalanced sebum production. They can permeate the very barrier that they are trying to protect which opens up the potential for skin imbalances.
The gut - skin - brain connection
These three organs are formed from the same bit of embryonic tissue in utero and remain connected for life. To extend on this, every single internal organ and body system is in constant communication with one another to keep us functioning, so when something isn't right, we often find a domino impact with our health.
The gut - skin connection
If our gut microbiome is imbalanced due to factors such as poor dietary habits, infections, lifestyle choices and stress, then this can lead to an increase in inflammation, triggering an immune response. The lining of our gut which is usually protected by our bacteria becomes compromised, which can allow for foreign materials to enter our bloodstream and influence the immune system (microbiome) on our skin. Because the gut lining has been permeated, the bacteria residing in the gut can relocate via the bloodstream to try its luck in a new community on the skin, which can create inflammation and imbalance and lead to skin issues.
Skin - brain connection
Stress and other emotional/psychological influences can lead to skin issues! There is a bidirectional communication pathway between the skin and the brain, where stress releases a cascade of hormones that can initiate the transportation of immune cells and inflammatory markers to the skin. If you are constantly exposed to an unhealthy cocktail of external environment factors for a long period of time e.g. UV rays, pollution, chemicals, wind, cold, then this can also initiate a stress response in the body and perpetuate the stress cycle.
Skin - hormone connection
Our sebaceous glands (which produce sebum) have receptors on them which are very sensitive to our sex hormones, including oestrogen and testosterone. Hormones are delicate, when imbalanced it can result in a multitude of health issues, with one being an interference of the skins sebum production. This can result in an overproduction of sebum and lead to issues like hormonal acne.
Supportive Skin Care - The Holistic Approach to Skin Imbalance
1. Less is more!
Our skin does all these marvellous things for us, give it a chance to breathe.
Look at reducing or completely removing your skincare products and makeup for a few weeks to give your skin a detox. You may experience a purge or some uncomfortable symptoms such as flaking at the start whilst its recalibrating, but you will then be able to look to reducing your product usage and consider more natural supportive alternatives (if any is even needed!), used less to help the skin along its natural way to repair.
Without products in the way, you will be able to get a good understanding of how your skin is reacting and look at deeper, more effective ways to support it.
2. You are what you eat
Eat a variety of fruit, vegetables and wholefoods to support a diverse gut microbiome environment. Reduce reactive and inflammatory foods like sugar, trans fats and dairy.
3. Emotional release & stress support
Adopt practices into your daily life to decrease and manage stress, consider exploring the emotional driver behind your stress by reaching out for additional support or looking into our online BODY course. BODY takes you through practical ways to connect to your emotional state and implement tools to support yourself.
Explore BODY here
4. Hormonal support
Consider seeking additional Naturopathic support to ensure your hormones are in check! In a Naturopathy consultation, we can deep dive into everything that makes up you and discover whether the delicate hormonal dance is off beat and needs some additional nurturing.
5. Hydration and detoxification
Support detoxification by drinking at least 8 glasses of filtered water a day and consider adding in beneficial herbal teas to support skin healing, excretion and repair. Beneficial herbs include nettle, calendula, echinacea and burdock.
Sweat a couple of times a week to help push out impurities through the pores. Sweat combined with sebum also has antibacterial effects which can aid in skin healing and repair! Consider implementing daily movement practices to increase blood flow and move lymphatic waste around the body.
Check out our Organic Purify Tea here
The main message to take away from this journal, is that our skin has all the mechanisms in place to be completely self sufficient. Skin imbalances can be attributed to multiple factors. Supportive skin care embodies the principles of holistic health to truly combat skin issues and support entire body health in the process.