As a continuation of our Exploring Organs series, we’re diving into our largest organ: our skin. Our skin works as an external protective layer that safeguards our internal organs from bacteria, chemicals and harsh temperatures. Our skin, hair, nails, glands and sensory nerves make up the integumentary system, whose main purpose is to form a physical barrier between our external environment and our internal organs. 

In addition to protection, our skin allows us to experience different physical sensations. Because of the many nerve endings in our roughly 20 square feet of skin, we can feel things like temperature, pain or discomfort. When our skin experiences pain or discomfort, it sends a signal to our brain to either stay away from that source or to get away from what’s causing you pain. On the other hand, when our skin feels something comforting, it sends a signal to our brain that tells it to relax and ensures security.   

Did you know our skin has three layers? Each layer plays a key role in protecting your vital organs and is integral in the body’s main heating and cooling systems. The three layers are:  

  1. The epidermis – the outermost layer of skin that creates a waterproof barrier and generates our skin tone. The color of our skin is determined by the presence of melanocyte cells in this layer, which produce the pigment melanin. The amount of melanin in our skin determines how dark (more melanin) or light (less melanin) our skin is. 
  2. The dermis – the middle layer of our skin that contains our tough connective tissues, hair follicles, sweat glands, small blood vessels and nerves. It acts as a supporting layer to the epidermis and is where our sweat, hair and oils come from, which all function to regulate our body temperature.
  3. The hypodermis – the innermost layer of skin, also known as the subcutaneous layer, is made of fat, connective tissues, large nerves and blood vessels. This layer connects the dermis layer of skin to your muscles and bones and aids in storing energy.

Skin Conditions 

Our skin is susceptible to “wear and tear” since it is our first line of defense to our physical elements. Conditions can be caused by a variety of factors, like immune system issues, bacteria, fungus, stress and genetics, just to name a few. There are several conditions and diseases specific to our skin, but here are a few of the most common:   

  • Rash – any change in the skin’s appearance and can vary in severity. May result from irritation, allergy or injury. Many more specific conditions, like dermatitis and eczema, present themselves as rashes but may have different underlying causes. Eczema or psoriasis, for example, are often caused by an overactive immune system causing skin distress and changes. Mild rashes can be treated with topical creams or changes in skin products.
  • Dandruff – a scaly condition of the scalp that causes the skin on your head to become very dry and flake off. Dandruff is commonly treated with medicated shampoos or changes or changes in hair and scalp products.
  • Acne – when your hair follicles become clogged with oil and dead skin cells, causing irritated whiteheads, blackheads or pimples. Acne is the most common skin condition, present in over 85% of people at some point in their lifetime, but most common among teenagers and those experiencing hormonal changes. Acne can be treated with topical creams, skin care product changes or medications. 
  • Warts – when a virus infects the skin and causes the skin to grow irregularly or excessively, creating a growth. Warts can be treated with over-the-counter wart bandages, topical medications or removed by a medical care provider. 
  • Basal cell carcinoma – the most common type of skin cancer that can develop in sun-exposed areas. Treatments include prescription creams or surgery. 
  • Melanoma – the most dangerous type of skin cancer that occurs when the melanocytes become cancerous. This cancer can occur anywhere on the body, but more likely on sun-exposed areas. Treatment can include surgery, radiation, or systemic immunotherapy/chemotherapy or target agent depending on the extent of the disease. 

Healthy Skin Habits  

There are many things we can do to keep our skin healthy and prevent skin conditions from occurring or worsening. Here are a few must-dos when it comes to keeping your skin in tip-top shape: 

  1. Keep your skin clean – Wash your face with warm, not hot, water and mild cleansers to rid your pores of dirt and oil. Use body wash in the shower and gently exfoliate every few days.
  2. Avoid intense sun exposure – Try to stay out of the sun during peak ultraviolet ray hours (10 a.m.-2 p.m.) and always wear sunscreen or a large hat to cover your face when outdoors. You can also wear protective clothing as an additional barrier. Sun exposure greatly increases your risk of skin cancer, so limiting your time in the sun and using protective layers are incredibly important in maintaining your skin health.
  3. Do not use tanning beds or sunlamps – They emit the same harmful rays as the sun’s light and can increase your risk of skin cancers.
  4. Keep your skin hydrated – Drink plenty of water and moisturize with creams, serums and lotions. 
  5. Avoid smoking – Smoking can age your skin and speed the development of wrinkles. Smoking can narrow the blood vessels in the outermost layer of skin, which decreases blood flow and depletes the skin of oxygen and nutrients. 
  6. Manage your sleep and stress – High stress levels can make your skin more sensitive and trigger breakouts. Ensuring you are getting seven to eight hours of sleep can help you feel more energized, along with reducing your stress levels.
  7. Speak up – Take note of any changes to your skin and talk to your doctor if you have concerns. Most skin conditions are very treatable if caught early and treated properly. 
  8. See a Dermatologist – Visit a dermatologist regularly if your skin has multiple moles, skin tags or irregularities.

Mild skin conditions are very treatable and more severe ones, like melanoma or basal cell carcinoma, have excellent patient outcomes when caught early and treated. If you are concerned about the health and wellness of your skin, consult your primary care physician today. 

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Article by:

Smita Ranjan, APRN

Smita Ranjan is a nurse practitioner with UofL Health – Brown Cancer Center. She works with the Melanoma and Skin Cancer Multidisciplinary Team and the Lung Cancer Multidisciplinary Team. She received her MSN from the University of Louisville in 2011 and won the 2021 Shapiro Excellence in Oncology Nursing Award.

All posts by Smita Ranjan, APRN
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